What's All This About Boodh?

When we think of Henry David Thoreau, A.B. 1837, we conjure up a literary stylist, a close observer of nature, a political oppositionist, and a counselor who advised us not to live our lives like serfs. Alan D. Hodder '73, M.T.S. '81, Ph.D. '86, associate professor of comparative literature at Hampshire College, gives us in Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness (Yale University Press, $35) the first in-depth study of the man's religious thought. Here's a passage about A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Thoreau's first book is both an adventure story about a boat trip to the White Mountains and back with his brother and a sustained rumination on the author's Transcendentalist religious ideology. Some of that didn't go over well with readers.


From the standpoint of marketing and sales, A Week turned out to be something of a fiasco, a fact hardly mitigated by Thoreau's famously stoic, as well as humorous, avowals of failure. When, four years after its first appearance, he finally acquiesced to his publisher's petitions that he accept the 706 unsold copies piled in the warehouse, he noted wryly in his journal, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."... In addition to the commercial disappointment, Thoreau must have found the book's critical reception somewhat disheartening also. Though reviewers generally commended the book's author for his rare glimpses of nature, some notices were also at times carping and critical. Various factors might be cited for this guarded reception--the book's "pantheism," its lack of ostensible structure and mixing of genres, the digressive and ruminating character of its argument--but surely another was its insistent, perhaps zealous, and sometimes saucy Orientalism. Even critics otherwise sympathetically disposed to Transcendentalist eccentricity were clearly put off by Thoreau's seeming sacrilege. To James Russell Lowell, Thoreau's approving recitals of Eastern lore seemed like so many unnecessary digressions: "What...have Concord and Merrimack to do with Boodh?" he sneered....

In promoting the Buddha to the same rank as Christ, in elevating the scriptures of the East alongside those of the West, he was plainly striking a raw nerve. It was not the case of course that liberally educated readers of 1849 were unprepared for objections, in the abstract, to the ascendency of the Christian faith; what they found hard to take, though, was this brazen assault on Christian supremacy by way of a series of irreverent comparisons with various, to them, preposterous Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese religious forms. As always, Thoreau was stubbornly unrepentant in the publication of his pagan infidelities. When [newspaper editor Horace] Greeley later complained of the stumbling block created by his "defiant Pantheism," Thoreau retorted simply that unfortunate as that might be, it could not be helped, since he "was born to be a pantheist."        

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