Bicentennial celebration of Thoreau’s life this weekend

  • Michael Hoberman, historian and literature professor, will lead a Thoreau discussion at the picnic area on Route 2 in East Charlemont. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Portrait of Henry David Thoreau. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For The Recorder
Published: 9/6/2017 1:23:31 PM

Most Americans have read at least a smattering of Henry David Thoreau’s work — most probably his 1854 book, “Walden,” about his time living in a cabin on Walden Pond, or his 1849 essay on civil disobedience.

Nevertheless, to many of us, this writer/naturalist/political activist is almost forgotten as a part of America’s literary past.

Upcoming events in Charlemont and Hawley aim to celebrate Thoreau and to place him in front of the public once more. On Sunday, at 2 p.m., historian and literature professor Michael Hoberman will lead a Thoreau discussion at the picnic area on Route 2 in East Charlemont.

The Thoreau conversation will continue beginning at 4:30 the same day at the Sons and Daughters of Hawley’s annual Harvest Supper fundraiser at Stump Sprouts on West Hill Road in Hawley. Diners are encouraged to bring along their own favorite passages from Thoreau to read aloud that evening.

The Thoreau celebration is a joint venture between the Tyler Memorial Library in Charlemont and the Sons and Daughters, Hawley’s historical society, in honor of Thoreau’s bicentennial year. He was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, where he spent most of his life.

He did venture into our area, however, something the local organizers were quick to point out when I spoke with them.

I asked Andrea Bernard, the Tyler librarian, how the local festivities came about. “It really started because the Walden Woods Project put out a call for libraries and other community organizations to participate in the anniversary,” she explained.

The Project is a nonprofit organization in Lincoln dedicated to the preservation of Thoreau’s writings, memory and land. It invited groups all over Massachusetts to work on a Thoreau Bicentennial Statewide Read.

Bernard noted that the library decided to participate but hadn’t quite figured out how it would do this.

“A whole series of events happened through serendipity,” she recalled. “John Sears contacted me on behalf of the Sons and Daughters of Hawley and said that they were thinking of having an event and could we partner. I thought that would be great.”

She reminded me that the library serves residents of both Charlemont and Hawley.

“A day or two later, the Walden Woods Project got back in touch with me and said that they had heard from a professor who was interested in partnering with libraries in our area,” she added.

“And was Michael, who is a Buckland resident and also a professor of American literature at Fitchburg State University.”

Bernard herself hasn’t read any Thoreau since college, but plans to read at least one of his works before the celebration.

“I’m excited to re-look at it,” she said. “When you read something when you’re young and go back to it years later, you’re bound to have a different perspective based on your life experience. And (the talk) should be a nice way to be outside with a bunch of our great friends and neighbors.”

Michael Hoberman has of course perused Thoreau a bit more recently.

“I have a sort of a reading relationship with Thoreau just from having read him,” he told me. “I probably read ‘Walden’ when I was 16. The more important and pertinent relationship is as a teacher who uses his texts in classes.”

He explained that he teaches parts of “Walden” in a survey course of American literature.

In graduate seminars on American literature and painting, he has also used Thoreau’s first published work, the 1849 book “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” It is in this book that Charlemont comes into play.

On the surface, Hoberman informed me, the book recalls a boat trip Thoreau took with his brother several years before writing the book.

“There isn’t much story there,” he observed. “He takes time out to talk about local history in the towns that he’s visiting or native American lore or botany… He’ll see something and it’ll remind him of a place, either someplace he has been or someplace he has read about.

“That’s what evokes this fairly long digression on his part about a time he walked at least from Greenfield to North Adams. He makes his way up essentially what’s now Route 2.”

Eventually, the book relates this descriptive passage:

“Early one summer morning I had left the shores of the Connecticut, and for the livelong day traveled up the bank of a river, which came in from the west ...

“At noon I slept on the grass in the shade of a maple, where the river had found a broader channel than usual, and was spread out shallow, with frequent sand-bars exposed.”

Hoberman believes that the area referred to may well be the picnic area at which he plans to lead his Thoreau discussion, although he admitted to me, “It may just be me manufacturing something.” In any case, the setting along the Deerfield River should nicely evoke a writer for whom nature was of paramount importance.

Hoberman told me that the book also refers briefly to a visit to Shelburne Falls and the potholes — and to an overnight stay between Charlemont and Rowe with a farmer named Rice, a common name in these parts.

“So, there’s local history (in the book) and these lively descriptions that he gives of that,” said Hoberman. “That’s deepened my relationship with Thoreau ... As a scholar, the one consistent interest I’ve had has been a sense of place. That’s what anchored me to Thoreau — my interest in place.”

I asked Hoberman how his students relate to Thoreau. “Some students, I don’t know if they’re bored or alienated by him,” he mused. “The word that students often use is ‘preachy.’”

“To be fair,” he went on, “for the all the students who may initially be alienated, I’ll find an equal number who think, ‘Wow, this is quite inspiring. I should be paying more attention to the meaning behind life.’”

“The thing that I like to call to people’s attention is how full of surprises [Thoreau] is ... You don’t know where he’s going. It pays off to be a patient and indulgent reader.”

Asked to summarize Thoreau’s appeal, Hoberman said, “It all comes down to a question of style and voice He’s a very unique voice ...”

“A friend of mine said that a writer like that can only be a part of American society. We produce crochety, eccentric people.”

The afternoon session on Sept. 10 is free and will take place rain or shine. For more information, contact Andrea Bernard at the Tyler Memorial Library at 339-4335.

For the evening Harvest Supper and Thoreau Read, which will feature foods mostly grown in Hawley, participants are asked to make a $25 donation to the Sons and Daughters of Hawley. Reservations are required for the supper; to be included, call Stump Sprouts at 339-4265.

Author Tinky Weisblat of Hawley has a Ph.D. in American studies. For more information about Tinky, visit her website: www.TinkyCooks.com.


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