John Schuyler Bishop: The Strange Loves of Henry David Thoreau
Author: Christopher Bram
June 20, 2013
“In all I read about him, Thoreau never really became more than the wooden icon who tramped the woods and wrote brilliant essays. But he was a living, breathing, gay man who yearned for love, loved, had his heart broken, suffered rejection—personal and professional—and kept bouncing back.”
Most Americans first meet Henry David Thoreau in high school. We hear about Walden and read a chapter or two about his experiment in simplifying his life by living in the woods. Some of us also read his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” A few devoted readers might even explore his journals, reading selections from the fourteen published volumes full of wonderful prose describing landscapes, trees, animals, and weather. The fact that Thoreau never married doesn’t raise eyebrows until we get older.
A few bold scholars have explored the mystery of his love life, but John Schuyler Bishop has now written a novel about it, appropriately titled Thoreau in Love (CreateSpace).
I first met Bishop, known to his friends as Schuyler, twenty years ago when he worked at Sports Illustrated. He also wrote plays and fiction and edited anthologies. A few years ago he began work on a novel about the time in Thoreau’s life, 1843, when he left Concord, Massachusetts, to go to Staten Island to tutor the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother. Scholars sometimes think of this as a lost year because these pages of Thoreau’s journals are missing.
In Thoreau in Love, Bishop imagines what happened during Henry David’s months in New York. It’s a smart, sexy, wonderfully readable, romantic novel where the struggling 25-year-old writer actually falls in love–with a young man named Ben Wickham.
We think of Henry David Thoreau as an eccentric loner who spent most of his time hiking in the woods or living in a hut on Walden Pond, but you’ve written a novel about his life as a gay man. What brought you to Thoreau and what first made you think that he was gay?
After reading his book, Cape Cod, I wanted to make Thoreau a minor character in a play I’ve yet to write. I read lots of his work and all I could find about him. What immediately struck me were the great lengths his biographers went to in order to show he was straight, basing it all on his proposal of marriage to Ellen Sewell. In my younger days, when it rarely occurred to me that I might be gay, I often fell for young women who had cute younger brothers I wanted to be close with. Henry had a huge crush on Ellen’s brother Edmund, and wrote at least one surviving love poem to him.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Thoreau. The “eccentric loner” lived with his family in a house that routinely had several boarders as well as sisters and aunts. He loved to dance and sing at the regular musicales they had to entertain themselves. And while we think of him as living on his own in his hut by Walden Pond—the only time in his life he may have actually lived alone for some amount of time—he spent much of that time eating, sleeping and hanging out in Concord. And he rarely walked the woods by himself. In his early life he went with his brother John, the real nature boy, and then after he returned from New York, he walked near every day with Ellery Channing, who was reputed to have shown Henry private spots Henry never knew existed.
Letters to his mother, his aunts, and to Emerson and his wife were great source materials for the biographies I read, but I kept thinking, Aren’t we all on our best behavior when writing to our mothers? Who but our closest friends and lovers really know who we are. Proust wrote letters to and about his crushes, but Henry lived in Concord, which at the time was very much under the black cloak of Puritanism. When Emerson’s essay “Nature” was first published, Emerson used a pseudonym for fear of how the church would take it. Stearns Wheeler, Thoreau’s dear friend and roommate at Harvard, was very much a Byronic dandy and routinely was stoned and dunked into cold water for his flamboyance.
What do the scholars say about Thoreau’s sexuality? You mention a few in your afterword. I remember Jonathan Ned Katz exploring this in his Gay American History. Walter Harding, author of Days of Henry Thoreau, tells how he once proposed at a conference that Thoreau had a gay side. He thought he was celibate but academics in the audience tore into Harding, one man saying he had just destroyed his career.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I remember in Days of Henry Thoreau that Harding posited Thoreau was straight, based again on his “falling for” Ellen Sewell, which I go into in my book.
He may have thought so originally, but I’m thinking of the epilogue he added to the book in 1992. In fact, he says there his mind was changed by what Jonathan Ned Katz wrote on the subject.
I’m glad to hear that. I read the earlier edition. But other scholars have written all kinds of strange things about the man. In Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Robert Richardson claims Thoreau wrote his love poem to Edmund Sewell because he couldn’t bring himself to write it to Ellen. And, when Thoreau wrote in his journal, “There is more than maiden modesty between us. . . . I have no feature so fair as my love for him,” Henry Seidel Canby, in his Thoreau, says “There is little doubt that ‘her’ was meant.” Canby goes on to say, “There are, indeed, many passages . . . where Henry’s emotional experiences with women are memorialized under a camouflage of masculine pronouns.” Oh, please!
But things are changing, like the country’s attitude towards gay marriage. I’ve seen recently more talk of a gay Thoreau. Marylynne Diggs, a critic, points out two men Thoreau found attractive, Tom Fowler, his guide on a trip to the Maine woods, and Alek Therien, a Canadian woodchopper who visited him at Walden Pond. But she thinks Thoreau was either a “repressed” homosexual or asexual. Me, I bet Thoreau had a good time out in his shack with that woodchopper. Diggs also says, “But his Journals, his essay ‘Chastity and Sensuality,’ and the long discourse on ‘Friendship’ in A Week [on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers] are prolific expressions of the beauty, and the agony, of love between men.” And, as you mentioned, Katz, who gives other examples of Thoreau’s love of men and talks about that love poem he wrote when he was 21 and sharing a tent in New Hampshire with the flamboyant Stearns Wheeler.
How do you think mainstream Thoreau scholars will respond to your novel?
I hope they’ll warm to it, especially because I tried to get the timeline in sync with the little we know of Thoreau in that spring and summer. But old and rigid ideas die hard, and there are a lot of deluded scholars out there. I’d love to see my book cause a stir up in Concord. I’d love the publicity.
Does his sexuality show in Thoreau’s writing?
Again, he’s always going on about men in his journals, how they look, etc., and there’s little to nothing about women, except for his relatives and Margaret Fuller and Emerson’s wife Lidian, but never in any possibly interested way. And, he also refers to “consecrating the ground,” and while it might be just walking on the ground, I like to think that consecrating meant much more to him, more a melding of the life forces to make the ground sacred.
I remember a couple of passages in the journals that are suggestive, such as his account of watching neighborhood boys swim naked in the river. He concentrates on trying to describe the color of their bodies, as if they were just natural phenomena. In a way it’s quite innocent, but it also suggests a sensuous side we don’t usually attribute to him.
I love that! Whenever Thoreau writes about a guy, he’s so restrained. In Walden, he found a fungus he described as, “The whole height [is] six and three-quarters inches. It may be divided into three parts, pilcus, stem, and base—or scrotum, for it is a perfect phallus . . . in all respects [it is] a most disgusting object, yet very suggestive. It was as offensive to the eye as to the scent.” A “disgusting object,” yet he plucked it and brought it inside with him.
You’ve been working on this novel for a long time. What gave you the idea for it?
In Thoreau’s journals, there are some 250 pages missing for the six months he was in New York. And they’re the only substantial number of pages ripped out of his 47 or so journal volumes. And I thought, Okay, he was 25, he left Concord with no thought of ever returning, but then six months later he went back to Concord and became the Henry Thoreau we all know. What could have happened to radically change him? And why did someone—Thoreau? Ellery Channing, his literary executor?—not want anyone to know what it was in those pages?
And one of the problems I had working on this book was that Thoreau had to end up back in Concord, with no one in tow.
In an earlier draft you tried writing it in the voice of Thoreau, recreating his lost journal. What was it like mimicking Thoreau and why did you decide on another approach instead?
I wanted to write a literary hoax, something like the Ossian poems from the 18th century, or that fake Howard Hughes autobiography Clifford Irving wrote in the 1970s. Say I found his missing journal pages digging around on Emerson Hill on Staten Island, where he tutored Emerson’s oldest brother’s children. I tried to create the not very accomplished Thoreau, the Thoreau who hadn’t yet found his voice, but, apparently, I couldn’t pull it off. And the publishers who were interested didn’t understand how to market it—is it fiction or non-fiction? The agent I had at the time suggested I write it in the third person, and a couple of years later I decided to do that.
What was it like imagining life in New York in the 1840s? It must’ve been fun.
It was great fun, digging into the wealth of the New York Public Library. And it seemed every time I thought I had a handle on what it was like, I’d read something that would just blow me away. Like the horse manure. In 1843, when Thoreau was there, the streets were piled with manure. Someplace I read the number of tons of horse manure shoveled off the streets. And I thought, it must have really stunk. Especially in the summer, when he was there. And the tanneries and slaughterhouses. And the horseflies and swamps and mosquitoes.
Was it challenging to imagine the gay life of the time?
Yes. There was much more information about the gay life in Germany, where the doors were fairly wide open in the 1840s. I imagine most of the gay life was furtive, but men will be men. A bit of stuff I took from George Chauncey’s Gay New York, 1890-1940 and extrapolated it back to the 1840s, which were a fairly raucous years in New York. And if gay sex was prevalent enough in Biblical times to be condemned, well, gay men have always and will always be part of society. Weirdly, I got to see that furtive life when I lived upstate for a few years. On Sunday mornings, after dropping their wives and kids off at church, dozens of men, young and old, would cruise the parks in their cars, looking for assignations. You can only hold back the beast for so long.
Was there anyone like the fictional Ben in Thoreau’s life?
Not that I know of. But I hope for his sake there was, and that his Ben is hidden in those missing pages for the time Thoreau was in New York.
In all I read about him, Thoreau never really became more than the wooden icon who tramped the woods and wrote brilliant essays. But he was a living, breathing, gay man who yearned for love, loved, had his heart broken, suffered rejection—personal and professional—and kept bouncing back. I hope I’ve put some blood in his veins and living skin on his bones.