Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Thoreau by Maximilien Le Roy and A. Dan

My favorite - and least believed - mondegreen is about Henry Thoreau, taking a swaggering song by my state's standard junior troubadour and replacing Bad Medicine with Transcendentalism:
Thoreau is like Ralph Emerson
Ralph Emerson is what I read
No one ever actually misheard the song that way. But it's fun to pretend so.

On the other hand, a lot of people think Thoreau really did live alone, in a small cabin, for most of his life. (It was two years.) They think he was a remote hermit. (The cabin was on land owned by his family; it was a short walk to town; he had dinner in the family home regularly.)

Thoreau, to my mind, was maybe the last major aristocratic dilettante philosopher, the last gasp of the model that gave us Montaigne. His entire career is founded on the fact that he didn't want to do things, and he had the wealth and position not to do them - all of that from his successful family. In the same century, other writers cobbled together other sources of support, scurrying in the rapacious cash-nexus of capitalism - like Marx's dependence on Engels - but Thoreau was lucky enough to be able to follow the old path.

Thoreau: A Sublime Life is largely about that famous stint in the cabin, and is not quite as honest as it could be about Thoreau. But it's mostly honest, and that's about as much as one can expect from a positive biography of anyone: pure honesty would damn anyone, wouldn't it?

This is a 2012 bande desinee, written and colored by Maxmilien Le Roy and drawn by A. Dan. [1] The English-language edition was translated by Peter Rusella and published in 2016, by NBM. It's a fairly standard potted short biography in graphic form, the kind renowned, if not quite beloved, by generations of middle-schoolers desperate to do a book report over their next school holiday.

Le Roy is a strong Thoreau partisan, as the author of a biography like this should be. He also contributes a short introductory foreword and a much longer and detailed postscript, which those middle-schoolers should find to contain many highly useful quotes.

This is very episodic, as it has to be. Context is not always clear, as when we see Thoreau on one of his trips with Natives up north in Maine. And it starts with Thoreau as an adult, in the Walden Pond years - Le Roy is happy to cover how Thoreau's views on things shifted and evolved, but they're fairly set from page one here, and Le Roy has no interest in explaining how they were initially formed.

Dan has a detailed, illustrative style that works well with the craggy 19th-century faces he has to work with here, and he has a great eye for details of the natural world, always important in a book about Thoreau. The colors are bright and clear, and slightly less naturalistic than one might expect, giving a bit of a storybook air.

I don't think there's a better ninety-page book on Thoreau for general readers - that might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's what Thoreau: A Sublime Life is, and to say it's the best at that thing is not small.

[1] I want to joke, "not any particular Dan," which is probably too mean. And yet I have done it.

No comments:

Post a Comment