Midlife with Thoreau | A First Look
On May 26th, we will celebrate the release of Midlife with Thoreau by Diane P. Freedman. This is a book about writing as righting. At midlife Diane P. Freedman turns to the books of Thoreau, not to mention his landscapes. Practicing the nature cure and the narrative cure, she writes, in poems, essays, and journals, about family, feminism, and literary history, loss, divorce, dating,accidents, animals, waterways, local landscapes, and teaching environmental literature in ruburban New Hampshire. She sojourns with books and domestic beasts, tramps brambles and trails, and basks in language, love, and lake-front sun. Thoreau loved a “broad margin” in his life and Whitman, another influence, “a certain free margin.” Out of these, Carl Bode maintained—and Freedman shows—poetry could grow. Taking direction also from new environmental writers such as Ian Marshall, John Elder, Janisse Ray, Sandra Steingraber, and Amy Seidl and from other hybrid or narrative and autobiographical critics, this is a book of intense observation, advocacy, lyricism, sweetness, and sadness.
“Though it’s Thoreau who provides Diane Freedman with her orienteer’s compass in this marvelous rattlebag of a book, I thought often of Basho while reading it. The mix of prose and poetry here is more local and intimate than in Basho’s haibun, but it has the same steady attentiveness to the moments of a day—a sureness at home in curiosity, no matter how far out on the edges Freedman gets. The solitude at the center of this book is peculiar and consoling—it makes a reader feel accompanied.”
—David Rivard, author of Otherwise Elsewhere, Wise Poison, and Torque
In Midlife with Thoreau: Essays, Poems, Journals, Diane Freedman takes us on a journey infused with literary allusions and inspirations — a journey that is Thoreauvian in the deepest sense, sauntering out into the material world of woods, lakes, garden, family, and beloved dogs in order to plumb the depths of the mind and spirit. Her stories of “mid-life” move from deeply felt losses to the intoxication of new love, infused with more everyday concerns about work, loved ones, and landscape and ultimately conveying a powerful sense of the ways each informs the others. The juxtaposition of essays, poetry, and journal entries makes for a delightful multiplicity of perspectives on the pivotal events of this period of the author’s life, and her precise use of language is, by turns, playful, poignant, and perceptive. As Thoreau tells us, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look.” Reading this book is to experience the world as carved and painted by Freedman’s keen eyes, wide-ranging mind, and courageous, caring heart—an exhilarating and thought-provoking excursion that will make a lasting impression.
—Karla Armbruster, co-editor of The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place and Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism; co-author of Finding Our Niche: the Human Role in Healing the Earth, and the forthcoming Walking with Wildness: Dogs and What They Can Teach Us about Living on an Endangered Earth
In Mid-life with Thoreau Diane Freedman explores the “meaning of life in the woods,” along the way “practicing the nature cure and the narrative cure for mid-life anxiety, loneliness, and befuddlement.” Freedman conducts her explorations into the “calls of nature and of story” by the engaging means of “multi-genre” and “cross-pollinated” writing, blending memoir, critical essay, nature journal, and poetry. “The writers she invokes along the way—from Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Elizabeth Bishop, Joni Mitchell, and Groucho Marx—suggest the range of her curiosity and the range of themes she explores. Much of the book is about loss—of places, of love, of places we love—and how to do our best to hang on. She explores too along the way such topics as the nomadic life of the academic, the discourteous world of online dating, our love of dogs, the place of narrative in scholarly writing, and the healing power of both the natural world and the nature-oriented word.
There is honest pain in evidence as well (“It could be worse / It could not be worse,” she writes during a rough stretch), but small epiphanies attest to the power of writing as “righting” and Freedman’s attentiveness to the miraculous in the common—branches blowing in the wind, the joy of grout (“to see things / fixed and fixed”), the early morning pleasures of “music in the key of kitchen.” Typically, her poems, which constitute about a third of the book, end with a satisfying surprise, not so much the sound of a box clicking shut (as Yeats had it) as an opening up, a “reveal” that clarifies the relationship between the images that went before (see, for example, “Basement, Winter,” or “Kitchen”).
What I admire most about Freedman’s “excursions” is the way the apparent disjunctive cuts between journal, poem, descriptive essay, memoir, critical commentary—the juxtapositions of inner landscape and outer—create gaps. Those are the places the reader must fill in to connect the strands of narrative, motive, theme. And it turns out, as the end of one of her poems has it (“On Assignment”), “everything’s attached / to everything else.” Freedman’s Mid-life with Thoreau is a deep, smart, lyrical, and satisfying read.
—Ian Marshall, Author of Walden by Haiku, Border Crossings: Walking the Haiku Path on the International Appalachian Trail, Peak Experiences, and Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail
Diane P. Freedman is Professor of English and Core Faculty Member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire, the author of An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics; editor of Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal; and co-editor of The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority, and Identity in the Academy, Autobiographical Writings across the Disciplines: A Reader, and The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. She teaches courses in poetry, memoir, nature writing, women’s literature, and the Holocaust.