The book is drawing to a close, with Thoreau back living in a large house with others. You can hear his irritation as he talks about the small-talk, the daily news, the ephemera of “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century.”
He is looking for something solid on which to rest his mind. He talks about bogs and quicksands and looking for a solid bottom. He talks about not wanting to drive nails into plaster and lath only, but into the solid stud that lies beneath:
“Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.”
If he was as earnest as this all the time he’d have been an awful bore and curmudgeon, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that his most earnest side, the part that strove for intellectual purity, comes through in these pages in distilled form. There’s something both admirable and sad about someone who writes:
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Money and fame, yes, Henry, but love?
There had been a young woman many years before, named Ellen Sewall. Henry was twenty-two and Ellen seventeen when they met, and soon he wrote in his journal, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” Henry’s brother John was more aggressive and proposed to Ellen first, but was refused. Later Henry asked. Ellen wasn’t sure. She asked her father, who advised her to say no, because he didn’t think either of the Thoreau boys would amount to anything. So Ellen married another, more conventional man. Years later, when Henry was dying, Ellen’s name came up and he told his sister, “I have always loved her.”
But, according to biographer Robert Richardson, after Ellen, Henry “never again let himself fall in love with an eligible woman.” He lived his life married to his work, driving rivets into the machine of the universe.
(About “A Year in Walden”)