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Mysticism in American Literature

Thoreau’s Quest and Whitman’s Self

Exploring the Mysticism in the life and works of Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitmanby Paul Hourihan, edited by Anna Hourihan
144 pages, 8.5“x 5.5” (Quality paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-931816-03-8
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OPEN THE HEART of Self-Discovery Through the Lives and Profound Works of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman

Most are familiar with Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman as great American writers of the 19th century, but did you know that they were also mystics? Mysticism in American Literature: Thoreau’s Quest and Whitman’s Self  by Paul Hourihan focuses on the mysticism in the lives and major writings of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. It explains notable passages that have eluded many of us from Thoreau’s classic, Walden, and Walt Whitman’s ground-breaking poem, “Song of Myself” from his Leaves of Grass.

This study shows how their significant works were inspired by their spiritual revelations and struggles. It discusses reasons for Thoreau’s long depression after the publication of Walden. It also compares the very different approaches that each of these Transcendentalists took to reach their spiritual achievements.

To discover the deeper message and insights into life that these two literary mystics have for us, a mystical interpretation of their lives and writings is necessary. And by sharing with these remarkable men of letters their wisdom and strengths as well as their faults and failings, our own evolution advances. This book serves to open the heart of self-discovery for readers seeking their own enlightenment.

• Winner of Bronze Award, Best Non-Fiction and Best Spiritual Book Awards for 2004-2005 from Northern California Publishers & AuthorAs Dr. Chari states in the Foreword:

“At a time like this, Dr. Hourihan performs a valuable service by his courageous reaffirmation of what is of permanent value in the lives and works of two of the most original minds in American literature.”

• Winner of 2004 Editor’s Choice Award from Allbooks Reviews for their Literary category.

Recommended for religious collections by Library Journal (May 1/04 review).

 Hourihan does us a great service by showing us the true religiousness of Whitman, set against the American Romanticism of Transcendentalism. Hourihan has an invaluable background in Indian spirituality, which allows Whitman’s mysticism to emerge, free as it is from what Whitman called ‘ecclesiasticism.’ It is only when set against the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita or the Advaita Vedanta that one can see the religiousness of Whitman, who otherwise calmly dismisses the Christian tradition of his land.

“…He regarded Thoreau’s early experience on Walden Pond as transformative, though one he never fully recaptured, trying instead to refine the written account. Hence the title of the book, suggesting Thoreau’s ‘quest’ remained relatively unfulfilled next to Whitman’s ‘self,’ a self that had approached the full realisation that is the focus of Vedanta.

Any work on Thoreau and Whitman that explores their spirituality is welcome, but it is particularly so when it comes from an author with a doctorate in Western literature.” (Read the full review: Ramakrishna and Christ” and “Mysticism in American Literature” Book Reviews by Mike King)

– Dr. Mike King, Independent Scholar, formerly Director for the Centre for Postsecular Studies at London Metropolitan University

“I believe in you, my soul…” from “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman

David Henry Thoreau, most famous for his philosophy of “Simplify, simplify,” lived his own dream for only a few years. Traveling to Walden Pond where he wrote his most profound works, he later obsessed over it for seven years until it was in his opinion perfect. Perhaps this obsession is what led to his own loss of the enlightened state that he sought for so long.

Walt Whitman’s greatest work, “Song of Myself” gives the impression of a highly enlightened man in touch with the infinite Truth, but his later works depict a man who has found but not held on to, the absolute Truth.

Paul Hourihan dissects the lives of these two men with a deep spiritual understanding…. Although great writers and revered philosophers, both died after long periods of attempting to once again regain that feeling of absolute enlightenment that was once theirs. Samples of their works are sprinkled throughout, tempting the reader to do their own research.

Written in true literary style, yet in layman’s terms as readers will find many of Hourihan’s works, the author delves into the personalities, lives and successes of these two great men. This reviewer found it a fascinating read, being a fan of both. Illuminating, informative and insightful, highly recommended.

 Shirley Roe, Allbook Reviews

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

These words by Henry David Thoreau could not come at a better time than now, when we all hear the sound of a different drummer who sometimes seems so far away. The works of Thoreau and Walt Whitman are interpreted from a mystical standpoint, making it possible to understand the deeper meanings of their writings. A must-read.
               – Rahasya Poe, The Lotus Guide, Chico, CA

Excerpt from “Henry David Thoreau” Chapter

Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) is an archetypal figure. We have lived lives like his—or will. His is a universal quest pursued with fervent single-mindedness to pluck out from the heart of the universe the secret of its mystery. Alone—with no guru (Emerson disappointed him grievously because of his esthetic approach to life), no encouragement.

Thoreau is the grimly serious, impassioned, defiant young man who sets out on a pilgrimage to discover the meaning of life and is determined to let nothing stand in his way. He seeks to achieve perfection.

He becomes a pilgrim to himself—to his new self, to the life he has resolved to bring into being. He wants to discover all the possibilities of becoming new-born and to report his findings back to men. As he will do in Walden.

The journals he wrote in his early twenties anticipate the themes and spirit of his famous autobiography and reflect his first stirrings of spiritual hunger. From the outset we note this craving for the transcendental, for mystical knowledge. To begin with, his need for solitude:

I only ask a clean seat. I will build my lodge on the southern slope of some hill and take there the life the gods send me…. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind.

It is the ego-self, the creature-consciousness, that he recognizes as the enemy. All his short life (he died at 44) he was struggling against it in this sharp, clear knowledge … although sometimes, in hating it, he will turn his anger against men and their world.

People seemed to be living, he wrote, but are really dead. Even his once-esteemed mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, lived a shadow life. As he himself did. He did not exclude himself in the general fall. How can he awake? His two years at Walden was his attempt to awaken himself with his own hands….

 If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

This again is Thoreau to the life, a principle he followed not only at Walden but through his whole career. The mystic hears a secret music and obeys rhythms of his own. Gradually the music increases, the rhythms get stronger, and the inner symphony takes shape. But at the same time we cease to hear the music that our contemporaries are calling the truth….

Excerpt from Walt Whitman chapter, “The ‘Self’ in ‘Song of Myself'”

When Leaves of Grass appeared, it marked the emergence of a major talent, an authentic new voice in world literature. We have to assume, as already noted, that some momentous personal revelation accounted for the transformation in Walt Whitman’s outlooka mystical experiencewhich corroborated and vindicated him at the deepest levels of his being. And his “Song of Myself” wouldinevitablybe a song of everyone’s Self.

Already Whitman is taking his place in the long line of mystics who, age upon age, confirm and clarify each other’s essential teachings.

To repeat: the “self” celebrated here is not the ordinary, phenomenal self of Whitman but the transcendental “I” consciousness, the Mystical Self, the Cosmic Mind. While the radiance is still upon him he writes down his revelation.

We cannot truly believe in something unless we experience it. Faith is not the same thing as conviction. And conviction does not come unless we know. This is the unique claimthe surpassing importanceof mysticism: that truths only conjecturable by the intellect are known by the suddenly awakened intuitive power. “You shall know the Truth,” says Christ, “and the Truth shall make you free.” Not know it by mere intellect, or as we know things by sense perception. Rather to know by supernal insight, immediate knowledge, directly and mystically arrived at. Then we shall be free.

I believe in you, my soul… 
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge 
that pass all the argument of the earth. (5)

We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the daybreak. (25)

The “argument of the earth” refers to the questionings and demonstrations of the empirical intellect, of which Whitman has had enough. The deeper insight comes from the depths of pure being, the wellspring of Knowledge Absolute of which the self he has now known is constituted….

Paul Hourihan, who had a Ph.D. in American literature, and 25 years teaching and writing in the field of mystical studies, combines his lifelong passion for literature and mysticism to give us an insightful look into the lives of two of America’s own celebrated mystical writers of the 19th century.