Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Thoreau and the gunpowder mill

I generally defend Thoreau against accusations that he was peculiar or antisocial. He surely saw more of his neighbors in the course of a day than I do, and his Journal is full of the stories told to him by farmers and townspeople (many of them collected in the engaging book Men of Concord.) Sometimes, though, he does something that makes him appear rather coldblooded. In January 1853, a gunpowder mill in Concord blew up in a deafening and deadly explosion. When Thoreau arrived at the scene he described it with a rather cool tone, and ended on a jarringly practical note.

January 7, 1853 About ten minutes before 10 a.m., I heard a very loud sound, and felt a violent jar, which made the house rock and the loose articles on my table rattle, which I knew must be either a powder-mill blown up or an earthquake. Not knowing but another and more violent might take place, I immediately ran down-stairs, but I saw from the door a vast expanding column of whitish smoke rising in the west directly over the powder-mills four miles distant.... Arrived probably before half past ten. There were perhaps thirty or forty wagons there. The kernel-mill had blown up first, and killed three men who were in it, said to be turning a roller with a chisel.... Timber six inches square and eighteen feet long was thrown over a hill eighty feet high at least,— a dozen rods; thirty rods was about the limit of fragments. The drying-house, in which was a fire, was perhaps twenty-five rods distant and escaped. Every timber and piece of wood which was blown up was as black as if it had been dyed, except where it had broken on falling; other breakages were completely concealed by the color. I mistook what had been iron hoops in the woods for leather straps. Some of the clothes of the men were in the tops of the trees, where undoubtedly their bodies had been and left them. The bodies were naked and black, some limbs and bowels here and there, and a head at a distance from its trunk. The feet were bare; the hair singed to a crisp. I smelt the powder half a mile before I got there. Put the different buildings thirty rods apart, and then but one will blow up at a time.
But just when you think Thoreau has no feeling for his fellow man, you see him returning to the subject of mortality in the days that followed.
January 14, 1853 The bones of children soon turn to dust again. January 21, 1853 In the night I dreamed of delving amid the graves of the dead, and soiled my fingers with their rank mould. It was sanitarily, morally, and physically true.
Six years later, the accident is still on his mind:
July 21, 1859 The canal is still cluttered with the wreck of the mills that have been blown up in times past, — timber, boards, etc., etc., — and the steep hill is bestrewn with the fragments of the mills, which fell on it more than half a dozen years ago (many of them), visible half a mile off. As you draw near the powder-mills, you see the hill behind bestrewn with the fragments of mills which have been blown up in past years, — the fragments of the millers having been removed, — and the canal is cluttered with the larger ruins. The very river makes greater haste past the dry-house, as it were for fear of accidents.

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