Speaking a Word for Success

Picture, if you can, a Thoreau scholar riding a motorcycle.

In late February 2003, I emailed the editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin addressing him as “Bradley P. Dean,” saying that I was a new member of the Society and had just enjoyed reading the Fall 2002 Bulletin. Telling him that I’d been finding many Thoreauvian references of late, I quoted Thoreau’s journal entry of November 4, 1858 — “We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else” — and then appended a dozen or so bibliographic notes from a variety of contemporary sources.

I heard back within minutes: “Hello Chris. Call me Brad.”

Dean’s response, thanking me for the notes I’d sent, began a correspondence that grew over time from collegial to friendly, fueled by a shared passion.

There are now 476 items in my email folder titled “Brad.” That’s nearly one for every two days since then. The last was sent to him on Friday the 13th, the day before Brad Dean had a heart attack and died and at home.

He was just 51.

When I learned the news I felt shattered. Then a sense of vast personal loss welled up. Brad was not just my closest but my only Thoreauvian correspondent. He encouraged me, gently edited and published my words, and, many times it seemed, was alone in understanding an important part of my world.

Brad was generous in sharing his knowledge. Now I’m not sure how to imagine my ecosystem without him. To whom do I go with my questions about Thoreau? Who will continue his work? I always thought we’d meet someday. Now he is gone and his important work remains uncompleted.

Brad Dean edited two highly acclaimed works from Thoreau’s unpublished manuscripts, Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits, as well as Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, a collection of Thoreau’s letters to H.G.O. Blake. As a brief obituary in the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times notes, Brad was working on Thoreau’s unpublished “Indian Notebooks” at the time of his death. I’ve looked forward to reading this book some day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote on the death of Thoreau at age 44:

“The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is.”

The same words apply now as well.

Brad Dean is survived by his wife (the poet Debra Kang Dean), his parents, six siblings, and a son.

I can only imagine how his family must feel. I know that I’ve lost a friend. In December Brad checked out two library books at Indiana University, where he and his wife taught, library after I asked him how much crossover there is between Thoreau’s Familiar Letters and Letters to Various Persons. Then he offered to ship them to me so that I could examine them for myself:

“Just let me know. Would be happy to do it. After all, look at all you have done for me! Shipping a book would be nothing in comparison.”

Brad was smart and funny. I once sent him a post titled “cavil with Cavell,” describing writings about Thoreau in philosopher Stanley Cavell’s Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life and asking Brad, “What does Cavell eat for dinner I wonder? And how long has it been since he’s taken a whiff of fresh air?” He replied:

“Chris, Chris, Chris! Stanley Cavell does not EAT dinner. Com’on, man. Stanley Cavell INTERPRETS dinner and the heuristic possibilities related thereto before, while, and after ingesting nutrition that would appear to have at least some essence of corporeality to it. Part of his charm, if I may describe it so, is that he would find it an extraordinarily difficult task to find his arse, even were a normal person, a person with a modicum of common sense, to suggest that he consider reaching around WITH BOTH OF HIS HANDS to find that particular chunk of his anatomy, a chunk which likely resides with him in an ivory balloon, for ‘tower’ implies a structure reaching all the way down to the solid earth. In brief, he lives too much in his head.

Thanks for sending these goodies along!”

Periodically, I’d report briefly to Brad on my travels to remote places in North America. He expressed empathy:

“Canyons in southern Utah! One of the best places in the world, in my opinion. Used to get out there every year on my bike (motorcycle) and never missed Bryce or Zion or Grand Staircase/Escalante or Arches.”

Recently I turned up a photo on the internet of a New Zealander whose name is the same as one of Thoreau’s sisters. Sharing this with Brad, I heard back:

“Thanks for sending this along, Chris. The page on Sophie Thoreau is particularly interesting. I even fancy that there might be some resemblance! I’m tempted to write to her and ask if she knows the genealogical connection, which I’m pretty sure has been worked out.”

Week after week I’d send Brad a post full of notes about my Thoreauvian findings. “But you seem to see SO MUCH!” he wrote me this past October:

“There is no way that I’m going to be able to run them all in the Bulletin, unless I were to run nothing more than your notes for several issues, by which time I doubt not that you would have generated a few more issues worth of notes. Very impressive. But I feel that they need to be shared. What do you think about me putting your unpublished notes on my web site until I publish them? Then, rather than storing them on my computer (hoarding them, as it were), I could let members know that they can go read boatloads of notes that have been collected, mostly by you. Think about it and let me know.”

We decided to hold off on this, and in December, after sending Brad yet more notes for his “Notes & Queries” column, I heard back:

“I find that I have 60 formatted pages of 10-point, single-spaced, 8.5×11-inch pages with one-inch margins all around! That is a heck of a lot of text, and most of it by far is from you. Pretty impressive.”

Who’ll edit the Bulletin now?

Early on in our correspondence, Brad and I found we’d both had bad experiences with institutional dysfunction and what I labeled “the soul-battering system.” We traded horror stories about our struggles, and Brad concluded:

“It is encouraging to read words from someone ‘out there in the trenches’ who stands for something admirable. Really, I think there are many of you out there, daily and valiantly fighting the good fight, speaking for the light. But the seemingly general stench is so foul, so ubiquitous seeming, that we too often are overpowered by it into thinking — falsely, let us hope — that almost everyone is covered with shit.

So, again, we need to be grateful and uplifted when we can be, as often as we can be…

All times and places are now and here, and it is up to us to make of them what we WILL. Our heroes had the same general obstacles to overcome, surely, the same daunting prospects we confront. Yet they succeeded. Therefore, let us banish to the extent we can the foul and their foulness; let us gird our loins and continue struggling upward toward the light. Every body (pardon my metaphors, which are often gritty, doubtless because of my enlisted-man background) has an asshole, but that does not mean that we need to place ourselves between the ass-cheeks of the world, live and move and have our being there.

I need to learn how, even in the dark times, to speak a word for success, and I appreciate the tenor of your sentiments, which remind me of that. Finally, at last, it is not too difficult and it is infinitely better to climb out of the sewer, which really occupies a very small portion of the landscape…”

Brad Dean’s words about success describe himself, it seems. Now I can think of no better way to honor his family — and each other, his friends and colleagues — than to diligently, curiously, carefully, and passionately continue his work.

This essay was originally published on Utne Librarian Chris Dodge’s website,Street Librarian.

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