There are times when a writer encounters the work of a contemporary at the ideal time. In my case, this writer was John Kaag and the book was his 2018 philosophical memoir Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.

I had been studying philosophy in graduate school, but had left to pursue writing and was working on the book which was to become my debut, The Art of Cycling. However, I was struggling to find a literary form which would make the ideas and thinkers I cared so deeply about salient and personal to a reader not trained in philosophy. In Kaag’s prose and approach to ideas, I found both a kindred spirit and an artistic model for making philosophy matter—not just to the head, but in the emotional recesses of the heart.

I recently sat down with John to discuss his latest book, American Bloods which chronicles the early colonial family, the Bloods as generations weave their way through the social, political, and intellectual life of New England and cross paths with American philosophical heavy weights from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to William James.

If Kaag’s early work relies on philosophy to understand the individual soul, in American Bloods, the investigation broadens to include the sweep of the American story and pose the pointed question: “What can American philosophy and the saga of one family tell us about the soul of a nation?”

James Hibbard: So John, if you could start by telling me a little bit about your relationship to Blood farm, the house you live in, and how you first came to learn about the Blood family’s history in Massachusetts.

John Kaag: Sure. So just to give you a little bit of a backstory, when I was fourteen, I was growing up in central Pennsylvania,  my Latin teacher took me to Walden Pond one summer and gave me Walden to read. And at the time, I said to him, I’m going to live in Concord, and I’m going to teach philosophy and write about Henry David Thoreau—and he goes over your mother’s dead body.

But it turned out that it was in fact where I’ve ended up—teaching philosophy and living in Carlisle—which is the town adjacent to Concord, which Henry David Thoreau called a city in the woods—and it still kind of is.

I fell in love with the natural surroundings of this place and all of the trails and woods that Thoreau and Emerson used to saunter on and walk around in. We moved into an old farmhouse on the Concord river.

I didn’t quite understand how old it was, but it was built in 1745, and when we moved in, I was unpacking one night, and I went into this cupboard adjacent to the very large central fireplace. At the back of this closet—or what I thought was a closet—it’s actually a small room—was a paper bag and in the paper bag was an unbound copy of a very strange document—a long genealogy called The Story of the Bloods.

I took it out that night, and I started working my way through it.  I already knew about three Bloods from my work in philosophy and intellectual history; one was Thaddeus Blood, who Emerson interviewed as the last living survivor of the conquered fight that started the American Revolution.

And I knew Perez Blood, who was Thoreau’s close friend, who was a recluse astronomer who lived in the Esterbrook wood in Carlisle, and I knew Benjamin Blood, who was, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, best friends with William James, who introduced William James to psychedelics.

What I did not realize is that we had moved into the original Blood homestead of Thaddeus Blood. Thaddeus Blood was born probably in the very room that I discovered the story of the Bloods.

I became very interested in this entire family genealogy—a genealogy that really represents America and its wildness, told through one untamed family who took America by storm, starting in the early or the late seventeenth century and running straight through to the early twentieth century.

JH: I’m interested in the role of place in the story of the Bloods and am wondering what role do you think the landscape itself played in the development of the book, the story of the Bloods, and even in American philosophy itself?

JK: On the same day that I found the genealogy of the Bloods in my living room, I had been running outside and through what’s called the Tophet Swamp in Carlisle. And “Tophet,” for the Puritans, meant hell. It’s a murky, swampy place, a place where the native inhabitants of Carlisle would spend a lot of time, but the Puritans would not spend any time at all because it frightened them.

And on this run I encountered what I thought was a wolf but was actually the largest husky coyote that I had ever seen. And it slowly just kind of followed me for five or ten minutes until I darted or tried to dart into the swamp, which wasn’t particularly smart of me. And at the end of my run, obviously, I survived.

But at the end of my run, I really had a moment of reflection about this animal that had frightened me so badly. But in fact, I was probably the intruder. This issue about wildness is always the question about trespassing and who’s trespassing on whose land. And what struck me is that there was wildness even in my backyard, but I typically didn’t see it or recognize it or pay very much attention to it.

And part of the story of the American Bloods is that they are always this quiet, hidden undercurrent in American history. And they represent something of this wolfish character that pervades New England and so I guess that’s one of the ways that I thought about the flora or fauna of New England as impressing itself on the story of the American Bloods.

I suppose the other is that it’s still quite possible to walk on the same deer paths and on the same sort of covered roads that Emerson and Thoreau walked on and that native inhabitants walked on before them. And to remember that, I think, is a very important sort of moment, at least for me, as a thinker who has a tendency to sort of get caught up in his own mind rather than staying down on the earth of experience. That’s definitely a way that the natural surroundings affected the writing of American Bloods.

JH: Your previous books have had a profound influence on my own writing and shown me what the genre of philosophical memoir is capable of. So, having followed your trajectory as a writer, I’m interested in the transition you make in American Bloods from philosophical, personal memoir  to an intellectual history that has broader social and political implications.

Can you talk a little bit about that shift for you as a writer and how you balanced an intellectual investigation with the lived history of a family and place?

JK: My writings in American Philosophy: A Love Story, and Hiking with Nietzsche, which were both published with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux over the last ten years, were really attempts to show that philosophy could be a type of therapy—I oftentimes think about it as self-help for the sort of smart set.

But honestly, what I really think is that philosophy at its best, can help us live individually, more meaningful lives. And I was trying to show how reading philosophy had changed my life and how it had, in certain cases, saved my life. When I was struggling with depression or honestly struggling with cardiac arrest and then bypass surgery, philosophy sort of buoyed my spirits and helped me through, and sometimes gave me a companion in misery.

However, I found that over the years, that philosophy could potentially have a therapeutic effect not just for an individual, but just as much for a nation in need. And what I’m really thinking about is in The Republic, Plato often suggests that philosophy has this individual therapeutic quality when it comes to treating your soul—the individual soul, but Plato also believes that philosophy is supposed to have a sort of social and political impact, and that it can sort of change the soul of the republic.

And what I’m trying to do through a study of this one very unique American family, is to show where they intersect with a number of different important philosophical movements, and how they not only intersect with them, but were affected by them and how they affected the philosophical landscape. And I think, for me, at least, it was an opportunity to explore the possibilities of philosophy, saying something very significant about who we’ve become as a nation, not simply who I’ve become as an individual.

JH: With this issue of the individual versus the national soul in mind, where American Bloods really struck me was, in the section about the relationship between Thaddeus Blood and Emerson—the sort of bi-directionality that you propose wherein it is not ideas which shape behavior, but rather individual social behaviors which in fact informed and influenced the intellectual positions of perhaps the preeminent American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

JK: Absolutely. I always believe that philosophy takes place in conversations between living human beings. That’s the way that it was always supposed to be expressed.

And what we see in these very intimate interactions between, for example, Thaddeus Blood and Emerson, or his son, Perez Blood and Henry David Thoreau, is that what become quintessential American ideals and American philosophy’s start in very humble, mundane interactions between individuals—between Emerson, as he begins to put together his notes for what becomes the Concord Hymn or the Concord lecture, which articulates the shot heard round the world which started the American Revolution.

This type of hero—or heroic idea really—starts with his interview of a very elderly Thaddeus Blood, whose memory either has faded of the actual battle, or who is more reticent to give a straightforward, triumphant account of American freedom fighting and that ambivalence around what freedom is and means. What Thaddeus gives to Emerson in that interview comes through in Emerson’s own writing and if you look carefully at the way that Emerson thinks about the Revolution and the potentials for human revolutions, political revolutions—they depend on very fallible, fragile individuals.

And Emerson is taking from that interview of Thaddeus a realization that freedom is very tenuous, that it always rests on somewhat shaky ground, and that the stories we want to tell about freedom fighting, especially American freedom fighting, are always shot through with a type of potential for cowardice, a potential for violence, a potential for corruption. Thaddeus seemed very much aware of this and that’s one of the aspects of the interview between Thaddeus and Emerson that seems to come out and what came out for me in writing American Bloods.

JH: Going back to the sort of issue of New England and metropolitan Boston as the epicenter of American philosophy, do you think that there’s something about the area which makes it intellectually unique?

JK: I think that throughout New England—through Vermont and New Hampshire and into western Massachusetts—there’s still a fairly robust Thoreauvian strain of wildness. And it comes hand in hand with an openness to poetry and reading difficult texts and playing difficult music and dancing difficult dances that Thoreau would have appreciated and probably in large part gave rise to. And that continues to this day.

I think that when it comes to Boston, I think that there’s a very real sense of history as well as a sense of the vexed nature of history that, I think is very philosophically interesting and complex and I think Boston intellectuals and Boston students have a real sense of that history and a real sense of the dangers of overblown rhetoric concerning freedom, but I also think that they hold out hope, which I think is pretty admirable.

I swim in Walden Pond each summer—a lot—and I’m always struck by people’s desire to find Walden, to find their own personal Walden. And what is it is this attraction really—what are people looking for? I think it’s something like the personal connection to deep spiritual, natural, and philosophical resources. And that’s what I’m trying to provide in the course of American Bloods—that sense of place and embodied thought.

So when you read American Blood, it’s a story of a family and a group of people who intersect with ideas and philosophy which ultimately shape not just a region or a time period, but in many the trajectory of America as a whole.

American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty that Shaped a Nation by John Kaag is available via FSG.

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