Unpacking the Aphorism to Pull Out the Pith

Thoreau valued simplicity and wisdom, yet his writing style is not simple, and the reader must unpack the aphorism to pull out the pith. Anecdote becomes parable, reminding us of Alice and the Duchess: “Tut, tut, child! Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Thoreau’s claims, statements he knows will invite disagreement, are supported with metaphors, which lead to ambiguous explanations. Often, he strings together claims with reasons that at first glance seem not to follow. What unifies his paragraphs is not always clear, and his wit is often housed in satire. Here’s a short example that illustrates, the paragraph quoted in whole:

“All that I could say, then, with respect to farming on a large scale, (I have always cultivated a garden,) was, that I had my seeds ready. Many think that seeds improve with age. I have no doubt that time discriminates between the good and the bad; and when at last I shall plant, I shall be less likely to be disappointed. But I would say to my fellows, once for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail” (78).

James Thurber once drew a cartoon of a man walking up to his house after work, the lines of the rear of the house rising up over the roof to reveal a caricature of his wife hiding behind his house, a part of the house, awaiting his arrival, as if to startle him. We’re not sure if he’s ready for the surprise or not. The cartoon might present an unflattering view of marriage, combining the mortgage of the structure with the mortgage of one’s freedom (one marries a house, furnished with a spouse), but it might help explain Thoreau’s view of owning the farm: it’s like having a bed in the county jail because one can’t escape it. “Most men,” Thoreau writes, “appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have” (32).

Thoreau is rightfully proud that he builds his own house on Walden Pond, but he’s most proud that its proportions are in sync with his four necessaries. Nothing is exaggerated: the house enjoys no wrap around porch, no great room, no dining room separate from living room, no two car garage; it’s a one-room house. The house affords no hyperbole. Yet, like the complexity of his prose, erecting the house wasn’t a simple job, and he had help, in the form of tools borrowed, and, “At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness than from necessity, I set up the frame of my house” (41). Note the stubborn insistence on independence: he could have done it all himself; he welcomed the help to be neighborly. He begins to live in his house on July 4th, Independence Day, more irony, yet he has proven that “the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually” (45). And, of equal benefit, he won’t “forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter” (42). Thoreau again foreshadows Buckminster Fuller, who showed that specialization leads to extinction: “Where is this division of labor to end?” Thoreau asks, “and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself” (42).

Now that he’s built his house, and owns it unencumbered, his necessaries squared away, he’s free to enjoy his stay in the woods.