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What Should We Keep? The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive

The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive is now maintained at the Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.  Stanford provides access to the archive via the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection. Readers can create an account (free) at the registration page of the Stanford Library site.

The Welcome Page of Stanford’s Fuller Collection provides a gloss of what is included: “The R. Buckminster Fuller Collection documents the life and work of this 20th century polymath, and contains his personal archive, correspondence, manuscripts, drawings and audio-visual materials relating to his career as an architect, mathematician, inventor and social critic.”

But that brief, explanatory note is just the tip of the pyramid, for Fuller’s Archive is a gargantuan pack rat’s dream, or nightmare, depending on your point of view. Stanford librarians spent six years cataloging Fuller’s stuff. Hsiao-Yun Chu, who worked on the project, explains why it took so long: “…his former archivist estimated the weight of the archive to be ninety thousand pounds” (8). Pounds of what, exactly? The rat was “polyphagous” (6), apparently: “…not only every piece of paper touched by Fuller, in chronological order [thus Fuller’s name for it, the “Dymaxion Chronofile”], but newspaper clippings, recordings of speaking engagements…tons of papers, thousands of hours of audio and video footage, and hundreds of models and assorted artifacts” (6). Imagine never throwing away a receipt, a bill, a cancelled check, a napkin on which you’ve outlined your next invention, for the archive also includes, according to Chu, “…outgoing and incoming personal and business correspondence, receipts, greeting cards, business cards…photographs…the ephemera of his life” (7). Fuller lived from 1895 to 1983, a full life, and it’s probably just as well that he never saw Facebook or Twitter.

Why the obsession? Chu says that the archive “is a central phenomenon in Fuller’s story, arguably the most important ‘construction’ of his career, and certainly the masterpiece of his life” (6). There is, of course, a paradox, for the archive seems anti-Thoreauvian in its lack of simplicity, a value Fuller shared with Thoreau. Yet the filing system was simple. Things were filed according to “when,” not “what.” Fuller argued, Chu explains, that if he could remember “when” something had happened, he could find “what” he was looking for (9). And we shouldn’t necessarily look for the kind of economy of scale sought by business plans, for, as Chu says, “The amassing of the archive was a lifelong creative act that can easily be seen as a masterpiece of conceptual art” (9). Yes, but we can imagine the work of art being wrapped by the artist Christo, for what do we do with all our stuff, and what should we keep?

But maybe there was another reason for Fuller’s obsession to collect everything: synergy. Fuller defined synergy as “…behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts” (78). There isn’t anything in any of the separate parts of the Fuller Archive that predicts, explains, or contains R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, like the universe, “…is synergetic – unpredicted by its separate parts” (79). And the archive would also seem to fit into Fuller’s definition of universe: “…the nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping, micro-macro, always and everywhere transforming, physical and metaphysical, omni-complementary but nonidentical events” (68). Who’s got the tab?

Not only have I failed to keep much in the way of a personal archive of any kind of obviously worthless stuff, but I’ve thrown away potentially valuable personal archival material, at least twice, that I now miss and regret tossing, including a collection of letters written when I was on active duty, and a big storage box of old writing, assorted notebooks, college papers, that had been sitting in the basement for years. Not that Stanford would ever have shown an interest, but some close to me have indeed expressed a bit of frustration at my giving up perhaps prematurely what the family might someday have shown an interest in. So it goes. But still, what should we keep?

Not too long ago, the consequence of a grade school reunion, an old friend sent me a clipping from a 1964 El Segundo Herald (see insert, above left). So far, I’ve not thrown it away, but it doesn’t exactly constitute an archive, and hopefully we can see it’s not really me, synergistically speaking.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Chu, Hsiao-Yun. “Paper Mausoleum: The Archive of R. Buckminster Fuller.” New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller. Eds. Hsiao-Yun Chu and Roberto G. Trujillo. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. 6-22. Print.

Transition: From Walled-in with Thoreau to Take-off with Buckminster Fuller

“We can never get enough of nature,” Thoreau says (297), yet we will soon have turned the entire planet into garbage. But, as Slavoj Žižek has said, we must learn to love garbage, for it reflects our imperfections (Examined Life, at 1:04:40). “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds,” Thoreau says, in the Walden chapter titled “Conclusion” (303). He was aware of the pun. In “The Ponds” chapter, he says, “I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality, – Saffron Walden, for instance – one might suppose that it was called, originally, Walled-in Pond” (173).

“The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau says (299), yet he’s limited to worldwide travel in wooden boats. But he’s aware of the limitation, and the ambiguity of his predicament: “The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing” (299). Travel, for vacation or business, amounts to the same thing, for we cannot vacate ourselves, but must bring us with us on any trip. Thus Thoreau proposes that we travel to “whole new continents and worlds within [us], opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” for “there are continents and seas in the moral world” (300). And why should we make such a trip? “How worn and dusty the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world” (302). He “will pass an invisible boundary” (303). How will he pay for the trip? “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul” (308).

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about?,” Buckminster Fuller asked his grandson on the way to LAX (8). Thoreau comments, as if riding in the backseat of the car, “My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, dress it as you will” (308).

And a planet is a planet, Fuller might have responded, and how will we address it? “What are men celebrating?,” Thoreau asks (308). Thoreau was not a specialist, and he celebrates, in Walden, his non-specialist skills, the ability to cross over the boundaries of disciplines. This is why there are so many ways of looking at Walden, and why Thoreau (like Fuller) was an inventor – his vision was not walled-in by the format of a specialized discipline. Buckminster Fuller was also a non-specialist who avoided the traps of specialization and categories (because, as we will see Fuller explain, specialization leads to extinction). And specialization leads to artificial categorical definitions of all kinds that place claims on individual lives: “This ‘sovereign’ – meaning top-weapons enforced – ‘national’ claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification,” Fuller says. “As a consequence of the slavish ‘categoryitis,’ the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What are you?’ ‘What religion?’ ‘What race?’ What nationality?’ are all thought of today as logical questions,” yet, Fuller says, “These questions are absurd” (p. 31). The specialist is the go-to man, yet Fuller says, “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable” (25), dangerous assumptions, for, as Fuller says, “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking” (24).

Thoreau was a comprehensive thinker, but he only glimpsed, in his criticism of the railroad, the damage that was to occur, or how worldwide poverty would belie his dictum, “Love your life, poor as it is” (307). He would have been appalled at the costs we’ve incurred, the lack of generalist and comprehensive thinking. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. The juxtaposition of the two works (though published 115 years apart) creates a dialog between Thoreau and Fuller, a conversation that might suggest answers to where we’ve been, where we might have gone, where we appear to be headed, and where we still might have the possibility to go.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder].

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

On the ice with Thoreau

Reading Walden this time around, and coming near the end of the literary sojourn, the Portland east winds blowing out of the Gorge, cracking their taut, dry cheeks while I burrowed into the  “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” chapters, I reflected on where nature goes in contemporary life, for we spend sweeping resources to turn our backs to her, to hide from her, to ignore her, to close our eyes, ears, noses to her, to avoid her sound and smell and touch, to lock her out. Thoreau went out to meet with her, and he spent quality time observing her habits at close range. Why should we not comb our own urban woods, gutters and sidewalk paths, yards and parks, breezeways and carports, bridges and sidings, bushes and beaches and fields, vacant lots, and streams of rain water running down the oily streets to see if there’s anything left of the nature Thoreau observed and chronicled in Walden? Thoreau asks rhetorical questions; why should not we?

Some interest in nature is suggested by our obsession with the weather and natural disasters (many of which could be mitigated with the simplest of codes, for over 50% of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, where most of the weather spends its wealth). But watching the Weather Channel or studying the sunny or cloudy day emoticons in the newspaper or on our cell phones falls short of Thoreau’s direct contact with the sun, clouds, rain, wind, ice. “But,” you say, donning jacket, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes, and umbrella, though you’ve only a short walk from house to garage where the car is parked, “we spent a week camping out at the lake this past summer, and have the Facebook pics to show for it.”

Thoreau spends time on the ice in winter, ice-fishing, taking short-cuts across the ponds, viewing the shores from a new vantage point. He seems to have no fear of the ice. There are over one hundred references to ice in the Walden text. Thoreau had a theory, which McKibben remarks on in one of his annotations, that if the world as we know it were to succumb to some modern weather disaster, the calamity would be ice. Yet Thoreau is remarkably resourceful on the ice:

“Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again” (“The Ponds” chapter).

Once, years ago now, never mind exactly when, I lived in a small house, for a little over a year, on Lake Oswego, a long but narrow lake fed by streams and the Tualatin River, south of Portland. I was there two winters, and both winters the lake froze over. During the first winter, I walked out onto the ice some distance and had my photo taken. It was a foolish thing to do, walking out on the ice. Unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know the thickness of the ice. The ice covered the water like a blanket with air pockets between the bottom of the ice and the surface of the unfrozen water. Thus the ice sheet moves up and down, cracks with its own weight, stretches and contracts, undulating like a monstrous, frozen jellyfish. I didn’t stay out on the ice very long. I walked out, had the photo snapped, and walked back to the boat dock. I was wearing a Navy flight jacket that I had traded a couple of years earlier for my Army field jacket. Neither would have done me much good had I fallen into the water. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the Northwest climate, but still, if I’m to go out on some water, I would prefer doing it on a surfboard, in warm, salty water, where nothing freezes. I like Thoreau, but I’m not following him out onto the ice again.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

What some others have said about Thoreau’s Walden

Agger, Michael. “Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare: Are the new ascetics masters of self-denial or just self-promotion?Mother Jones Nov./Dec. 2008.

An Exchange on Thoreau” 2 Dec. 1999 Lawrence Buell, reply by Leo Marx IN RESPONSE TO: “The Struggle Over Thoreau” from the June 24, 1999 issue [New York Review of Books].

Bibliography on Walden: Selected Articles, Lectures, and Chapters.” American Transcendentalism Web.

Hurn, Rachel. “Not a Luddite, Not a Thoreauvian.” New Yorker 1 Feb. 2011.

Kopley, Richard. “Chiasmus in Walden.The New England Quarterly Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 115-121 (article consists of 7 pages) Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1559690

Lepore, Jill. “Vast Designs: How America came of age.” New Yorker 29 Oct. 2007.

Miller, Jakob. “Two Truths in Thoreau’s Inconclusive ‘Conclusion’.”

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Mysterious Thoreau.” New York Times 1 May 1988.

Updike, John. “A Sage for All Seasons.” Guardian 25 Jun. 2004.

For more leads, see in Related:

A Monstrous Metaphor Fished from Walden Pond

If Walden, the pond, as Thoreau tells us (“The Ponds” chapter), sports some, but not many, fish, “…pickerel…perch and pouts…breams, and a couple of eels. Nevertheless, this pond is not very fertile in fish” (174), Walden, the book, is well stocked with metaphorical fish; some, when pulled to the surface, monstrous tropes: “A lake…is earth’s eye…The fluviatile [of a river] trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows” (176). Thus we see the earth as a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, the eye stretched into an imperfect circle, trees for lashes and eyebrows, hills for forehead. And the eye, at a certain time of the day, the sun, another eye, gazing into its waters, contains fluid a kind of “molten glass cooled but not congealed” (177). The picture we see here is not the standard product of the bucolic water-colorist; more like a Salvador Dali painting.

The face of the earth is dotted with these Cyclopes, but these eyes are protected against blindness, as Thoreau explains in yet another figurative device, the riddle, which he uses to sieve his pond. What is a mirror which no stone can crack? He gives us the answer: “[The lake] is a mirror which no stone can crack” (178).

Yet we’ve already been introduced to the lake as a mouth, so now we’ve to add a mouth to our Cyclops’s eye: “By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to time” (172). What a face!

The metaphorical mouth surrounds the eye-trope, the eye sits in the mouth, and the eye is sometimes blue, but often, in places, “of a yellowish tint,” or again, “vivid green…verdure…Such is the color of its iris.” (167). And at the bottom of this eye, “logs…like huge water snakes in motion” (188).

Thoreau finishes “The Ponds” chapter with a metaphorical flourish: “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her” (188). No doubt.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

A Sixth Way of Looking at Walden: Deliberately Seeking Simplicity

Walter Harding suggested “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” Bill McKibben, in his introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Walden, cites two “practical questions…: How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). Reading Walden as a way of asking these questions for ourselves, McKibben suggests, is another way of looking at Walden.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” (85), Thoreau said, in the Walden chapter titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” What does he mean by deliberately, and why wasn’t he able to live deliberately in town? “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other” (6). Yet how deliberate can the decision be if, as Thoreau continues, “…they honestly think there is no choice left” (6). We might add a third question to McKibben’s reading questions: What are my choices?

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau proposes, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails” (91). He seems to be suggesting that to live deliberately means to live free from non-essential distractions, from man-made dissipations. Perhaps this is reason enough for talking about what we are reading, for reading aloud, with others: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written” (96), for while deliberately means intentionally, purposefully, meaningfully, existentially, deliberate also means to think, to consult others, to consider one’s options. One may live as simply as one chooses, Thoreau seems to say, but it takes, apparently, deliberation.

Related:

It is told in sounds in Thoreau’s Walden

“It is told in sounds,” Joyce says, “in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom…and anythongue athall” (Finnegans Wake, 117).

“– Is it so exaltated, eximious, extraoldanddairy and excelssiorising?
– Amengst menlike trees walking or trees like angels weeping nobirdy aviar soar anywing to eagle it!” (Finnegans Wake, 505).

Here Joyce takes a common, neutral cliché, defrocked by virtue of its clichéd repetition (nobody ever saw anything to equal it), and gives it wings so it can take off again, renewed, refreshed. “Poetry is the foundation of writing,” Beckett says. “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical” (Exagmination, 11).

Just so, Thoreau, a monk amongst trees, delights in the poetry found in sounds and tries to locate the sounds in human language, and we see him building the foundation for his own writing. An example of this is found in the “Sounds” chapter of Walden.

Thoreau has heard a hooting owl, to him a “melancholy sound,” and tries to imitate the owl’s sound: “I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it.” And in the passage, he repeats the gl letters so that the reader, if reading for sounds, must hear his meaning: “gurgling melodiousness…,” “gelatinous mildewy stage….” “It reminded me of ghouls…howlings” (118), this last, the gl inverted. And we thus find Thoreau a polyglot at work, in at least two languages, the language of nature and the language of the human, and the combination of the two might be what Joyce meant, repeating Thoreau’s gl, by “polygluttural,” the mouth flooded with the sounds of nature.

Related:

Epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis! in Thoreau’s Walden

Writing is repetition. Listen to the keyboard. Each key produces its own, unique sound, repeating, the sounds given emphasis by the relative strength and position of the fingers, but we recognize the collective effort as someone typing. Suddenly, the sounds grow faint, decrescendo. Perhaps the typist has reached the required length. Then, suddenly, suddenly, like a cat in flight, the ideas spring like birds from the grass, then scatter, some alighting on wires, others landing on roofs, others lost within thick trees, trees, trees.

Typing sounds. But that’s not writing you say, but typewriting, echoing Capote’s criticism of Kerouac’s On the Road, the first draft produced on a single roll of paper fed through his typewriter: no yoke.

And repetition is instruction, to repeat, to teach or learn, often with little relief, as we are made to recite or duplicate. But in the distance we hear the stammerer, needlessly repeating, though stammer he must, to get it out, battology, swinging away in the batting cage, practice, repetition, swing, swing, swing. If the ball is claim, the bat grounds, flight is assumption. Going, going, gone! And a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, said Gertrude Stein, and we can imagine her writing teacher’s penciled comment on little Gert’s paper: “wordiness.” Yes, but, well, isn’t that what she’s getting paid for?

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” rants Thoreau in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden (86), an example of epizeuxis, (ep i zeux’ is), a figure of repetition, a word repeated in succession for emphasis. Yet two sentences down, Thoreau seems to realize a mistake, or maybe he’s just tired himself out, and he says, “Simplify, simplify,” twice only, without the exclamation. But he’s followed his own advice, having simplified his epizeuxis, for now, diminishing the repetition by one. But, at the same time, a contradiction appears, for he’s up to five.

Thoreau repeats the word simplicity ten times throughout Walden, the word simple, twenty-five times, but the imperative, simplify, the argument of proposal, he repeats only twice, but in the figure of repetition, epizeuxis, which is to say, he says it simply once.

Related:

Reading Directions for Thoreau’s Walden

Walter Harding was the secretary of the Thoreau Society when he wrote the short article for The Massachusetts Review titled “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” The article opens with a narrative description of the types of people who read Thoreau and attended the Society meetings, and these were, in short, anyone and everyone, folks from all walks of life. And why was this diverse group of individuals interested in Thoreau? Harding says, “It is very rarely that two give the same reason. They are interested in his natural history, his politics, his economics, his prose style, his anarchism, his theology, and so on…Walden is read, not for just one reason, but for many” (149). Harding then describes his five types of readings of Walden, variations that might explain the diversity of its readers, and that serve as a useful introduction to Walden as argument.

The first of Harding’s five readings of Walden is as a nature book: “To most people, I suppose, Walden is a nature book. Certainly back at the time of its appearance it was almost universally considered to be a book about natural history, and some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were annoyed that he allowed anything but nature to have a part in the book” (149-150). Publishers over the years have capitalized on this reading, for most editions show some drawing or picture of the pond or environs, suggesting a bucolic topic. The 2004 Beacon Press edition I’m reading now is covered with a black and white photo titled, “Fallen leaves through the Corner Spring Woods” (October 15, 1899). There’s no hint in the photo of a cabin, of what it might take to build one, or why.

The second of Harding’s five readings suggests that some folks read Walden for its value of self-dependent optimism. Says Harding, “A second appeal of Walden is as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life. I think it highly significant that the first real surge of interest in Thoreau in the twentieth century came during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties when large masses of people, indeed almost all of us, were required willy-nilly by the press of circumstances to adopt the simple life. We had no choice in the matter, but Thoreau was one of the very few authors who not only made this simple life bearable, he even made it appealing” (151). This economic season of Walden, and reason to read it, may again be upon us.

Harding’s third reading might appeal to today’s fans of sarcasm, for nothing so deflates and simplifies as humor. Harding says, “A third facet of Walden is its satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously, ignoring the fact that the book’s epigraph reads: ‘I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up’” (154-155) [Harding refers to this passage as “the book’s epigraph”; it’s found on page 79 of the Beacon Press edition, in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter]. But Thoreau’s humor is evident from the beginning of his text: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body [sic] else whom I knew so well” (2). We may know folks who talk of no one else but others, as if they don’t know themselves at all, or as if they themselves present the poorest topic they know, or as if there exists no topic other than people, no ideas or things.

Harding’s fourth reading comes equipped with a seemingly highfalutin word that upon examination might be found to aptly describe Thoreau’s style: “A fourth approach to Walden is the belletristic. From a purely technical standpoint, Walden is good writing and is worth examining as such” (156). This reading suggests textual analysis, and focuses on structure and style, unity, on the how of what is said. Harding points out that the central unifying trope of Walden is the year, the seasons (157), which leads to a reading of the whole as “the symbol of rebirth and renewal” (160). But with this aesthetic reading, the reader focuses on devices such as the order of the chapters, paragraphing, sentence structure, and diction, and figures of speech (without which Walden would be only a couple of pages long, if that).

This is the reading I find most interesting, the rhetorical analysis, for which Walden provides plenty of fuel. Harding says that he “once took a list of more than fifty different types of figures of speech [within Walden] – allusions, metaphors, rhetorical questions, alliteration, analogy, puns, epanorthosis, parables, similes, meiosis, anti-strophe, oxymoron, epizeuxis, anaphora, litotes, anti-thesis, portmanteau words, metonomy, contrast, personification, epistrophe, synecdoche, irony, apostrophe, hyperbole, and so on, and with no difficulty at all found excellent examples of each one in Walden. There is hardly a trick of the trade that Thoreau does not make use of” (158-159).

Harding’s final reading, if we’ve any spirit left after that last passage, is as a spiritual book.

And there are other readings of Walden, perhaps as many as there are readers. Here is a reference to Harding’s article, which can be found using the JSTOR electronic database, accessible via library:

Five Ways of Looking at Walden
Walter Harding
The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 149-162
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25086959

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

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