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Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

We might be tempted, reading Walden, and wanting, for some reason, something more, answers, perhaps, though we might not yet know the questions, to split the difference (and the infinitive) and to quickly Google “Thoreau.” (I just did, and got 22 million results in about half a second.) Eventually, we might stumble across Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, a good find, and one that carries the imprimatur of scholarly law. Harding’s book contains a map of Thoreau’s Concord. And, if we want to map the many obscure references in Walden, we might be interested in Harding’s Walden: An Annotated Edition, though there are so many annotations we are reminded of a crowded day in the South Bay, when one could not see the waves between the Manhattan and Hermosa Piers, there were so many surfers in the water. Sauntering further along the streams of academic searches, we might discover John Roman’s excellent “Mapping Thoreau’s World: An Artist’s Journal on Making an Illustrated Map of Historic Concord” (The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, N.S. Vol. 15 [2007]: 123-184).

All good stuff, except for one problem: as we set sail on The Google Titanic, we seem to have put the actual Walden aside, the original text, and haven’t read, or reread, a single page. Besides, wouldn’t Thoreau be the first to say that if it’s maps we want, we would do well to make our own, and make it of our own neighborhood, that we might better come to know where we live, and what we live for?

Still, parts of Walden might perplex us for lack of specific knowledge of how things were in Thoreau’s time: his attitude toward the poor toward the end of “Economy,” for example, might perplex us, toward being poor (if he could be considered poor, by any definition), or of fear of becoming poor. We might want to know something of almshouses and poorhouses of Thoreau’s time, of what became of citizens with mental health problems, of the growth of towns, of economic recessions and recoveries, of farm labor, of immigration and how immigration provided for cheap labor and the exploitation of recent Irish immigrants to build the railroad through Thoreau’s countryside (Thoreau, in Walden, appears to have several objections to the railroad). These questions would provide us with useful pursuits that might lead to new reading perspectives.

But still, the questions of what we think of the poor, of being poor (if we might be considered poor by any definition), or fear of becoming poor, if we harbor such a fear, might suggest our own rendering, writing, of our economy, in such rhetorical terms as Thoreau opened the door for us. And as for maps, we would do well to make our own, our own reading map of Walden, complete with distances, landmarks, signposts, and other markings and drawings, and footnotes, so that our reader, if we can imagine such a one, might better know our reading perspective and what we found, having lived for some significant time, in Walden.

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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.

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On Thoreau On Clothing

Thoreau worked a number of jobs around town, some voluntarily, though he had hoped for some recompense, and hoped too for something to be that would both pay and be a good fit. At times, he seems almost to have thought someone should have paid him for simply sitting or walking about observing and thinking; in this, he anticipates a Buckminster Fuller argument, that if 1,000 people were paid to take time off and think, one of them would come up with an idea that would pay for all the others. Both Thoreau and Fuller were optimists. But Thoreau seems happiest when his work is its own reward, and he neither spends nor collects in the bargain. Thoreau worked, he tells us, still in “Economy,” as a reporter, and comments, “…as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward”; a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms” (for damage, presumably); a “surveyor,” though its not clear his use of the word matches our own; and a waterer of the town’s trees (15-16). When he finally realized his voluntary pursuits were not going to lead to a permanent, paid position, he lit out for the woods.

His narrative of “Economy” then jumps into a discussion of another of his “necessaries,” clothing, and we come to one of my all-time favorite Thoreau aphorisms: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (21). Yet many jobs require a uniform, as do many schools. I attended school for twelve years before I was allowed to dress myself in whatever I wanted, at which point I chose blue jeans and tee shirts, letting my hair grow out as part of the deal, but soon I then went into the Army, where I found my schooling had prepared me for a dress requisite, not to mention the haircut. Still, even in uniform, since, according to Thoreau, people are judged according to how they dress, a great many anxieties arise from our clothing habits, and we dress to impress others rather than to accommodate the basic need of the necessary.

Thoreau navigates his way forward using metaphors for his oars: “Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, liked that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives” (21). Clothing is a kind of shelter, perhaps a shelter from the storm of opinion. And we might consider how long it takes for the oars of opinion to start rowing together in the same direction, for when we finally arrive at something called “business casual,” we might recall Thoreau’s comment that “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new” (23). Thoreau might have winced at Jeeves dressing Wooster.

An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

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

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.