One can’t hang out in the woods, on the outskirts of civilization, without sooner or later thinking about Thoreau.
He built a cabin with his own hands out on Walden Pond and in schools today is still taught as a rugged example of self-reliance.
But not so fast. Maybe we should examine the myth surrounding this American icon a bit more closely.
THOREAU, THE MAN & THE PERSONALITY
What kind of person was Thoreau? Many of his famous contemporaries were quick to characterize him as a disappointment:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “eulogy” of Thoreau, could not “help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.” That Thoreau never quite lived up to his genius, Emerson goes on to imply, is because he was cranky and anti-social, because he had the personality of a hermit and the likeableness “of an elm-tree.”
- James Russell Lowell found Thoreau to be cold and wintry, so highly conceited “that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself.”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne thought him an “intolerable bore,” while Henry James found Thoreau to be “the most child-like, unconscious, and unblushing egotist it has ever been my fortune to encounter in the ranks of mankind.”
- Walt Whitman discerned in Thoreau “a morbid dislike of humanity.”
- Robert Louis Stevenson termed Thoreau “dry, priggish, and selfish,” adding that “it was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish.”
THOREAU, THE SQUATTER ON ANOTHER MAN’S LAND
What’s this about Thoreau building a cabin and moving to the woods? Solitude? Simplicity? Self-reliance? Some see his adventure as a kind of rural comedy, and proceed to mount an impressive indictment:
- Thoreau was merely pretending to be a hermit, they say. He did not move to the woods, only to the suburbs. What is all too conveniently ignored is that his momma’s house was only twenty minutes away.
- Thoreau was “an excellent son,” notes Mrs. J. T. Fields in her diary, “and even when living in his retirement at Walden Pond, would come home every day.” It was said, too, that whenever Mrs. Emerson rang her dinner bell, Henry would come bounding over the fence to be first in line.
- Since the land belonged to Emerson, Thoreau paid no rent. Nor did he construct his shelter from scratch. Thoreau simply tore down and carted a shanty from one location and reassembled it (using a borrowed axe) in another. He plastered and shingled his hut to keep out the cold; he slept between sheets; he was vain enough to keep a little three-by-three-inch pocket mirror with him, and was quick to take his shoes to the cobbler’s. Which is where he was headed, Thoreau tells us, when he was thrown in jail for not paying his poll tax. (Someone else bailed him out by paying it for him.) On Saturdays Mrs. Thoreau and daughters would come a-visiting; Sundays, the “Walden Pond Society” would come traipsing out for a picnic.
THOREAU, THE FICTIONAL PERSONA IN ‘WALDEN’
So, is Thoreau’s book a documentary? A biography? Or is Walden a work of fiction?
- Thoreau was no hermit, as we have seen; he was a writer.
- And it is in this sense, I would suggest, that one can best approach Walden: as a literary experience. The inconsistencies and the contradictions disappear when we realize that Walden is not a document, but a work of art. Walden is for the most part not the record of an experiment, not to be taken literally. The topography is moral, not physical. Walden is poem, parable, a blend of myth and reality.
- If Thoreau-the-persona, the fictional narrator of the book, distorts the facts, he does so in the interest of a larger truth. His narrative is symbolic, not factual; his truth is poetic, not experiential.
- Out of a romanticized solitude Thoreau created a spiritual hero whose quest is for renewal, rebirth, regeneration. Moving to Walden was the kind of token gesture around which Thoreau could construct a gospel – the gospel of transcendence through self-reformation, self-purification. To ignore this spiritual dimension, to shun the distinction between the man and the artist, is to miss the significant import of Thoreau’s fiction.
THOREAU, THE MORAL PHILOSOPHER
If Walden is not the straightforward document of a man subsisting all alone in the woods, then what is it about? How are we to read it? What is it trying to tell us?
- Perhaps Walden baffles the literal mind because the book itself is an example of Transcendental thinking. Its “secret”, its moral truth, lurks beneath the surface.
- Walden does not suggest that we turn our back on society, but that we revalue our life; we are not being urged to go live in the woods, but to reassess our priorities.
- Those who lead lives of “quiet desperation” are those who have become over-addicted to things, to superfluities. Our primary business is rather to invite the soul, to enrich the inner self. Thoreau thus seeks to reawaken our appreciation of things spiritual, and the narrative movement of Walden metaphorically reflects this goal, this ascent to freedom, this liberation of the spirit. The whole of Walden is rhythmical with repetition of the words spring, dawn, morning, sunrise, awakening, purification – all connotative of freshness, beginnings, growth, renewal, change.
Why do I mention Thoreau? Because I share with this American Transcendentalist – [that fancy word ‘Transcendentalism’, incidentally, is merely the name given to the American version of Romanticism, which originated in England] – both his goals and his technique.
- I, too, value growth & renewal, simplifying life and seeing things again as if for the first time.
- And while I may posture as a homeless itinerant photographer, which at least for the moment happens to be true – I, too, have created a fictional persona to convey symbolic “testimonies of action.”
This post is shamelessly plagiarized from one of my own (dry, boring, over-intellectualized) essays as a graduate student at the University of South Florida, as described below:
Gathering Simples On a Diet of Beans and Sky Water: Thoreau’s Moral Dilemma, His Aesthetic Response
Graduate school paper exposing Henry David Thoreau’s crooked genius, Walden’s symbolic testimonies. “Well-written indeed,” wrote Dr. Robert Figg, “and it makes a point worth making. However, you really don’t get to the book itself (and the proper way to read it) until page 6. All the rest is a witty summary of the varying dissolute perspectives on HDT, fairly commonly known matter. What you have to say about the book occupies ca. 2 pages and is more on the level of generality (“good” generality, though). You might have made this a better paper by changing its proportions, and thereby developing more concretely hero, quest, symbol, etc. – as it is the book that we are interested in. Also, you were to do 10 to 12 pages.” (A-) [1987; 8 pages]