Henry David Thoreau: Walden

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During a writing course I attended the class was encouraged to give Henry David Thoreau a chance, and I set my mind to do so, but it did not take long to realize that may be a little more difficult than first imagined. Within the first several pages I got the impression that Thoreau was stuck on himself, captivated by his own voice, and yet, he seemingly contradicts himself more than the Emerson piece we dealt with earlier. For instance, he boasts about building his own cabin in the woods (a mere mile from his neighbors) and diligently surviving two years from the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow, then he lambasts first the farmers for equal diligence in maintaining a plot of land for their homes, what he calls “a fool’s life” (7), then he targets the equally “foolish” strivings of most men, who, in his eyes, toil religiously with nothing to show for it. He says the “finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (7).

Thoreau did make one statement early on that was rather profound. He said, “It is hard to have a southern overseer (referring to slave masters); worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” But then, just when I wanted to give him another chance to impress me, he waxes poetic, but without common sense. He begins with the following statement: “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof” (9). And he follows that with the adage “what’s true today may prove false tomorrow” (9), which is acceptable, but the use of “no” in the former statement stipulates an all-inclusive reality that inevitably proves the contention false, since various truths, once discovered, have been and still are handed down from generation-to-generation.

Furthermore, in an attempt to confirm his view, Thoreau seemingly digs himself a deeper ideological grave. He contends “old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new” (9), and claims, “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from any seniors” (9). And he further states that they can never tell him anything of purpose.

I say that he who has not, does not, and cannot learn anything from others, especially elders, is a fool by all relevant standards. But I will continue through the text with the hope of finding something redemptive along the way. However, I do find that I enjoy reading Thoreau more when I cease efforts to ascertain his personal beliefs and simply enjoy his writing style and how he represents his Walden experiences. For instance, after buying a shanty for boards he recalls passing the family as they were leaving and says, “One large bundle held their all, — bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens, — all but the cat, she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last” (33). And when speaking of a neighbor visiting, Thoreau writes, “He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy” (33). And I found his admiration of the cellar, the longest lasting section of the home in his eyes, better than the house above it oddly interesting. He states, “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” (34); which equally embodies the nature aspect he is expounding on.

Inevitably, I found Walden fairly enjoyable to read only after I skimmed over any of his futile attempts to be philosophical.