September 17, 2004


What's up with so damned many people running around talking about how much they love Thoreau and what a damned Thoreau expert they are because they read excerpts from a chapter of Walden in their high school American Literature compendium? Walter Harding correctly points out that Walden is one of those books that everyone talks about, quotes from and even owns, but not many people actually read the whole book. I can count maybe five people who I know personally whom I am aware for a fact have read the whole book -- not including, of course, the many people who have read it but I don't know it as such. Forgive me my terrible facts and figures. I'm not going to name names, but I read a paper on Thoreau this morning that was just terrible. Awful. It was pointless, badly written, derivative, unoriginal and a waste the paper it was printed on. Really, that someone killed trees to print this garbage is just a crime. I was rather irrate for most of the morning because of this horrible essay. How can someone read Walden -- even if one reads the entire book -- and then download two or three essays from [very] questionable sources on the internet and then declare oneself a Thoreau scholar? If that were William James, it would be different. If someone read Pragmatism and two essays from the internet and then wrote a public paper, he or she would be laughed at, openly. How the hell does a person think he or she can encapsulate a philosopher from such a small sampling of his or her work? That's not yet even vanity. It's naivety. I think this comes from the fact that so many serious "philosophers" don't consider Thoreau a proper philosopher at all. Most people are reluctant to even call Emerson a philosopher and usually only do so if one is talking about "American Philosophy." After all, we don't have much that we've contributed to the great Western philosophical dialogue, have we? But when it comes to Thoreau, reticence is the best we can hope for. Luckily for me, my department is the "American Philosophy" department. Everyone knows that. We don't ignore Thoreau or Emerson or even Uncle Walt Whitman. Hell, there was a graduate seminar on Transcendentalism last semester. I didn't take it, however, since studying that particular band of my heros would just seem...blasphemous to me. When someone asks my religion and I reply with "Transcendentalist of the most nefarious sort," I'm not joking. I'll be the first to proclaim that I don't know anything about the real Thoreau. I've read lots and lots and lots of what he said and lots and lots and lots of what people said (and say) about him. I am pretty familiar with his life, down to his innovations in American pencil manufacturing. But what does that amount to? If Thoreau came to my apartment and saw all of the books with his name on the spine on my shelves (whether under the title or author field), he'd kick me in my bulbous ass -- or want nothing to do with me. What good is reading Thoreau, really, and then going about one's business like Walden is just a nice story and as if John Brown is just some nut who finally got his civic due? I started working on a paper on Thoreau yesterday, but I didn't get anything finished today. Writing about Thoreau, Walden especially, makes me feel like a hypocrite. What the hell am I, a PhD student in philosophy -- itself an oxymoron, really -- doing inside, in an office in a concrete monstrosity (really, you should see Faner Hall), writing about Thoreau, as if that's even a possible manner of really getting to the heart of what he means? As if getting to the heart of what he means is really the point? As if Thoreau really has a "point" for us? At times like that, I feel like I should give in my office keys to the department, empty my desk and go learn carpentry from my friends in Maryland. What a truer existence that would be! But my vocational frustrations are a digression from my initial gripe. There is hope, however, for my original complaint of people spouting off about Thoreau. There are people I have never met but nonetheless am drawn to on the internet who seem to me to certainly really "get" Thoreau, despite their complete lack of pretentions to such a status (and I mean that as the highest compliment, I do). Greg Perry has a nice blog where he simple posts a passage from Thoreau's journal for the blogoshere. What a wondeful thing to do for all of us! And Lorianne and Gary likewise understand and are the people who pointed Greg's blog to me in the first place. Some of my friends capture something that whispers to you when you read "Walking" that makes me feel honored to know them. Even some of the lessons my parents taught me speak of an understanding of where Thoreau is coming from. So all is not lost. For every twenty idiots that don't understand the surface of Thoreau -- let alone the nadir of his life and message -- there is one person who really gets it and exudes a truer and more deliberate life from their very pores. And that makes up for all it, now that I think of it.


Lorianne said... if I'm not honored enough to be tagged a "Thoreuavian," you tagged me thusly alongside Gary: what company! ;-) Seriously, I'm feeling twinges of jealousy since I rub up against HDT from the other side: as an American Lit person, I'd *love* to study HDT (and Emerson, and Whitman) from a more philosophical side. Maybe someday we'll meet up over hot beverages & have a marvelous talk! (Or maybe you wouldn't might sharing a draft of the paper you're writing to spur an online discussion!) ;-)

My "guess" is that HDT wouldn't want people *reading* him...he'd want people living his philosophy as best they can, and in their own individual way. At least that's how I read his exhortation at the beginning of *Walden* where he asks people to try on his philosophy without stretching the seams of that "coat."

I recently bought the "new" collection of HDT's letters (*Letters to a Spiritual Seeker*). It's edited by Bradley Dean, the same scholar who edited *Faith in a Seed* and *Wild Fruits.* I'm hoping (?) this book will help show a more "personal" side of Thoreau. Although HDT himself only used the word "hermit" occasionally in *Walden*--and then only in jest--this myth of HDT as an antisocial crank lives on. The fact that children *loved* Henry Thoreau suggests that he wasn't the stuffy, antisocial egghead that many make him out to be...he just liked to play in the woods & piss adults off! ;-)

Greg said...

Thanks for the mention. I'd like to think of myself as a Thoreauvian, but know I'm not, even though I have read Walden twice. But truth be told I never made it all the way with either Cape Cod or Maine Woods. But these past few months reading the journals have been eye-opening for me. I guess it's unfiltered Thoreau. The good and the bad. And I begin to see him as a man, and not just some books.