As is obvious from our class discussions, I would not consider myself a Thoreau enthusiast. However, this discussion did make me somewhat more lenient (not the word I am looking for but I cannot think of what the appropriate word is) toward him. Perhaps what struck me most about this discussion was Beth Witherell’s response when we presented our irritations and annoyance with Thoreau. For some reason, I was expecting someone who has devoted so much of her time to Henry David Thoreau to be much more defensive in her reaction to our criticism. She seemed to be genuinely interested in what we had to say, and even partly amused at the distaste some of us feel toward his writing.
She mentioned that she felt some of our negative opinions and feelings about Walden may change when reading the final chapters. Although I do not feel that my general dislike for the book has changed, I do understand what she meant. The last two chapters have a very different feel from the ones that precede it. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this is, but it seems to me that they are much stronger in the voice and message. For some of the earlier chapters, I find that it is hard to keep a focus on every word that Thoreau writes. Oftentimes, I have to resist the urge to skim through sections that, to me, feel like Thoreau is rambling. While the chapter about beans I found very amusing, it was not particularly captivating, nor persuasive. I did not find myself struggling as much to pay attention in the final chapters. Maybe this is just because I knew the book was coming to an end, but I think there was something more deeply compelling about them. Thoreau’s general writing style is not something I am a fan of, but it was much easier for me to overlook this in the final chapters.
I also found Witherell’s comment about reading Thoreau through the context in which he lived and through which this book exists. This actually led me to a bit of internal conflict regarding my feelings about context. I often say that I believe it is easier to view a novel through the narrow lens of the time period/location that it was written, as opposed to a piece like Walden. I fought the ideas presented in Walden because I feel that they largely are not applicable in modern day life, and because I have such a strong dislike for how Thoreau comes off in his writing, and his writing style itself. But I wonder if I would still feel this way if I was reading something that presented ideas that I agreed with, or even if they were the same ideas, but written by an author whom I don’t find quite so obnoxious? After our class discussion, I thought back to the class that I took with Maria Lima. I remember fighting someone on the opposite end of this same argument because I did not believe you could read Wide Sargasso Sea outside of its context. Why is it that I don’t apply this same logic to Walden? Is it simply because it is an entirely different genre, or is it just because Thoreau annoys me and Jean Rhys does not? I don’t actually have an answer to this yet, but hopefully I will figure it out.
The discussion in class on October 4 revolved around the chapters “Solitude,” “Visitors” and “The Bean Field.” The first topic raised was the extent to which Thoreau actually lived in solitude at Walden. The class discussed how the reality of Thoreau’s time at Walden differs from the public perception that he lived in total solitude. Thoreau mentions repeatedly that he both received visitors at Walden and that he regularly visited his friends’ houses for dinner. From this point a lively debate began about the extent to which Thoreau was hypocritical regarding his espousal of a solitary lifestyle. While he did not live in total solitude, he never claimed to do so, and he still lived a far more solitary lifestyle than the average person. The idea was also raised that while Thoreau may have believed wholeheartedly in the ideal of living a solitary lifestyle at Walden, he was still a human being and therefore cannot be expected to carry this out flawlessly.
The next topic of discussion was the encounter Thoreau had with the harsh side of nature on top of a mountain in Maine. Both he and Emerson tend to ignore the harsh side of nature, preferring to romanticize it. The question of whether nature can be humanized was raised as part of this discussion and one example used was whether a lion killing its prey could be considered cruel, or just part of the way nature operates.
At some point in the discussion of nature, the topic turned to the way Thoreau also romanticizes solitude. The question raised was the extent to which solitude is desirable and whether Thoreau ignores the harsh, lonely side of solitary living. This debate of this question then led into a discussion of the difficulty of living a life of even partial solitude in the modern world. The class discussed and shared stories about how we’ve become extremely attached to our phones. A majority of the class seemed to agree that while having moments of solitude can be important in our lives, the reliance on phones is not necessarily a bad thing. The discussion morphed for the last time to the topic of whether social media was making it harder to have a long attention span. The class discussed the effect this has had on the modern world, specifically with relation to the current level of political discourse.
The last time I was at the planetarium I was in second grade. I was small, cheerful, chubby and significantly more talkative. I often wonder how we change over the years, sometimes wishing I’d stayed the same, often wondering if that was even possible. The stars were always fascinating to me in the mindlessly romantic way I imagine they are to many people, but never had they truly captivated me the way they did this past summer.
At the mature age of 8, I’d sworn never to return to the planetarium in Centerport. I learned it was a branch of the Vanderbilt estate, a family which, due to their patriarch’s vast collection of taxidermy, I had come to hate. After a disturbing school trip I had long ago decided not to support their institution with my parents hard-earned money, for their cruel acts were not deserving of it. But now I was 18, it was Elizabeth’s birthday and she was into that stuff, so I betrayed the staunch justice of my grammar school self and coughed up $10, that were not mine, to sit in a chair with a sky spinning above me. I looked most forward to buying freeze-dried ice cream in the gift shop after. I imagined Vanderbilt himself laughing maniacally, rubbing his blood-stained hands together, eagerly awaiting my payment. Criminal. Murderer. Hunter. They were synonymous in my mind then, and against my best logic, still remain so in my heart today. I couldn’t stand behind his actions. Couldn’t escape the haunting images of elephant feet carved out into bowls, a trip that someone thought an appropriate educational experience for a class of 8 year olds. I cried when I got home. My mom loves animals too, so she understood.
But, none the less, there I was and there we were. My four best friends and I, having grown more sisterly over time, saw each other, it seemed, more out of moral obligation and rightness than true desire. Elizabeth always says we’re a family, and after nearly 15 years I would’ve been foolish to deny it. We’ve seen each other through boyfriends, deaths, and so many other crises that meeting for a birthday felt almost frivolous. But being with them was like confirming my most honest self, for no one knew me better, longer, or exercised understanding and acceptance the way they did. Looking up at the black night projected on the silver dome screen, sprinkled with stars common to our Northeastern sky, I remembered these blessings.
An astronomer, or so I cared to assume, guided us through our solar system, galaxy and the rest of the universe.We sat in comfortable armchairs, leaned slightly back, listening as he lectured, and following along as he continued to adjust and alter the sky above our heads. He discussed the practical uses of the sky, not only a source of inspiration for dreamers and poets, but a map and a tool for the lost or technologically un-endowed. That is when he said something I would find myself pondering for many months to come.
Our guide explained that, no matter where you are (in the Northern and Southern hemispheres respectively) you could feel at home knowing you were under the same sky with the same stars. Seemingly simple at the time, this idea still danced around in my thoughts, taking numerous forms and leading me down a variety of pathways. It re-entered my consciousness during class one day. We were sitting in the gazebo, discussing Walden and getting lost in the woods. The astronomer’s words drifted through my mind like ripples in water, expanding, covering more and more surface area. What a Thoreauvian idea, I thought; to be so one with the Earth that you could feel the comfort of home absolutely anywhere on it. To find solace in the vastness of the night sky; it was almost unfathomable to me. I longed for the feeling, the evaporation of fear and doubt until all that remained was trust in nature and in instinct. I imagined myself on the summit of a mountain, looking up at the sky, a night so black and stars so white that there could be no two forces more opposing in all the world. And then me, a tiny human, an existence so small and fleeting, trying to comprehend it all. Though I’ve always been more of an ocean person, very few ideas delight me the way that one did.
I continued to ponder as the conversation turned to the pending election. While we sat in the gazebo that day classmates shared stories of getting lost in the woods, something I had never done and suddenly, wondered if I ever would.
On the last day of working on the cabin, yellow maple leaves covered the ground. My partner and I carried our ten foot long board to a sunny spot among the leaves and sat down to work. The last board, contrary to my hopes, was the most difficult to plane due to something about the grain of the wood. Chips of wood sprung out of knots as I drew the plane over them. The progress down the length of the board was slow, so I angled the plane forty-five degrees to make it catch and slice into the wood. Chatting while working together on hand planing these boards will always be a fond memory. Cutting and nailing the wood out doors never failed to wake me up inside. In time, the cabin and the surrounding area will bring other students together, to read and enjoy the view of the valley.
Working on this project, I became aware of a vast and diverse community of scholars who love the ideas in Thoreau’s work, and maybe even Thoreau himself. I have become a part of that community. I had lunch with Beth Wetherell, the Harding lecture speaker for 2016, and while I was there also ran into the president of the Thoreau society and his wife. Beth was delightful. Beth Wetherell’s lecture on preparing her eyes to see patterns in Thoreau’s scattered personal notes and business correspondences impressed with the depth and nuance of her research. The digital scanners and high resolution pictures that have allowed her much freer access to Thoreau’s original manuscripts are available to everyone online, courtesy of universities and libraries. In a paradoxical way, the work of such an independent manner has brought many people together.
Our class discussion on the eighth of November began with the students questioning exactly how Thoreau intended his writing to be interpreted. Thoreau, when explaining that a man one day showed up at his cabin, said, “I fear he was not the wiser for all I told him, for every time I attempted to answer his questions he interrupted me by asking, ‘What do you do here?’ He had lost a dog, but found a man.” (Walden, 179). There was a discrepancy between the class, some of whom interpreted Thoreau’s attitude in this section to be one of annoyance towards the man. In writing that he was “interrupted” and the man was “not the wiser,” the students understood the negative connotation of these words and phrases to signify Thoreau’s displeasure in the man believing that Thoreau needed a reason to be in the woods in the first place. The man was a hunter, and it was said in discussion that hunters go to the woods for purposes of consumption, yet Thoreau, as a lover of nature, retreats to it not for consumption purposes but rather because he wishes to revert to minimalistic practices. Other members of the conversation believed that Thoreau was not annoyed at the man, but wrote of the event merely to describe the man’s sheer curiosity for what it was Thoreau was doing. People who argued this side did however admit that Thoreau’s word choice was harsh.
Another central aspect of our discussion was Thoreau’s various interactions with different animals. It was said that Thoreau blatantly favors some animals over others. For instance, Thoreau was calm when a mouse was gnawing through the walls of his cabin, and he said to have interacted well with rabbits and (most) woodchucks. However, it is clear that he was not very fond of dogs. Dr. Gillin elaborated on this, stating that Thoreau did not appreciate their task-oriented nature. Generally, dogs are only mentioned in relation to humans, which would make sense as they are domesticated animals, but seeing as Thoreau does not appreciate the exploitative nature of humans and tends to not view them with much fondness either, his feelings towards dogs are justified with his character. What should be noted when discussing Thoreau’s acceptance of living in such close proximity with wild animals is a main theme that has run through the entirety of Walden, which is that Thoreau is conscious of the fact that this is not his land. He shares his habitat with thousands of other life forms, and he treats the land as such.
The last notable point from the discussion last week is Thoreau’s lack of emotional expression in his writing. What aroused this discussion was Thoreau’s description of the shipwreck, and how he had to search for Margaret Fuller’s, his friend’s, waterlogged dead body on the ocean shore. His recollection of this event was calm, which is odd when one acknowledges the disturbing nature of the situation. The group then began to discuss why Thoreau seems to be so content with the concept of death. Perhaps it is because he is so accepting of nature that he simply views death as a part of the natural cycle of life? Beth Witherell informed the class that in one of his writings, Thoreau stated that trees do not grieve when gieve when their leaves fall, so why should we grieve when a person dies when the beauty of his spirit will live on? This could potentially explain Thoreau’s somewhat indifferent emotional response in his writing, but it is also important to keep in mind that Thoreau chose what he wanted to present to us, and if he did not want to be perceived as an emotional man in his writing, it does not mean he lacked emotion.
This month, our class entertained an insightful visit from Thoreau scholar Beth Witherell on the day of the annual Harding Lecture, at which she was to speak that night. She and Allen Harding walked in on a rather dark conversation. The subject? Thoreau’s thoughts and writings about death.
In the “Winter Animals” chapter of Walden, Thoreau tells a particularly striking story about a fox being chased by a hunter and his hounds.
… suddenly the fox appeared, threading the solemn aisles with an easy coursing pace, whose sound was concealed by a sympathetic rustle of the leaves, swift and still, keeping the round, leaving his pursuers far behind; and, leaping upon a rock amid the woods, he sat erect and listening, with his back to the hunter. For a moment compassion restrained the latter’s arm; but that was a short-lived mood, and as quick as thought can follow thought his piece was levelled, and whang! — the fox, rolling over the rock, lay dead on the ground.
I was struck by the emotionally bare description, the way Thoreau conceals his feelings about the story in order to encourage the reader to process their own reaction to it. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s a searing condemnation of killing for sport.
Our discussion of this passage led us to another time Thoreau reacted similarly to death and mortality: his account of the time he spent looking for his friend Margaret Fuller’s body after the shipwreck on Fire Island. Walter Harding gives a bare-bones account of this search effort (277-279), a reflection of Thoreau’s own journal entry on the incident. We’ve often used the word “stoic” to describe Thoreau, but we were surprised that he wouldn’t be more open about the absolute horror of seeing bodies and possessions of the dead washed ashore.
Upon joining us, Ms. Witherell offered her insights about Thoreau’s perspective on death. She told us his brother John Thoreau died of tetanus and that Henry Thoreau went through a sympathetic illness after losing him. However, he either didn’t write much about John’s death, or he tore what he did write out of his journal, never to be found and read. Ms. Witherell told us Thoreau once said we only see one dead body in our lives, perhaps meaning we can only ever be overwhelmed by death one time, and never again.
Thoreau also viewed death as a natural cycle of life—as Ms. Witherell put it, the trees don’t grieve when they lose their leaves in the winter, so why should we grieve when the spirits of the ones we love live on? Thoreau had expressed this sentiment to Emerson to comfort him after a death of a loved one. We reflected as a class that this wouldn’t have given any of us much comfort, but it may have rung true for Emerson.
Ms. Witherell also wisely reflected on what it meant for Thoreau to think of death as a part of life. She said Thoreau experienced transcendentalism not as a point to be reached, but as a process that he was continually working through, over and over again. The natural world was an extension of this; to understand the processes of the natural world was a way to begin understanding the processes of the transcendental world. Just as the sun is but a morning star, death is both an end and a beginning.
In any case, Thoreau’s plain and stark descriptions of death did not point to us a lack of depth or feeling—just the opposite, though he writes in “Solitude,” “[I] am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another.” I think as Thoreau heard the story about the fox from the hunter, and as he distanced himself from the narrative voice of Walden to record the story, he encountered mortality in a slightly different way than he usually did. I think Thoreau was struck by the quickness and unfairness of the fox’s death. I think he included that story in Walden to acknowledge the fear we all feel at some point when confronted with our own mortality.
We talked a lot about the ‘usefulness’ of books and whether it’s necessary for books to have any ‘use’ at all in our discussion of the end of Walden and the biography today. I don’t really want to get too much into that discussion again, but I think it’s safe to say that everyone can agree Walden is useful in some way, if not to yourself in particular, on a general scale to American literature and to other people on an individual scale. For me, I found Walden very inspiring. Yes, he does talk quite a bit about beans and ice, but I think it’s the details that seem trivial which Thoreau devotes attention to that made Walden so fascinating to me. One of the things Walden teaches that I find valuable is to look at small things, like red squirrels eating corn by your front door, and find something worthwhile and beautiful about it. That’s a valuable message to someone like me who is prone to getting frustrated and bogged down by day-to-day stresses. It’s not always good to pay attention to only what seems worthwhile, because that may not always be worthwhile.
Another ‘use’ Walden had for me was that I genuinely found it inspiring. It is so easy to get caught up in your own life, in a routine of getting up, going to class, homework, etc., that it’s not only refreshing but necessary to have a reminder that there are other lives you can lead and that you don’t have to adhere to any schedule society and you yourself perhaps forced on yourself. Going to class and doing homework everyday seems like things we have to do, but it’s hard to find them fulfilling. If anyone feels their life is being fulfilled from their classes, I wouldn’t want to dismiss that, but I think most college students don’t feel that way. Dr. Gillin mentioned in class the idea of always waiting for the next step, or living your life as a series of getting to the next point, but Walden is a reminder that you can opt out of that. I don’t feel like my life is fulfilling in the slightest right now. After reading Walden, I am reminded to take time out of my day to do the things I genuinely enjoy doing, that actually make me feel like I am doing something worthwhile. Like Thoreau, I’m not married and I don’t have any children, or much to tie me to one place. I guess I could go live in the woods and write a book if I wanted. I just have to remember not to get stuck in a routine.
PS- I like Walden, I like Thoreau, I like the Romantics, and I liked The Scarlet Letter so much I bought my own copy.