Contemplating Walden

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them…

I’m only partway through Walden, but I wanted to post on it before Tea With Transcendentalists is officially over. (Hopefully I will finish in the next week or so.)

First, as of the one-third point, I’m not enjoying Walden as much as “Civil Disobedience.” I don’t dislike it, I’m just not as enchanted. I think this is because where “Civil Disobedience” felt to me universal and pertinent, Walden seems more personal to Thoreau. It is his story, his experiment. I’m having a hard time reading his intentions—does he intend a course of simplification, reflection, and mental improvement for everyone, or only for those of his temperament? Does he really mean for all men to build their own home?

This suggests that Thoreau believed his audience limited:

…I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not;—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.

While this seems to indicate that he thought his ideas applied to all:

Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?

Honestly, I’m not sure how seriously to take his words, although I lean towards a less literal understanding. If his intentions are that everyone should follow in his footsteps, I don’t think it is at all practical—although my impression of the Transcendentalists is not one of practicality—if for no other reason than that not all people are inclined to reflection or continual mental edification. Nor, I think, does it seem likely that general society would have achieved all that it has if we all did the minimum possible for survival. While there is plenty of room for debate over the positives vs. negatives of various aspects of “civilization” (to use Thoreau’s word), there are few who would argue that improved health care hasn’t been beneficial, for instance.

I’m also completely flummoxed by this section:

As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.

Thoreau certainly seems to be saying that he doesn’t do anything charitable or “good” and at some points further on I thought he might even be saying it was of no benefit for anyone to do good! Perhaps I am misreading (or not?) or perhaps he is simply trying to get across the same message we’ve been hearing at church lately: don’t give money to people in the parking lot. This is not because we should be cold and callous, but because the people asking are most likely a) cons or b) will just spend it on drugs or alcohol. (Instead we are told to direct them to appropriate agencies, with brochures at all the church entrances.) Is this what Thoreau is saying, that too often good intentions are abused by those with bad intent, or does his belief in self-reliance prompt him to think that no aid should be given regardless?

On the other hand, I love Thoreau’s call for:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.

and his pointing out of a too often forgotten truth:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.

Although I could approach this from an environmental standpoint and say we’re using too many resources, blah, blah, blah (and one of the books I read this fall did call Thoreau an early environmentalist), it is actually the entire idea of simplicity that attracts me. How many dishes or pans or decorations or clothes (but don’t you dare say books!) do I, does anyone, really need? How busy do I really need to be, how rushed my life? One of my quiet rebellions against the typical American work environment (or at least in architecture) is how rushed, how harried everything always is, always a deadline, always the urgency, yet we have created our own hurry, our own problems.

I do however, disagree with the idea of removing all ornament, not least because I love very old, very ornamented buildings. Reading Thoreau’s thoughts on architecture, it seemed to me that he anticipated the Modernist architects, and Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more.” I don’t know if they were influenced by his thinking, however, but they certainly removed all ornament and gave us rectangular boxes and plain styles.

My favorite chapter so far has been “Reading.” I would imagine this is not an uncommon reaction among readers! I copied down many quotes, as there are so many gems in support of reading as a pastime. Granted, Thoreau is one of that strain of readers who feels only the best and greatest books are worth our time and has nothing good to say about the light entertainments favored by his fellow Concordian. If he could but see what is published now! As a lover of the classics, (which admittedly include books that weren’t even yet published when Thoreau was writing) I do appreciate much of what he has to say, however, and especially those lines which praise reading in general.

Some favorite quotes so far:

  • “And pray what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?” [My favorite summer meal!]
  • “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”
  • “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”
  • “Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”
  • “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
  • “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;—not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
  • “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

Some random observations:

  • Walden is one of those excellent examples of why we should all read (if not study) books such as the Bible and the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thoreau includes a ton of references/quotes, and I don’t get all of them. Fortunately, Aeneid and Iliad are on the reading list next year.
  • Do you remember my observation of all those semi-colons in Castle Wolfenbach? Apparently writers used semi-colons differently in the 18th and early 19th centuries, because Thoreau really likes them too, often paring them with other punctuation marks.

I am reading Walden as part of the Tea with Transcendentalist reading month. Please see the comments on this post for other participants.

11 thoughts on “Contemplating Walden

  1. I read this for the Transcendentalist event as well, and like you, I grappled with whether or not Thoreau thought everyone should live as he did, but in the end I decided (my own 2 cents) that no, he wasn’t advocating his life for everyone. I think he was advocating for others to go forth and live their lives as freely as he lived his, but everyone has to carve out their own truth.

    In regard to charity, both Thoreau and Emerson (I’ve been reading him too) seem to be distrustful of charitable “organizations,” which Emerson comments are more concerned with promotion and advertising than doing good. Thoreau also seems to be against using involvement in charity as a status symbol. Thoreau acknowledges that charity work is not for him but from what I can tell he isn’t against others doing it, I think mainly he’s advocating that the people who choose to do it should do so because they feel called to. For instance, shortly after the comment you quoted above, he says, “to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil. . . ”

    And I think that was Thoreau’s main point with Walden, don’t feel confined by society’s standards of what is a good and proper life, decide for yourself what is a good and proper life. Don’t do or not do something just because society approves or doesn’t approve of it. At least that’s what I took away from it. 🙂
    Sorry for the long, rambling comment.

    1. No apologies for the comment! This is very helpful to me, as I haven’t read any Emerson, at least not for a long time. I’m also leaning towards the idea that Thoreau wasn’t advocating this path for everyone, especially in light of the second quote I have up above. (I also have marked down another which is similar.)

      What you have to say about the charitable works is very helpful. As I was reading that section, I thought I probably should reread it to get a better grasp, but I was focused on making forward progress, so I didn’t. (Yet.) Of course, even if I had, I wouldn’t have had the knowledge of what Emerson said! What Thoreau says makes more sense in that context.

      Thanks for the additional background!

  2. I picked up a copy of Walden a year or so ago because I loved the cover and had always thought about trying it. I didn’t get too far before I found myself wanting to read other things. It was probably just a timing issue and I would like to get back to it and try again. All I can rightly say about it is that it didn’t grab hold of me as I thought it would.

    1. Yeah, I’m not finding Walden the easiest book for me to get into, so if it hadn’t been for the Transcendentalist Event, I probably wouldn’t have made it more than a few pages. Timing, I think really applies here–if you’re not in the state of mind to really focus on it, it probably won’t work so well. That said, it’s giving me a lot to think about!

  3. On the part about being good: (sorry if other comments reference this — I haven’t yet read them!) – I feel like Thoreau is saying that he doesn’t want to throw kindness into the wind. Sort of like, if they are refusing to help themselves, he’d only be enabling them by offering them shelter, money, advice, etc. I definitely don’t get the impression he means he never wants to offer charity; rather, that he’s particular about where he offers it.

    On simplicity: a couple years ago I threw out all of my fine china dishes so I wouldn’t have to wash them, and resorted to paper plates. I did a celebratory dance at the dumpter every time I tossed one out. (I used them, then threw them out each night rather than washing them, until I had none left.) Yes, Thoreau would approve! 😛

    On “Reading” — Oh, yes. I loved that chapter!!

    (Ah, just read Nicki’s comment about Thoreau’s thoughts on charity. I so agree with Thoreau then! One should give with their heart. Charity by peer pressure is not charity in its truest sense. The receiver of a gift might be benefited, but the giver loses a part of him or herself in the giving. Better to give because you want to in your soul, separate from what others think…)

    And also, wow! I can’t imagine someone not finding this book a page-turner! I love it!! 🙂

    Can’t wait to read your final thoughts on this one, Amanda! Thanks so much for participating in the event, and for all your perspective on the Transcendentalists throughout! 😀

    Happy Holidays!!!

    1. Thoreau’s comments on Charity made much more sense to me after reading Nicki’s comment. I think I needed the context of Emerson’s remarks.

      I must say you’ve taken simplicity way beyond where I would have! I would keep the china but only as many sets as I actually needed. Unnecessary duplicates drive me crazy. (Except for books–I seem to have a weakness there!)

      Thanks for hosting the event! Happy Holidays!

  4. Yes, Thoreau’s comments on Charity made much more sense to me after reading Nicki’s comment. I think I just needed the context of Emerson’s thoughts.

    Wow, you’ve taken simplicity way further than I have. I would keep the china, but only as many sets as I actually needed. Unnecessary duplicates drive me crazy–except for books–that seems to be my weakness!

    Thanks for hosting the Event! Happy Holidays!

  5. Very interesting post. Quite a few bloggers I read have written about Walden lately and the idea behind it seems to be something I’d enjoy. It reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Resistance by Ernesto Sábato.
    The chapter about reading sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book 🙂

    1. I loved the chapter on reading–plenty of wonderful quotes to justify those of us who love the written word!

      I confess, I’d never heard of Ernesto Sábato before, but what you say makes me curious. I’m woefully unaware of authors outside of the US and Western Europe, although I am trying to correct that. I will have to look him up!

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