Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 1

I was sitting with my father in a bakery downtown explaining my Reading The Classics Book Group to him. My father smiled when I mentioned that my copy of Walden has his signature from the 1960s inside the front cover (and laughed when I described the cover as "Thoreau in Yellow Submarine." See cover to the left.) He probably hadn't read the book in my lifetime (I, myself hadn't read it in about 20 years), but my father was much influenced by the book in the 1960s. I remember once when Pat and I were kids on a family trip to Massachusettes, my father insisted we visit Walden Pond. It meant nothing to me at the time, but it did make a strong impression on me. I can still remember the cabin and the body of water.
So, there in the bakery, I asked my father what he thought of the book and he pretty much summed up everything I had to say about this section in one sentence: "I thought he had some really great ideas and observations about human behavior, but that he mainly went way too far with everything."
And if you come up with other philosophers who fit that description, you get a pretty ugly rogue's gallery. Ayn Rand comes to mind. As does Nietzsche. While I happen to agree with Thoreau's particular reality tunnel and I think that his recommendations would make the world a much better place, I can't help getting his extremism stuck in my craw.

But, let me back up a few paces. Thoreau very early on stabbed me directly through the heart with his passage on the desperation of men, wage slavery and how pathetic it is to serve the god of keeping up with the Joneses. First of all, to a large extent that kind of thinking has lead our country into its current economic collapse. Of course, the American economy is structured in such a way that contentment and simplicity undermine it. Our economy runs on avarice and discontent.

Sorry. Apparently I'm incapable of reading a section of classic literature without following with a Marxist tirade. I'm turning into one of those guys. And here I am wagging my finger at Thoreau's extremism.

I know it's designed to do that. I do think that this is one of the passages that qualifies the entire book as a classic. This passage should make everyone take a look at their own lives and think "wait a minute. What am I doing and why am I doing this?" Also "Is there another, better way?" I think that those are very good questions to be always asking ourselves.

Also, it's kind of amazing to think that Thoreau was writing this at a time when the entire United States total population was the roughly that of modern day Texas. His observations about men leading lives of quiet desperation can just as much, nay, infinitely more so, be applied to the masses today. Heck, toss in a reference to a major national chain store and a preciously handled gory detail about how a bullet shatters a jawbone and you could probably slip it into a Chuck Palahniuk novel without anyone noticing. There's your homework.

Of course, part of the major problem is that America has evolved to the point where one cannot really realisically do what Thoreau did. I know Thoreau addresses people who said similar things to him in his day (I loved the part about the farmer who says about the need for meat to build bones and then plows with an ox who he feeds an entirely vegetarian diet.) But the world has changed so much since then. He does not address property taxes.
It reminded me very much of a church Laurie went to where they had a strong "homesteader" fad running through the women of the church. One day Laurie went to a class on bread-making and quickly realized how ridiculous the whole thing was as it was WAY cheaper both time and money wise to just go to the store and spend a buck fifty on a loaf of bread.

There was a part where I was kind of embarrassed for him early on. It was when he said something to the extent of "I've lived 30 years and never heard wisdom from my elders worth a darn." Really, Hank? I guess I shouldn't speak too strong against Thoreau on this point as Lord knows I've had plenty of "braying ass" moments to repent of in my own life. I remember when I read that bit I put the book down with the back cover facing upward. On the back was this quote from Emerson "No truer American existed than Thoreau."

He wrote a section that made me very happy about wearing threadbare or patched clothing being a fine thing. But then at the end of this section he had the confusing poem about The Pretensions of Poverty, I guess so that no one will confuse what he's saying with saying it is virtuous in and of its self to be poor. There was also a strange swipe at organized religion at the end of this section. Strange in its placement anyway, I thought.

Having said that, I didn't find myself disagreeing with much of what Thoreau said, but the length at which he rants about it and the lengths in which he goes in his life made me kind of feel like I was listening to a nut who I happened to agree with what he was fixated upon.

Really, this is the strangest and most difficult book for me in the series. And this may have been the most difficult section of the most difficult book, so there's your ray of sunshine. I think it gets much more interesting from here on, now that he's gotten so much off of his chest. It's also the only Non-Fiction offering in this series unless we're all mistaken and it turns out The Odyssey was originally meant to be journalism.

For me the other most interesting part of this section is when he gets into actual narrative. Unfortunately, I thought that his actual "economics" part of this "Economy" section doesn't survive very well. I don't have much of a frame of reference for inflation and so when he talks about the cabin costing $27 he may as well say it cost 30 cents. I have no idea if that was dirt cheap, reasonably accomplished or a high figure to aspire toward in that day and age. Of course, not having the option of following his example, I could quickly disregard those bits. The parts where he talks about borrowing an axe, building the cabin, the garden, his furniture and so on, were the more riveting parts of this section for me and, if I remember correctly, is how much the rest of the book reads, along with more spiritual reflections.

I should probably say that while I personally wouldn't have put this on my own list of Essential Classics, I am glad we're reading it. I do expect to get a lot from it. This first section was, in my opinion, a bit of a young man's rant and the words of one who is sorting through some issues which he then goes to take action on in the best way he can imagine. And I should probably state that while this will probably end up being the most negative comment I'll have on a passage in this entire series (at least until we get to Dante's weird theology and Melville's long chapters on tying whaling knots), I am looking forward to the next section.
Which will be "Where I Lived And What I Lived For" (page 59 in mine) up to "The Bean Field" (page 107 in mine.) I was going to go further, but don't let's knock ourselves out. Anyway, I think Visitors will be a more compelling section to end up. So, at the end of next week we'll hit section 2. Good reading to you!


  1. Wow, you've heard that bread-making story from me so many times you forgot who the story came from, my dear friend D. And the real ironic twist of the story was this, the church ladies gathered for a meeting with two sessions, the first: Time Management; the second: Breadmaking!

    Anyway - maybe I'll catch up with the reading now that things have slowed down a bit. We'll see.

  2. My Walden wave is updated - and we seem to have added a fellow traveler!