Cultivating beans, cultivating virtues (Walden 114)

Thoreau hoed beans that first summer, working seven hours a day, for profit of $8.71. That doesn’t sound like much, but keep two things in mind: first, the money went farther in the 1840s, and second, this was actually more profitable than his writing was at that point. I’m not aware that he’d made any money on his writing thus far, and he was about to lose considerable money on the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Being a writer, Henry looked for metaphors. After talking about cultivating beans, he listed the virtues he wanted to cultivate: “sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like…”

This informal list tells us something about Henry. Notice he doesn’t list compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, etc. Not that he didn’t believe in those things or that they weren’t important to him on some level, but his moral emphasis is on the self. His highest values (or at least the first come to his mind) are those that have to do with personal integrity. Walden is primarily a book about how you live with yourself, inside your own skull, and how you view the world. Though Henry’s ideas have implications for how you treat others, that’s not really is focus. If you want to learn how to get along with others, Walden isn’t the best place to look for answers.

In saying that that I’m not demeaning the book or its author. No book can be all things to all people, and no author can be an expert in all areas. This list here, I think, encapsulates something about who Henry was and the ways in which he is or is not going to be helpful to us as readers. He can come off as pretty self-centered times, and you could say that Walden is a self-centered book. That was Henry starting point. If I interpret him correctly, I think he felt you had to get that right first — who you are, what you really value, what’s at the core of life after you strip everything else away — before you can make sense of anything else.

And if you’re of an introverted, contemplative temperament, that probably makes a lot of sense to you.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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