We’ve come to the final anecdote of Walden. A year of blog posts about this book and here we are. The end of the trail. The last roundup. The final lines are to be delivered, and then it’s roll credits and cue the theme song.
So what does Henry have for us today? What is his grand summation of his magnum opus?
“There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
When you read Thoreau’s long rants against civilization, against triviality, against conventional thinking, remember this: his big concern is that we’re missing the best stuff. He thinks we tend to settle for lesser lives, and that we drive ourselves crazy thinking about all the wrong things. There’s a better world out there, he’s saying, and it’s all around you. It’s right in front of you. All you have to do is reach out and there it is.
We come to the book’s closing words in the next post.
“If you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
This is a remarkable thing for a writer to say, particularly in the conclusion of the book he’s been working on for several years. Moreover, it’s a remarkable thing for such an avid reader to say, a man who read voraciously, deeply, and in several languages — often going back and re-reading books to learn more from them.
But this brings us back to what Walden is about. It’s a book about experience. That’s what’s most important. Thoreau isn’t being dismissive books or of education so much as he’s emphasizing the value of paying attention to your surroundings, both internal and external. After all, what are books without a contemplative spirit? The most valuable book is the book of the world, and it is always near at hand, always open.
“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is.”
I found this part confusing and had to read it several times and look up “case.” What does Thoreau mean? Does he mean a case as in a box or container, or a case as a set of circumstances or conditions? I think he means both. This looks like another instance of Thoreauvian wordplay. The circumstances which you suppose then become a box in which you confine yourself, and at that point it doesn’t matter that the box is imaginary. You’re trapped just the same. That’s what he means by being in two cases at the same time — you’re confined not only by reality itself, but also by your assumptions about reality. It reminds me of a saying I heard: “Most of life is imaginary.”
It’s best, Henry believes, to be honest about our circumstances and find joy in them: Continue reading →
I’m going to quote a well-quoted paragraph in which Thoreau sums up much of the content of Walden. Taken by itself — if you’re coming to this page without having read the rest of the book… well, read the paragraph and then I’ll tell you what I have in mind: Continue reading →
Why did Thoreau leave Walden Pond after two and a half years?
Within a month of moving out of his little “hut,” he was back living at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. Biographer Robert Richardson says “he may have left the pond for no better reason than that Lydia Emerson had invited him to spend the winter helping out while her husband was away in Europe.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185).
Even if true, of course, Henry wasn’t going to write that. Likely his reasons were complex. He was restless, and though he had accomplished much at Walden (writing his first and as yet unpublished book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, plus early drafts of Walden), his publishing credits were thin. As far as anyone else was concerned, he had little to show for his thirty years of living. He begins the Conclusion: Continue reading →
Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Continue reading →