Tag Archives: literature

Supposing a case: Thoreau on our physical and mental surroundings (Walden 207)

“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

Thoreau and the “different drummer” (Walden 204)

Thoreau lived in an age in which learned people were still in awe of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which were seen as representing a golden age of civilization that the modern world had yet to recover. Similarly, the United States was often seen as a young and backwards nation that was culturally inferior to Europe. But Henry, though he loved the classics as much as anyone, was unconcerned:

“Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.” Continue reading

Thoreau objects to a “ridiculous demand”: speaking so they understand you (Walden 202)

“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings…”

I think this is one of the funnier passages in Walden. Is Thoreau aware that he is sometimes ambiguous or difficult to understand? Yes he is. Does he see this as a problem? Not at all! Over the years many readers have read Thoreau in a lot of different ways, and have drawn different lessons from him. Not that all readings are equally well-supported by context, but there’s no denying that Henry seems uninterested in communicating a narrow and precise meaning. In these posts I’ve made much of his growing scientific awareness, but Walden is not a scientific treatise. You won’t find this in a scientific paper: Continue reading

Why Thoreau left the woods (Walden 200)

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

I never noticed until now that he says “Perhaps it seemed to me” instead of just “It seemed to me.” Is he being coy? Does he not want to get into the whole thing about the Emersons? Or is he admitting that’s it’s often hard to know the full reasons why we do what we do?

Several years after moving back to town (but before publishing Walden) he wrote in his journal (January 22, 1852): Continue reading

“Patriotism is a maggot in their heads” and thoughts on exploration (Walden 199)

Last time I ended with this: “Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” Thoreau has been talking about travel and discovery, but we soon realize that he’s talking about self-discovery, and he follows with this startling passage:

“Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.”

It’s hard to know where to begin. To me at least, it seems like he’s trying to say a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t get any less complicated after the quoted passage. Continue reading

A change of scenery: Thoreau leaves Walden (Walden 198)

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

What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

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