Tag Archives: writing

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

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Writers are a natural and irresistible aristocracy (Walden 70)

More about books. Thoreau writes:

“Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.”

All but a tiny minority of writers are little known and poorly paid — and this was certainly true of Henry during his lifetime. But it can be said that while kings and presidents come and go, in the long run it is ideas that change the world… and books are an efficient vehicle for ideas.

But can’t you hear a bit of self-congratulation here? OK, we writers may be broke and unknown, but never mind that — we’re a natural and irresistible aristocracy!

On the other hand, what’s the point of writing at all unless you think you can change the world just a little bit, even by giving one other person a good idea they hadn’t thought of before?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

The written word: the “art nearest to life itself” (Walden 69)

“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.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

Is the written word really “nearest to life itself” among the arts? What about music or the visual arts? What about drama, or dance, or cinema? It seems to me that there are many things near to life that are difficult to express in words, but which artists capture through other media. And such expressions don’t just translate into any language, but transcend language and require no translation at all.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Morning is the most memorable season of the day (Walden 54)

“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Many of us are not “morning people.” However, that may be because a lot of us don’t get enough sleep. We’re not as likely to rise and retire with the sun as people tended to do before electricity. Are our modern habits causing us to miss the most creative time of the day? Or is Thoreau simply assuming that everyone else’s internal clock works the way his does?

On the other hand, he goes on to say, “To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men.”

Some writers recommend having regular writing time every day. As you get in the habit, your brain begins to expect it and will tend to be more productive at that time, whatever that time is. It becomes a mental ‘morning.’

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Author Farley Mowat, “a passionate polemicist,” dies at 92

I just learned of the death, at age 92, of Canadian author and environmentalist Farley Mowat (“Never Cry Wolf,” and many others). I was sorry to hear it, having grown up with his books. NPR described him as “a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause.”

Yeah… that’s a delicate way of putting it. About that:

The Curious People

Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.

young MowatI read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.

Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”

Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new…

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Thoreau’s letter from a distant land (Walden 2)

We begin, and Thoreau tells a little about why he’s writing this book:

“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.  Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.” — from “Economy,” Walden Continue reading

When a favorite writer has been BS-ing you

Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.

young MowatI read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.

Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”

Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new books. People in the Canadian Arctic long ago nicknamed him “Hardly Know It,” but others consider him a national treasure whose artistic license serves a higher purpose of raising environmental awareness and lampooning human arrogance.

In “Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?” (Up Here, September 2009), Tim Querengesser writes: Continue reading