Thursday, June 23, 2011

Henry David Thoreau and Me

by J J Cohen

I mentioned a while back that rereading Vibrant Matter as part of my spring graduate seminar had inspired me to pick up Walden as well. In a post summarizing an evening's work in the class I wrote the following (and please excuse my quoting so large a chunk, but it is the spur to what I am composing this morning):

We turned to Thoreau's Walden, since the work is among Bennett's favorite texts (Vibrant Matter is underwritten by American and British Romanticism as well as the philosophers it examines; there's as much Whitman and Coleridge in its underworkings as Spinoza and Deleuze in its citations). We looked at the beauty of this early passage, in which Thoreau pauses in the woods while constructing his cabin by Walden pond:

The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.
Great stuff, and almost irresistible, so stunning is the narration: just as the warming sun lifts the cold from the earth, lifts the snake into better communion with the woods that surround it, so Thoreau in his lucid solitude is lifted to empyrean life, to a perspective denied those men held by common society's chill torpor. Thoreau is proud of the retreat he constructs, and gives us every detail of its rising, even the total price. A bit later he informs us that the boards for his walls were purchased from an Irishman named James Collins, whose shanty he demolishes. Thoreau inspects Collins' house before taking possession, noting the scant but treasured possessions within -- a parasol, a gilded mirror, a coffee mill -- as well as a cat at the window and an infant "in the house where it was born." The next day he journeys to collect his purchased materials:

At six I passed him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all -- bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens -- all but the cat; she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last.
It's an oddly dispassionate scene. We want Thoreau to have his experience of the Wild, want him to narrate to us the allure of serpents that bask in vernal sun and invite the mind to transcendence, but what about the Collins family? What about their cat? Does it matter that the material of his retreat arrives from the ruins of their life? That their pet comes to no good end? Or should we take the transaction for what it was, an economic exchange rather than a space for affect? Does Thoreau's discovery of his own vibrant materialism come at a cost, and should we hold him to account?

We returned to those questions throughout the term, but couldn't exactly solve them.

So I came again to Thoreau's Walden in part because Jane Bennett makes such good use of the book in her work. But I also wanted to overcome, at last, some of my lingering ambivalence that clings to all things historical having to do with the Boston area, my natal geography. As I mentioned in this post, growing up in Massachusetts as the United States was celebrating its bicentennial (yes I am that old) so drenched me in colonial history that I became a medievalist out of spite. Boston, Cambridge, Lexington and Concord were places I could ride my bike through (here was one of my favorite destinations), lived landscapes rather than domains for historical reverence. All the flag waving at spaces that seemed to me ordinary was tedious. I didn't get it.

Thoreau lived and died long after the Revolutionary War, of course, but he paid a price for my childish turn against American history. He may as well have written in 1776, because the pond was a place to swim, not a sacred grove for history-driven nature worship. Walden was an easy drive from my family's house, so my mom or aunt would often pack the Cohen children into the car and take us for a dip and a picnic. Walden isn't a large body of water. Though a state park, it's hardly pristine. I remember quick boredom at the place because it was always crowded. The water was too warm and too still. I love the ocean, its briny tang and its ceaseless churn, the suggestion of danger that a pond can't bode. I am sure that as a child I was a joy to be near. Eventually at the urging of whoever had brought me to Walden I'd hike the rim of the pond. Wandering that dirt trail made it easy to be lost in thought. Sometimes there was no one else around, and it'd be surprising to come to the railroad tracks that cut through the landscape -- the very tracks that Thoreau describes in Walden. I believe that even when I was a child a replica of his cabin had been erected somewhere near the pond, but if so I always avoided it.

I read Walden in high school, as part of an American Literature course. I don't remember the book making any special impression on me, other than its describing a place bearing little relation to the pond of childhood swimming and picnics. I vividly recall, though, that my teacher admitted how when he'd read Walden in college he had decided to simplify his life. He lived without any technology (easier to do back then), and discarded most of his possessions. He confessed that he now wished he hadn't jettisoned so much. He'd like to still own his yearbook, childhood photos, objects that meant more to him than he realized in his ardor for austerity. He warned us to be open to literature's invitations, but not to allow texts to ruin our lives.

Rereading Walden a few months ago, I was struck by Thoreau's restless mind and unstoppable curiosity. We see him inhabiting the minds of ants; boating across the water to plumb its depths; speculating on India and Greece. The pond becomes an actor in the narrative: a source of mystery and inspiration, always changing (crystalline in summer, in winter an immobile and yet kinetic block of ice), ever alive with birds, mammals, and human wanderers. There is nothing lonely about his cabin. Thoreau's self-righteousness annoyed me, as did his mythicization of Native Americans and his inability to feel sufficient sympathy for the impoverished Irish and African Americans with whom he shares his "wild" space. But I don't think I quite got the complexity what was going on in the book (it seemed lovely if semi-oblivious nature writing) until I came across Lawrence Buell's account of Thoreau's vulnerability:
Even Thoreau's Walden, the most canonical text in all US environmental literary nonfiction, might be rethought in terms of an uneasy mediation between the prideful standoffishness of the author's voluntary simplicity experiment and his inability to ignore the genuinely impoverished, extruded Irish and black denizens of the Concord outback ... He cannot help also acknowledging his interdependence with these outcasts. They are a mocking echo, impossible to romanticize in the way he romanticizes Native Americans elsewhere in Walden, of his own half-confessed, half-suppressed inability to balance his own accounts and his awareness of being thought a failure, driven to a state of dependent squatterdom in the eyes of many in his community ... struggling with concerns of poverty, downward mobility, and chagrin at being socially reduced to the equivalent of an ethnic other. (The Future of Environmental Criticism 122)
Buell's reading doesn't quite get Thoreau off the hook. Henry David still fails to feel anything for those whom he is most like, and lives his simplified life at the edges of their ruined ones. Yet Buell's point that Walden is "a more searching ecocultural inquiry" than the "voluntary simplicity literature" it inspired is a good one. Buell reminds me of the limits of my own sympathy, of my own childhood propensity to be a sourpuss. A way of not thinking, a way of closing roads of inquiry down. Buell's reading reminds me of the wider world (historical, geographical, philosophical) that we must never cease working to envision if our writing and our criticism is to be as kinetic and as restless as Walden might be when freed from the constraints of memory and the injustice of predetermination.


haylie said...

I'm so glad that I'm not the only person who worries about the poor cat. The family, too, I guess.

Eileen Joy said...

One of the things that first attracted me to Bennett's work were her writings on Thoreau, and "Thoreau's Nature" is one of my favorite academic books. Also, I used to teach "Walden" quite regularly in first-year writing classes; I would pair it with Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" [later made into a not-so-good movie starring Emile Hirsch, directed by Sean Penn], because when the subject of that book, Christopher McCandless, was found dead [likely from either starvation or having eaten a poisonous plant] in Alaska, one of his very few possessions was a heavily-annotated copy of Thoreau's book--demonstrating, perhaps, that sometimes a certain overblown Thoreauvian idealism can kill you. But it was also useful to teach the two texts together to show some of he ways in which life and literature become inseparable from each other, in both positive and negative ways. BUT, my real "point" here is that your post triggered an old memory I had forgotten:

When I was teaching these two texts at Francis Marion University in S. Carolina, where many of my students came from quite economically impoverished backgrounds, one of my *best* students, after the final exam [which was an essay on the two books' inter- and intra-connections], approached my desk and said to me, "Because I respect you, I want you to see this," and then he dumped both books in the trash can beside my desk, and said, "You have no right to teach these books about privileged men who waste their lives to students who have no choice but to work for a living." And then he simply walked out of the classroom. I retrieved both books from the trash, and still have them in my campus office. I wasn't mad at the student who, as it turned out, wrote a very fine essay.

The episode gave me some pause. I still love both books, of course, but it made me think about who Thoreau's audience is in the present, and why that might matter. McCandless came from a privileged, fairly wealthy family, like Thoreau, and made a big deal [like Thoreau] out of rejecting all of that, in order to "strike out" for the "territory ahead." But precisely because of his background, he had the luxury of doing so [another way of putting this would be to say he had a certain freedom of self-determination that Thoreau also had, and that the Irish family, as well as their cat, did *not* have]. He overly romanticized the itinerant-mendicant lifestyle and also what it meant to "rough it" in the so-called "wilderness" without ever really understanding he lives of those who actually live and *work*, day to day, in places like the rural Dakotas and Alaska. At the same time, Chris McCandless [and Thoreau] were lit from within with a certain purity of intention and idealism that can also be admired.

Which is just to say that most of us, like Thoreau, are complicated beings who often don't live up to our own philosophies. The philosophies themselves, however, and the writings that sometimes attend to them, can still remain remarkable, and maybe even inspiring, for us. Thanks for this post.

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks for sharing your story of your student's response, Eileen--and especially for your final paragraph, which is what I would've wished to have been able to try to say to the student, had he been mine.

Anonymous said...

e.j. see what you think of: