Reading Henry David Thoreau's Walden Again
by Ernie Seckinger
This reading of Walden sent my mind reeling through many dimensions. The first is fairly simple and straight forward–another reading of the text. I first read my grandmother Seckinger's Armed Forces Edition paperback when I was 14 or so. Then a mass-market paperback in the early 1990s. I have listened to an unabridged recording at least twice, and perused a text version from Project Gutenberg on a Palm. What I will never do is catch up with my friend, Mr. Patterson, who has just completed his 27th reading of the work. Knowing the text that well allows his understanding to run deep. Yet he finds newness in every pass. I am but his humble protegé in matters Walden.
This read for me though is different than my other journeys through Walden. For my serious reading I set the book in a book stand with notebook and fountain pen in hand. Taking notes and writing my thoughts as I go is, for me, more intellectually interesting enterprise than underlining. Not to mention that the book collector in me discourages any desire to highlight on the book itself. Reading a book like Walden in this manner is a challenge since through his many drafts, Thoreau distilled most chapters, pages, paragraphs, sentences to pure gold.
This reading led me to a deeper understanding of its structure. Thoreau began Walden as a lecture for his townspeople who were interested in his two year, two month sojourn at the pond. It grew through many drafts into the work before us. Walden is organized into seventeen chapters and a conclusion. The chapter heading alone suggest this is not an ordinary memoir, nor a volume of nature writing, nor one of philosophy, though all exist within its covers: Economy / Where I Lived, and What I Lived For / Reading / Sounds / Solitude / Visitors / The Bean-Field / The Village / The Ponds / Baker Farm / Higher Laws / Brute Neighbors / House-Warming / Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors / Winter Animals / The Pond in Winter / Spring.
Another dimension of this reading is to of course enter a few words here on that reading. How does one go about writing a short essay on Walden? It is indeed an understatement to say that much has been said long before I entered the fray and this shows no sign of slowing. Adding to that body of work would serve little purpose unless it was meaningful to me. In an oft-repeated pedagogical diatribe of mine, I say my test of students after a reading assignment would consist of one, two part question, "Prove to me that you read this book and tell me what reading it meant to you." I'll not bore you with my answer to the first part of the question, besides, that would give the story away. I believe everyone should read this book at least once. It is just that American.
Now to its meaning for me. Walden is a book about many ideas. That is at least one reason why multiple readings may benefit its student. What I looked for in this read was Henry's Transcendentalism. In my multi-year study of Transcendentalism, I find Henry with two personae. Modern readers know he was a Transcendentalist because he said so but mostly because in school they heard his name presented in concert with Emerson. But in a formal study of Transcendentalism as a movement, one is more likely to encounter Emerson and a host of other names before Thoreau: Hedge, Fuller, Alcott (the father), Brownson–the list is long. I believe Henry was left behind by the critics in two fields, writing and Transcendentalism. Harold Bloom prefers Emerson's writing. Students of Transcendentalism beginning with Frothingham in 1876 have minimized Thoreau's Transcendentalism. I do not. Henry David Thoreau's Transcendentalism was, to be sure, his own. But this could be said about them all. I think what made Henry different was the focus that the common-held beliefs in reform took in him. As Walden is quintessentially a first person narrative, so too were his efforts at reform; his reform was personal, directed at himself. He did not join the mob (or even the John Brown conspirators even though he knew and supported Brown's ideals) to effect the dissolution of slavery, he simply assisted a runaway slave pass through his house onto Canada. He did not campaign against Polk, the war in Mexico, and by extension slavery, he simply refused to pay a tax he felt supported that system and those injustices. He did speak at the same rally where Garrison denigrated the Constitution, but he said his peace, not directed by Garrison or anyone else. His Transcendentalism was lived, not thought–his very life as an experiment in deliberate living–a "Song of Myself" before Whitman–a chanticleer for individual thought, deed, and life.
Transcendentalism in its deepest essence is a belief that nothing, no walls, exist between the individual and the divine. Many of the other Transcendentalists were clergy, seeking a more personal expression of Christianity. Thoreau's divine seems even more elemental–Nature itself.
Transcendentalism in its deepest essence is a belief that truth exists and the individual can become aware of that truth without direct input through the commonly accepted senses. One way in which many of them, including Thoreau, sought this truth was by analogy from Nature. In Walden and his journal, Thoreau seldom talked about Nature without soon transforming his observation into a symbol of a higher truth. Witness:
"These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled (sic) the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and, through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let "our church" to by the board."
"For the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to make our occasions. They are, in fact, the cause of our distraction. Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hire, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are."
Many, particularly me, are acutely aware of the difficulty of pinning down a definition of American Transcendentalism that fits each of its practitioners. One thing I can say though is that it stands on the philosophical-religious continuum nearly opposite from Catholicism. Which is what makes the conversion of at least two of the early Transcendentalists to Catholicism the more intriguing. But then, that is a different story!
December 7, 2002
The Thoreau Reader
Reading Journal for 2002
Reading Journal for 2003