Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"However measured and far away..."

Do they still teach Henry David Thoreau in American Literature in high school?

God, I hope not. Talk about the emperor with no clothes. What a fraud. Leech. Commie. I never liked him when he was force-fed to me back then and my esteem for him over the years has only plummeted.

He did succeed in persuading a genuine writing talent, Ralph Waldo Emerson, into being his friend. Lucky for him. That meant a place to live and food and someone to pay his fines while he practiced being an unemployed free spirit.

He did come up with some sayings that are on all the "famous quotation" websites. Like marching to the beat of a different drummer (no shit, Hank) and "Simplify, simplify, simplyfy." Or was it only two simplifies? I can't remember any more.

An actual good American author by the name of Nathaniel Hawthorne had this to say about Thoreau:

"Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character - a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. He was educated, I believe, at Cambridge, and formerly kept school in this town; but for two or three years back, he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men - an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood."

He was a bum, Nat.

A Scottish writer across the pond by the name of Robert Louis Stevenson was even less kind:

"THOREAU'S thin, penetrating, big-nosed face, even in a bad woodcut, conveys some hint of the limitations of his mind and character. With his almost acid sharpness of insight, with his almost animal dexterity in act, there went none of that large, unconscious geniality of the world's heroes. He was not easy, not ample, not urbane, not even kind; his enjoyment was hardly smiling, or the smile was not broad enough to be convincing; he had no waste lands nor kitchen-midden in his nature, but was all improved and sharpened to a point. "He was bred to no profession," says Emerson; "he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. When asked at dinner what dish he preferred, he answered, 'the nearest.' " So many negative superiorities begin to smack a little of the prig."

You tell 'em Bobbie. The only thing Thoreau and Stevenson had in common was that they both died of tuberculosis at age 44.

Thoreau did indeed go to Harvard, as Hawthorne said. As a result of all that liberal education, he became a pencil-maker like his father. And sometime surveyor with his brother. Shades of George Washington.

Before he leeched off Emerson, he leeched off his brother. Unfortunately, his brother cut himself shaving one morning and subsequently died of lockjaw in Henry's arms. How the hell does one die of lockjaw in another's arms? A weird family, all around. A moral? I don't know. "If you drop your straight razor in the toilet, wash it off?"

But he lived off the land (and Emerson's purse) at Waldon Pond for something like two years and two months, living off...what? bark and grubs?... and became a famous author for writing a book by the same name or something close to it. I refuse to look it up.

Do me a favor? If you ever find yourself reading a book of classical literature and run across a chapter by Thoreau, rip it out for me, eh? You'll be doing the next reader a favor.

No offense.

"If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away. "

(feel free to use the above at will or change it if you like - it's in the public domain and he wouldn't have known what to do with the money anyway.)


  1. I am not a Thoreau fan (and you confused me Harvard since there is also a Cambridge University in England). I've never read anything (but a few quotes) by Emerson and I'm not horribly fond of Hawthorne or Stevenson, for that matter.

    But I've never understood the appreciation for Thoreau, seriously.

    Keats and Poe both died young, but look at the caliber of work they produced.

  2. We are starting to agree WAY too much. I must come up with something controversial.

  3. Yes, something more controversial is required. After all, there,s been nothing but happiness and light on this blog recently.

  4. I was about to comment on the unremitting gloom and doom until the windmills of my mind came up.

  5. I am suffering

    just kidding.. you have an award over at random jottings.. please accept it with my thanks..


  6. Tell us how you really feel...

    And the point of this is? (Besides denigrating one of America's great authors?)

  7. @Sheila. - I will do my best then. :)

    @A. - No gloom and doom here. Talk to Sheila. She sees only happiness and light. :)

    @Sage - Thank you. :)

    @Redbeard76 - My point? It couldn't have been clearer. He's NOT one of America's great authors. He's a fraud. Even as a teen, I saw through him and rebelled against studying him. The main point of this post was an attempt to stop other people from being taken in by his fake Yahoo-type press as you were. Tell me something he wrote that changed your life? Never mind, he only wrote one real thing. Maybe you like him because he was a neighbor. But you have so many GOOD ones to choose from up there, so why this guy?

    Please do write a post extolling his good points. Don't worry, it won't take long.

  8. I don't believe I studied him in school, it wasn't until I was in college when I read Walden on my own time. He was a name that was thrown around as a New England archetype, having written Walden, but it didn't really go any deeper than that.

    I must say I enjoyed Walden, of course being what he's most famous for. Being a long time ago that I've read it, maybe I should revisit it (I own it in hardcover, don't worry it was a discount, I didn't overpay for it), taking in to account your opine and having read his wikipedia entry this morning upon quick reference, which had some interesting negative quotes regarding Thoreau.

    Regardless, I was on an environmentalism kick when I read Walden and he seemed to convey ideals that appealed to me. Simplify - who can argue with that? Anti-slavery/abolitionism - who can argue with that? Natural preservation, transcendentalism and civil disobedience - should the schools no longer promote Mohandas Ghandi? Those are all positive values. The Union may not have won without Thoreau's unpopular backing of John Brown, even after his raid on Harper's Ferry. By the time the Civil War rolled around, the Union was singing his praises.

  9. I read Walden whilst at university, I don't think it was a set text, rather that it was an item on a list of works we were encouraged to read.
    I read it, and can't remember being particularly excited by Thoreau's musings. I think it's mainly because in an era when men were doing all these things that Thoreau did, to some purpose, and having adventures whilst doing so, Thoreau decides to make his grand experiment living in a hut on the edge of town.

    Why oh why didn't he have the balls to ship out to California, around the horn, earn his passage on a square-rigger, trek into the unknown, hew his cabin from virgin forest, pan for gold in the wilderness?

    I could imagine Jack London meeting Thoreau, neither would be impressed by the other!
    Or Herman Melville.....

    Or one of my favourite american heroes, Captain Joshua Slocombe, at over fifty years old built a 36 foot sailing vessel, The Spray", and sailed alone around the world.

    All the solitude a man could want.
    Thoreau? a stay at home layabout.

  10. I can't say I mind Thoreau all that much, but I'm more of a Hawthorne fan by far...and have you seen paintings of him? HOT!

    That last comment was an attempt to SHOW a point--when one takes oneself too seriously, that is when one becomes a prig.

    Thoreau took himself way too seriously, and that self-righteous priggishness still turns readers off, and for good reason.

  11. @Redbeard76 - Your points are well-taken. Just because I personally don't like this or that music or this or that writer, doesn't mean others don't like them. And, as usual, I am being insensitive. HDT has just stuck in my craw as someone who does not belong on the same list as his peers. But that is only my personal opinion.

  12. @Soubriquet - Well, that was sort of my point. When he DID visit the real forests in Maine, he was unnerved (those bears will KILL you!) and came back home to his more friendly woods. Also, he was hardly Euel Gibbons living off the land; he walked home nearly every day, and I'm sure he got fed. Or, as another (modern) observer put it:

    "Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle."

    But having said that, I restate it is only my personal opinion. And that of a billion other writers.

  13. And, lest we (and Ghandi) give too much credit where none is due, the advice to "simplify, simplify" came from Buddha, not Henry D.

  14. @Shakespeare - Ummm... right. Hawthorne was hot. Probably not as sexy as, say, Washington Irving when he wriggled his eyebrows, but hot. :)

  15. Judy Benjamin: Has anybody ever died from basic?
    Capt. Lewis: Benjamin, you are not FIT to wear that uniform.
    Judy Benjamin: No shit!

  16. This is actually one of the most interesting discussions I've seen on Thoreau. I take the opposite view, though. I didn't get Thoreau when I first read him but he grew on me shortly afterward. He went on to make an enormous impact on my life.

    I just made my first trip up to Walden Pond last week and wrote about what that experience meant to me:

  17. @Chris - Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It's not that I ever took Thoreau's writings or advice or observations lightly, it's that he never seemed to ring true to me as being particularly original in his thinking. Plus, the fact that he never really isolated himself from civilization for long periods of time, somehow makes him seem less authoritative to me. When I read him, I can't seem to shake the image of the real Thoreau - the man rather than the writer. In short, I don't think he really practiced what he preached. His writings certainly have value, though, and speak to other readers much differently than he speaks to me.

    I recommend my readers who want to see both sides of the story before they decide for themselves, to visit your blog and read your fine post on Thoreau. I did, and found it very thought-provoking.



Related Posts with Thumbnails