A thing I wish I knew about Thoreau as a teenager
October 2, 2019 7:48 PM   Subscribe

[Thoreau's] mother brought him sandwiches and Walden Pond was on her property. Twitter rages against Thoreau.

Zoe Whittall tweets: A thing I wish I knew about Thoreau as a teenager was that his mother brought him sandwiches and Walden Pond was on her property. I think I might have made some different life choices had I understood that.
posted by mecran01 (107 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh mom!
posted by sjswitzer at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


This is hilarious, and a thing of beauty. Thoreau may not have been out in the real woods before, but he's in 'em now...
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:02 PM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


I wonder what this lady's life choices were that she regrets!

I read Walden and I thought it was kind of yawny and preachy and personally I'm not much for camping of any sort, so I didn't regard Thoreau with much interest. When he is taken down a peg I feel a certain vindication over the crunchier-than-thou outdoorsy types at my college who thought I was one of them.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:10 PM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


Another dimension of this story is that Thoreau had been a pencil entrepreneur and it was the success of that enterprise (along with the uncredited help of his family!) that allowed him, for a time, the luxury of idling in the woods (to borrow a phrase from the linked article). His writing never achieved much acclaim in his lifetime and after a stint as a land surveyor, he returned to the family pencil business.
posted by sjswitzer at 8:21 PM on October 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


I thought this had been pretty well established that he wasn't completely out in the woods on his own and that he was going into town on a regular basis for supplies and things. Not really surprised to hear this at all, bro was all bluster and no game.
posted by Fizz at 8:25 PM on October 2, 2019 [11 favorites]


I remember causing mild consternation at my UU church when I expressed my indifference for Thoreau and Emerson. There was a lot of overlap between Transcendentalists and Unitarians.
posted by emjaybee at 8:28 PM on October 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


The best thing I ever heard about Thoreau (from a former professor) is that one of his jobs when was crashing with the Emerson’s was to chase down the chickens and fit them with little booties that Lydia Emerson knitted for them so they wouldn’t claw up her garden. Ever since then, i have been unable to think of Thoreau without imagining him trying to put socks on chickens.
posted by thivaia at 8:29 PM on October 2, 2019 [158 favorites]


I think a person who feels this information detracts from Walden probably wouldn't like Walden much anyways.
posted by Cezar Golescu at 8:32 PM on October 2, 2019 [44 favorites]


The universe is wider than our views of it.
posted by gwint at 8:41 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


There are a few moments of sheer poetry in Fallout 4, my favorite of which is their version of Walden Pond. It's a foul, smoking, irradiated puddle next to a tiny burnt-out shack and a much bigger ruined gift shop, and the whole thing has been taken over by raiders and booby-trapped.

The entrance to the raiders' lair is via the sewage drain in the pond.
posted by MrVisible at 8:52 PM on October 2, 2019 [33 favorites]


The entrance to the raiders' lair is via the sewage drain in the swamp.

It's a $5 one-time fee, but they'll ask you for a monthly pledge too.
posted by hippybear at 8:56 PM on October 2, 2019 [12 favorites]


Also Twitter, a month ago:

la bibliotequetress@biblioteq_tress, Aug. 29: Someone should rewrite Walden from his mom's POV

Auntie Shepherd@NeolithicSheep: "My useless failson arrived at the back door after dark again with another basket of laundry. He ate the remains of my dinner and then departed after begging me not to tell someone named Emerson that I wash his clothes. How much longer shall this continue."
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:57 PM on October 2, 2019 [69 favorites]


OK, but those Transcendentalists provided us with a cornucopia of cool quotes. They're mostly real, too, unlike a lot of those of "Mark Twain" or "Oscar Wilde." (OK, Wilde was the queen of one-liners, I'll give him that.)
posted by kozad at 9:05 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I assure you that all Mark Twain quotes are made by Mark Twain.

The other quotes attributed to him, I cannot account for.
posted by hippybear at 9:09 PM on October 2, 2019 [27 favorites]


Not really surprised to hear this at all, bro was all bluster and no game.

See, I never even understood why people were so big on this being a point of hypocrisy. I don't remember reading it and thinking, ah yes, he is being a serious survivalist in the woods. He was doing an extended meditation and writing retreat, basically, not being Bear Grylls. It's a bit self-congratulatory, but I have always assumed that contemporary audiences knew that he was not claiming superhuman feats but rather talking about adopting a simpler and more thoughtful lifestyle. I could see, for example, the criticism that he was basically doing this as a blogging project and it was slightly silly and more so that it took as long to finish the book as it did, but I feel like some people are, I don't know, conflating Walden with My Side of the Mountain or something.
posted by Sequence at 9:17 PM on October 2, 2019 [69 favorites]


I thought we had done Thoreau hypocrite cancelled y/y? already on Mefi? No? Maybe it was the Toast.

IIRC he did enough chores at his mothers’ to trade for the laundry, but he was more of an ass at the Emerson’s. Maybe the chicken socking duty wasn’t subtle revenge.
posted by clew at 9:22 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


Was subtle revenge, that is! Or possibly was revenge, wasn’t subtle.
posted by clew at 9:24 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's a recurrent topic. Every generation is horrified to learn that Melville didn't actually survive the sinking of a whaling ship by a vengeful white whale.
posted by hippybear at 9:25 PM on October 2, 2019 [23 favorites]


clew, you may be thinking of this 2015 Thoreau debate.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:26 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Today I have learned A THING Thoreau Glamping...
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:30 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yeah clew, I feel like I remember that too. Hmm... My search turns up nothing though. Must have been on another site?
posted by evilDoug at 9:37 PM on October 2, 2019


I'm fairly sure I've seen the debate about Thoreau's cancellation too, but I suppose I am a man of constant Thoreau, I've seen Thoreau all my days
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:45 PM on October 2, 2019 [40 favorites]


Every generation is horrified to learn that Melville didn't actually survive the sinking of a whaling ship by a vengeful white whale.

Oh no, that's horrible! I'd always assumed he'd made it, but I guess this was one of those manuscript found in a bottle things, like how Poe died.

at least he died doing what he loved. whaling. dude was just gaga about whaling
posted by phooky at 9:51 PM on October 2, 2019 [42 favorites]


But Poe perished from a panic attack based on paranoia from his landlord's David Bowie eye. I mean, like...
posted by hippybear at 9:54 PM on October 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


It was only a few people and a long time ago but the preachy fans of Thoreau I knew in college put me off him forever.

That the dude wasn’t living in the wilderness and was a mooch is sort of old news, but still something that doesn’t seem to be much known.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:01 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


I grew up in Concord, Mass. in the 1960s. We were immersed in the history both of the Revolutionary War, and of the authors of a century afterward: Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott. It was no secret to anybody back then that Thoreau was an entitled, bourgeois, white boy, as relatable and recognizable to us as Holden Caulfield. His screeds -- Walden, Civil Disobedience -- amounted to just another teenage punk biting the hand that feeds him.

That being said, his eloquence and perceptiveness remain compelling to me. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation... simplify, simplify." Consumerism didn't spring magically from post-WWII Madison Avenue, its roots went much deeper and further back than that. And sometimes the most patriotic act is to disobey an unjust law, an unfair system, as many did during the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, and more recently protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In college, I was as bemused by the counterculture types who deified him, as the Milken-wannabe dudebros who vilified him, crowing about his hypocrisy. All prophets have feet of clay.
posted by panglos at 10:10 PM on October 2, 2019 [21 favorites]


i mean i guess the deal isn't that everyone is scandalized that thoreau lived a life of luxury and part of that life of luxury consisted of sitting out on his family's property in the woods and watching ants go about their ant business. the deal is that the class that thoreau occupied has consistently worked to deny the vast bulk of humanity the simple sweet philosophically instructive pleasures of sitting peaceably out in the woods while not having to worry about starving to death. from that frame, thoreau's expansive musings about the nature of life and humanity seem less like literary philosophy and more like, well, like gloating.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:20 PM on October 2, 2019 [79 favorites]


Someone I've been learning about recently was John Muir. This guy was definitely the real deal. Here he is climbing to the top of a 100ft Douglas fir tree during a storm:

"One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra occurred in December, 1874.... When the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof.... Toward midday ... I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook. ... I made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces ... they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy ... never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion ... while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed. In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt ... safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook." (Ch.10 of Muir's The Mountains of California 1894).
posted by leibniz at 10:28 PM on October 2, 2019 [29 favorites]


I mean say what you want about Thoreau, at least he could write well enough to more or less justify at least considering the idea of reading his work. That anyone remembers Emerson at all, let alone pays attention to his writing, is, if nothing else, credit to the power of Thoreau and Whitman's work, because if those dudes hadn't loved Emerson so much I'm certain he would be forgotten. I've never regretted time spent on class reading so much as the time I spent reading Emerson.
posted by Caduceus at 10:39 PM on October 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


> I've never regretted time spent on class reading so much as the time I spent reading Emerson.

i mean americans have many virtues or whatever but if we're being honest with ourselves we must admit that on the whole we're pretty bad at philosophy.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:49 PM on October 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


I mean, I'm not sure if you're suggesting Emerson was bad at philosophy or I as an American was bad at understanding Emerson's philosophy, certainly both could be true, but as much as anything his poetry sucks, man. I do not enjoy it. If the global you out there enjoy Emerson's poetry more power to you, but no one ever made me read poetry I enjoyed less in school.

I mean, maybe that's what I get for taking a literature class taught by a history professor. I dunno. The rest of that class on Transcendentalism was pretty interesting but the fact that all the rest of those guys looked up to Emerson so much baffled me then and baffles me now.
posted by Caduceus at 11:00 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Someone I've been learning about recently was John Muir. This guy was definitely the real deal.

Yes, a man who lived in harmony nature but never actually ever talked to an Indian. Dude definitely hiked all over like no one else but it doesn't take a ton of digging to find issues. There's ain't no heroes out there.
posted by GuyZero at 11:36 PM on October 2, 2019 [17 favorites]


oh yeah i am saying that we are definitely bad at writing philosophy
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:50 PM on October 2, 2019


I've never regretted time spent on class reading so much as the time I spent reading Emerson.

I don't really know or care about the stuff he wrote, but "Ralph" and "Waldo" are both really quite excellent names. Everyone should be named Ralph and/or Waldo, really. Not just dudes. Ladies too.
posted by aubilenon at 12:12 AM on October 3, 2019 [11 favorites]


If it turned out Thoreau dictated everything to his masseuse between sips of champagne in a luxurious Manhattan penthouse, I'd still like Walden.
posted by pracowity at 12:14 AM on October 3, 2019 [10 favorites]


I have no problem with what Thoreau did.

In fact it strengthens his work: the care his mother had for him reflects and embodies the care Earth takes of all her creatures, and his regard for her in turn is part of his celebration of Nature

The trouble we are all in right now begins and ends with "woman, what have I to do with you?"
posted by jamjam at 12:32 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


but "Ralph" and "Waldo" are both really quite excellent names.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Ralph and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.
posted by pracowity at 12:46 AM on October 3, 2019


For an era where articles about the difficulty in giving up one's social media accounts or smart phones are common, getting all het up about Thoreau being a phony seems kinda amusing.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:50 AM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


I appreciated Austin Kleon's take on this at the end of August. He points out there have been many similar takedowns of Thoreau in the past as well as many defenses and the topic is, as with everything, much more nuanced than it appears.
posted by Foaf at 1:38 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

just remember that a century and a half before the internet, he had the whole thing sussed out

with every day of tweeting and posting, some of us seem bound and determined to prove him right
posted by pyramid termite at 2:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]


I recall the piece where I originally read about Thoreau's mother also talked about his sisters, and how all of the Thoreau women were also very articulate and politically active and agitating for women's equality, which (half-remembered from same source) Thoreau supported?
posted by eviemath at 3:09 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I recall the piece where I originally read about Thoreau's mother also talked about his sisters, and how all of the Thoreau women were also very articulate and politically active and agitating for women's equality, which (half-remembered from same source) Thoreau supported?

Thoreau's family collectively were involved in the Underground Railroad. His mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, and sisters Helen and Sophia were also founding members of the Concord Women's Anti-Slavery Society (1837).

One thing that gets lost in most of the Twitter blurts RE: Thoreau is the extent of the collective effort the family was involved in. They operated a small pencil factory and a boardinghouse, Thoreau and his brother John ran a school for a while together, etc. Thoreau didn't go to Walden to turn his back on his family or his community, but to briefly get out of a very crowded house and busy life to get some writing done.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:00 AM on October 3, 2019 [11 favorites]


As one naturally attracted to the idea of paring my own wants down until just before the point where doing so causes actual sustained discomfort, in order to need to do as little work as possible to sustain what's left, reading Walden had long been on my list of things to get around to.

Finally got the opportunity when my excellent new neighbour lent me her illustrated copy, and didn't get far into it at all before finding that I just couldn't stomach yet another self-satisfied thirty-something middle-class American man pontificating about how stupid and deluded everybody who isn't in a position to live as he does must be, and how wage slavery is a worse kind of slavery than the actual slavery that was actually going on in his actual country as he actually wrote his book.

I've already read way too much of the same kind of blinkered bloviation from the same demographic on right-wing blogs and forums. Having it come booming down the years at me from the nineteenth century as well, and from an influential and widely respected writer at that, was just depressing.
posted by flabdablet at 4:26 AM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


In fact it strengthens his work: the care his mother had for him reflects and embodies the care Earth takes of all her creatures, and his regard for her in turn is part of his celebration of Nature

Some might say that casting his mother as the embodiment of some grand, impersonal, natural force, rather than as an actual human woman is a perfect illustration of why they find Thoreau so problematic.
posted by firechicago at 4:53 AM on October 3, 2019 [33 favorites]


I mean, he deserves some credit just for being brave enough to cross Route 2 on foot.
posted by briank at 5:28 AM on October 3, 2019 [21 favorites]


Is it still shadenfreude if the person is dead? Boy, something in the American conscience loves doing this to people- or their legacy.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 5:44 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Couldn't he have just moved into his mom's basement like all the other kids?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:44 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I’m amazed so many of you knew Thoreau fans in college. Is this a generational thing? I don’t know anyone who even read Thoreau in college, and I had a ton of English major friends. I also knew lots of smug people but I don’t think they were reading the American transcendentalists.
posted by dismas at 5:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


If you enjoy people deflating Thoreau, there's a great essay in John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers where he retraces the canoe route that Thoreau took when he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
posted by Jugwine at 5:58 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Is this a generational thing?

I think that Thoreau was a big deal to Vietnam War era students, due to his "Civil Disobedience" essay, and Walden seems like it was certainly an influence on the back-to-the-land,man, Whole Earth Catalog thing. So. Signs point to yes?
posted by thelonius at 6:16 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


My favorite John Cheever line: "All the American transcendentalists were goops."
posted by steef at 6:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, Bon Ivor made that album is his father's hunting cabin which had electricity.
posted by Damienmce at 6:35 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Look, the most important Thoreau dis was Louisa May Alcott’s description of his chinscrub, which “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.” (I went searching for the exact quote and the top result was a Medium post on neckbeards by Jessamyn, ha!)
posted by deludingmyself at 6:37 AM on October 3, 2019 [17 favorites]


Modern-day thoreau is just one of those guys on instagram who uses their parents money to travel to "obscure" pacific islands.

Actually it might just be Eat, Pray, Love.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:46 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I put Thoreau and Montaigne in the same bucket. Both left all the hard decisions to their wives and mothers. They might have perfectly nice decent folks, but not role models for most people.

Is there an female equivalent? I have never stumbled across one.
posted by KaizenSoze at 6:46 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Look, the most important Thoreau dis was Louisa May Alcott’s description of his chinscrub, which “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.” (I went searching for the exact quote and the top result was a Medium post on neckbeards by Jessamyn, ha!)

I'm guessing you just skimmed jessamyn's post, then?
posted by zamboni at 6:53 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


The funniest part of that Twitter thread is all the offended MRAs and teenaged boys showing up to defend Thoreau and inadvertently illustrating the original tweet's point.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:53 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Twitter rages against Thoreau

It is like the change of seasons or the cycles of the moon.... I suspect we must be about due for another round of "Wait... Moby Dick isn't just about a guy hunting a whale?" season which is usually better than "Joe Vs The Volcano isn't just about Joe and the Volcano?" season.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


The people who are defending Thoreau's character and genius are missing the point. We're pissed off at the MAN who fed us this myth as something good and special.
posted by turkeybrain at 6:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


His writing never achieved much acclaim in his lifetime and after a stint as a land surveyor, he returned to the family pencil business.

Ahem.
“For a year or two past my 'publisher,' falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of 'A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers' still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man's wagon,--706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.

Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:55 AM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]


Critical Update:

Holy hell, there is an actual bodice-ripper-y novel about how Lydia Emerson was “drawn to the erotic energy of Henry David Thoreau.”

Level of disappointment I would feel if this does not include a scene where smoldering glances are exchanges over chicken booties: 10
posted by thivaia at 6:56 AM on October 3, 2019 [14 favorites]


Modern-day thoreau is just one of those guys on instagram who uses their parents money to travel to "obscure" pacific islands.

#vanlife
posted by warriorqueen at 6:58 AM on October 3, 2019 [11 favorites]


Thoreau grows in importance the more privileges we're able to assign to him. Do you want your rich kids to be Thoreau or Don Jr?

I thought we would be focusing on Alexander Supertramp in 2019 since he is the usual angle of conservative attack on anyone who envisions an economy that s not based on fossil fuel extraction. Or John Muir, since he wrote national policy without Americans in the landscape.

I know the cultural goal is "rich kids want to be Union General Harriet Tubman", but Thoreau is still useful for rich kids. He s like Paw Patrol, tho, most people grow out of him quick. One high school road trip and you realize Thoreau s limitations, unless you are a rich kid dropping out of Emory.
posted by eustatic at 7:11 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Nearly all of these kinds of Thoreau "gotchas" are in the fucking book.

He never claims to be a hermit. He went there to "live deliberately," not to be entirely alone. The book is full of things like, "As I was walking home from dinner with friends in town..." And IIRC (my most recent reading was last year) one of his itemizations of costs includes paying for laundry.

I love his writing, but he is kind of a pain in the ass—like when he visits a poor family nearby and lectures them on how much happier they could be if they wanted less. A friend and I were joking recently that we're not sure which famous people we want to have dinner with in heaven, but we are 100% sure, as much as we love his writing, that we do NOT want HDT, ascetic killjoy, at our dinner party.
posted by Orlop at 7:14 AM on October 3, 2019 [10 favorites]


The people who are defending Thoreau's character and genius are missing the point. We're pissed off at the MAN who fed us this myth as something good and special.

This exactly. If you read the tweet, you'll see the OP herself says she wish she'd know this AS A TEENAGER. A serious literature class will cover the context of Walden (well, hopefully, there are tweets about undergrad level classes where the teacher still insisted on Thoreau's myth), but the popular usage of Walden is to promote a very conservative type of self reliance that has absolutely no basis in reality. The thread, and this thread, seem to be bait for people to pop in to "well actually..." missing the distinction between the reality of the book, later critical review of the book, and the popular conception which overwhelmingly is what Thoreau is incorrectly remembered for.
posted by codacorolla at 7:14 AM on October 3, 2019 [15 favorites]


Also, I am pretty sure it was Emerson who let him build his cabin on his (Emerson's) property.
posted by Orlop at 7:15 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


I love the quote ricochet biscuit gives us, because one of the pleasures of reading Thoreau is his sense of humor, not something people tend to mention in the first things they say about him.
posted by Orlop at 7:16 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've met many would-be Thoreaus in my life, all of them insufferable.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:17 AM on October 3, 2019


unless you are a rich kid dropping out of Emory.

If you are talking about Chris McCandless ("Alexander Supertramp"), I think he graduated
posted by thelonius at 7:18 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Fair point. Thank you.
posted by eustatic at 7:22 AM on October 3, 2019


the popular conception which overwhelmingly is what Thoreau is incorrectly remembered for.

I'd also add that there's also a big component of "it's not the band I hate, it's their fans." Even as someone who doesn't mind Thoreau, there are some some really insufferable Walden fans I've encountered in life.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:26 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]


This exactly. If you read the tweet, you'll see the OP herself says she wish she'd know this AS A TEENAGER.

As Orlop points out, easy enough for the OP (not MF OP, but on Twitter) to have known, had she actually read the book.
posted by Doc Ezra at 7:56 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Learning Thoreau was actually writing about abstract ideas is like finding out the road less travelled is the same as everyone takes.
posted by mrgroweler at 7:57 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Right, I read the original post as dumping on their English teacher.

But put yourself in the shoes of your average English teacher. How many American Authors born around 1810 are questioning slavery and questioning the values of a Nation built on slavery, and have had their writings thoroughly studied critiqued and digested into high school activities? Thoreau is going to be your go-to just because of the weight of work that's been put behind his writings. Thoreau is going to be on the dumb test. Also may be discussing slavery is too much for the administration, and you just want to have someone with some kind of critique of consumerism at all from 1810.

Until the National Endowment for the Humanities digs the primary literature of John Brown or the contemporary things that were written about Harriet Tubman, or we find her communiques, and puts them into the pedagogical sausage-making machine, and maybe the Obama era NEH started on this, what you have as a teacher really is Henry David Thoreau and some of the Abolitionist senators.

I mean if you're one of those teachers that has a lot of gusto and isn't scared of being fired for not teaching to the test oh, you could make the kids read the novelization of Fire on the Mountain, but there's not a lot of teaching resources out there, I don't think.

But please someone tell me I m wrong, been a while since I was in high school. I think maybe if I was that teacher I would have them read Walden, but then pepper it up with Toni Morrison's Beloved novel. Just to show kids that some other people went for a walk in the woods, and haunting sacrifices had to be made. And I think Toni Morrison is on the test nowadays.
posted by eustatic at 8:06 AM on October 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


Your Favourite Twitter Thread Sucks
posted by tobascodagama at 8:18 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


There's a segment of the population that projects ideas about independence and self-reliance on Thoreau in order to complete a romantic image of man in nature, or man existing outside society. Reminders that Thoreau did, in fact, live in a society tend to aggravate.

It's easy to believe we have inner lives that are untainted by the conceptions of others, thoughts that aren't aggregates of our influences, and that by hiding in a cabin in the woods, all of our deep insights and sense of identity will float to the surface. I mean, maybe that happens. Maybe you end up chopping wood with the theme song from Friends stuck in your head.
posted by mikeh at 8:27 AM on October 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


That Twitter thread wasn't the first time I learned that Thoreau was generally living off family resources while doing his writing, but it was the first time I'd seen it described as camping in his mom's backyard, and that was fucking hilarious.
posted by asperity at 8:28 AM on October 3, 2019 [11 favorites]


As Orlop points out, easy enough for the OP (not MF OP, but on Twitter) to have known, had she actually read the book.

Not at all. The degree that Thoreau represents this in the text itself is quite different from the actual historical context of the massive amounts of invisible labor that made the book possible, which is what the Twitter thread is all about.
posted by codacorolla at 8:29 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]


Maybe you end up chopping wood with the theme song from Friends stuck in your head.

/me summons emergency memory of "Banana Spilts" theme music
posted by thelonius at 8:44 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Fiasco da Gama, that was really really really really bad. (I loved it!)
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


How many American Authors born around 1810 are questioning slavery and questioning the values of a Nation built on slavery, and have had their writings thoroughly studied critiqued and digested into high school activities?

Not trying to be mean or gotcha-y here, but...Mr. Frederick Douglass was born in 1818.
posted by praemunire at 9:12 AM on October 3, 2019 [13 favorites]


I recently re-read Walton, and there are parts of it that are ok, and parts of it that are awful. The worse (arguable) was where he visits an Irish laborer and explains to the husband of the family how, if he only managed things better, he wouldn't be poor. The very bootstrappy-est bootstrap advice of don't eat meat and get a better job and keep your house clean and your shack needs some repairs, with no awareness at all of all of the ways that their lives are much harder than his. And he leaves with all of his existing prejudice against the Irish confirmed because for some reason, they just don't seem to be taking his advice.

It's infuriating to read, and I can only imagine how a family with many children, health issues, and no free land or sandwiches must have felt.
posted by oryelle at 9:32 AM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


As Orlop points out, easy enough for the OP (not MF OP, but on Twitter) to have known, had she actually read the book.

The very fact that Cliffs Notes are a thing that exists says something about how likely it is for a high school student to actually read the books assigned to them in English classes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:47 AM on October 3, 2019


Do high school students still assign all of Walden, I wonder? I think my class only read short excerpts, which leads to a certain decontextualization which allows Thoreau to be mined for his Helpful Moral Lessons, but I'm not sure how typical that is.
posted by Jeanne at 9:54 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


I’m amazed so many of you knew Thoreau fans in college. Is this a generational thing? I don’t know anyone who even read Thoreau in college, and I had a ton of English major friends.

Okay, you got me. I read Walden in high school, without any instructional support to mention things like 'this book basically the trust-fund #vanlife of the victorian era.'
posted by pwnguin at 10:24 AM on October 3, 2019


I enjoyed Chapter 1: Economy and small parts of Chapter 2: Where I Lived and What I Lived for. The rest was pretty meh. I'm not too bothered that he didn't actually live the story as written, but then again I never used the book as a personal philosophy guide.
posted by rocket88 at 10:34 AM on October 3, 2019


Credit Walden's class privilege with his ability to do what he did. Fine. But also left out in discussions of Transcendentalism are references to their familiarity with Hindu mysticism. (Emerson: "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.")
posted by kozad at 10:52 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


- I put Thoreau and Montaigne in the same bucket. Both left all the hard decisions to their wives and mothers. His mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, and sisters Helen and Sophia were also founding members of the Concord Women's Anti-Slavery Society (1837).

- They might have perfectly nice decent folks, but not role models for most people. Is there an female equivalent? I have never stumbled across one.

"This essay provides evidence from letters, books, diaries, and articles, as well as from the essay manuscripts themselves, that Sophia Thoreau alone edited her brother's essay collections for publication after his death from tuberculosis in 1862. She alone also chose the editor for her brother's Journal before her death in 1876."

Sophia Thoreau is responsible for the only known contemporary painted portrait of Henry David, and that's her illustration on the original title page of Walden.

Miss Thoreau's own obituary does not mention the Society, or her art, but its author does manage to namecheck Henry often, and chide the dead woman for failing to release more of her by-then famous brother's work during her final illness: She has also been a suffering invalid, and for the past two years has been slowly dying, by an incurable disease, the end of which she clearly foresaw. Yet the cheerful temper, mingled with caprices and asperities, which was so marked a trait in Henry Thoreau, was hers also, and she met the approach of death, not only with serenity, but with a laughing mien in the midst of physical torture. [...] After her brother’s death, two years later, Sophia Thoreau inherited his papers and published many of them in volumes, as he expected her to do. Of late years she has published little, and now has placed the papers in the hands of her brother’s friend Blake, who will print portions of them.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:09 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I strongly suspect none of those people have read Walden.
posted by fshgrl at 1:34 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Just dropping in to say that I love Emerson and Thoreau. They modeled courageous individuality and appealed to the mystical, spiritual dimension of life, while still being very involved in their time and place. American letters would be diminished without their contributions.
posted by delight at 4:18 PM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Every source I’ve seen said Emerson owned the property. it was only a mile or two from Thoreau’s mum’s house though.
posted by w0mbat at 4:25 PM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


"It was only a mile or two from Thoreau’s mum’s house though." Does this mean she delivered sandwiches on horseback?
posted by Oyéah at 5:18 PM on October 3, 2019


1) Yes, I concur with Orlop--he was living on Emerson's property, not his mother's.

2) A professor told us this stuff about his mom in a lit class, as if it were some kind of mic drop. As someone who is now a professor, and has seen students change over the years, I believe we should teach the book this way, without judgment, with a view to illustrating that "self-reliance" does not, in fact, mean total isolation. This is especially important as more and more young people have become dependent on families, out of need and the horrific state of the world of work. Self-reliance is a mindset. It's the ability to step back from the whirr of commerce and media, if only for a moment, in order to make something meaningful. Very few people can do that, these days.

3) Walden, the game, is a surprisingly pleasant experience.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 7:17 PM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, Thoreau did go on a bunch of extremely rugged camping excursions in Maine, where he, like, slept under a canoe every night, so maybe he's earned a bit of cred there.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 7:18 PM on October 3, 2019


Coming home from a trip to Boston a few years back, I stopped by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. Thoreau reposes there, a couple of plots over from Emerson. My recollection is that both Alcotts are just across the row, with Nathaniel Hawthorne skulking nearby. If you guys relocated Poe and Whitman here, you could have the bulk of nineteenth-century American letters in a patch of ground the size of a middling backyard.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:40 PM on October 3, 2019


Henry and William James, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville would like a word. Just of the people who are known now (William Dean Howells is in a corner, shedding a tear).
posted by praemunire at 8:46 PM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, Bon Ivor made that album is his father's hunting cabin which had electricity.

In the space of metaphors, Ted “Bon Iver” Kaczynski is one item, standing in for not-being-on-Facebook or similar.
posted by acb at 1:19 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


The best thing I ever heard about Thoreau (from a former professor) is that one of his jobs when was crashing with the Emerson’s was to chase down the chickens and fit them with little booties that Lydia Emerson knitted for them so they wouldn’t claw up her garden.

Did he do the fitting or did he just come up with this cunning plan and expect someone else to take care of it?

Thoreau: As remembered by a young friend says:
He dealt also with the chickens, defeating their raids on the garden by asking Mrs. Emerson to make some shoes of thin morocco to stop their scratching.
That leaves her tediously making little leather chicken shoes for all her pretty chickens, but is there a source for who had to shoe (rather than shoo) the chickens?
posted by pracowity at 2:09 AM on October 4, 2019


Is this a generational thing?

I'm forty and knew several of these dudes, who generally also read Muir and Whitman and mostly skipped Emerson (all half-commendable choices IMO). These were mostly the same people who discovered the beats.

All 19th century authors should be taken with an enormous grain of salt, and if that's how people approached them we'd probably be less annoyed.

Civil Disobedience is still pretty useful discussion reading for students IME. Easy to forget that Thoreau, Marx, Darwin, and Frederick Douglass were contemporaries.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:07 AM on October 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


Easy to forget that Thoreau, Marx, Darwin, and Frederick Douglass were contemporaries.

Nietzsche read and admired Emerson.
posted by thelonius at 5:20 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Civil Disobedience is still pretty useful discussion reading for students IME. Easy to forget that Thoreau, Marx, Darwin, and Frederick Douglass were contemporaries.

This is like when I was reading about Oscar Wilde's visit to Walt Whitman, and at some point Whitman sent Wilde a card that said something like, "Mr. Whitman will be at home on Thursday from 2-4 p.m.", and I was like, "He had a calling card! He was A VICTORIAN!"

One of the things I find valuable about Walden is the extent to which Thoreau studied and understood the land. He surveyed the lake, studied the thickness of the ice in winter, studied the fish and the loons. He just watched everything with tremendous patience and a powerful power of attention. And he is very funny on the subject of vexatious squirrels.

Thoreau visited the home where Walt Whitman grew up, where he hung out in the kitchen with Whitman's mom, and helped himself to something baked that Mrs. Whitman was taking out of the oven.
posted by Orlop at 7:29 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


I turned up my nose at Thoreau in college, but a few years ago I had a chance to take a class on Thoreau and Emerson at the amazing Brooklyn School of Social Research. Going into the class I was thinking of Thoreau and Emerson as American equivalents to the English Romantic poets, so I had no illusions about their approach to nature. I was expecting to hate Thoreau and like Emerson, but in fact I HATED Emerson with a passion. It's amazing to think he was the most famous man in America at one point. So much bad stuff in Emerson.

Guys, Emerson is the real enemy here!

And it turned out I loved Thoreau. It was clear from reading him that he was a pompous goof, but parts of Walden Pond are pretty funny. He's always walking into town, having people over, bothering the poor Irish neighbor, etc, then spending hours and hours watching a snail crawl across the window ledge, worrying about how trains have suddenly made people all uptight about the exact time. What's not to like?

Also I can't let this thread go without linking to Rebecca Solnit's lovely 2007 essay, The Thoreau Problem. It doesn't go the way you might think.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:03 PM on October 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


He's always walking into town, having people over, bothering the poor Irish neighbor, etc

So, I happened to end up in this discussion directly after reading about the Untitled Goose Game and now I can't shake the thought of an Untitled Thoreau Game wherein you traipse through the woods, help yourself to the neighbors' cooking, fit booties on the chickens, and generally make a semi-good natured nuisance of yourself?
posted by eponym at 8:39 PM on October 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


That Solnit essay is wonderful.

his compartmentalizing of Thoreau is a microcosm of a larger partition in American thought, a fence built in the belief that places in the imagination can be contained. Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us (so few have been able to find Thoreau’s short, direct route between them since). This makes politics dreary and landscape trivial, a vacation site. It banishes certain thoughts, including the thought that much of what the environmental movement dubbed wilderness was or is indigenous homeland — a very social and political space indeed, then and now — and especially the thought that Thoreau in jail must have contemplated the following day’s huckleberry party, and Thoreau among the huckleberries must have ruminated on his stay in jail.
posted by mecran01 at 6:32 AM on October 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


So, I happened to end up in this discussion directly after reading about the Untitled Goose Game and now I can't shake the thought of an Untitled Thoreau Game wherein you traipse through the woods, help yourself to the neighbors' cooking, fit booties on the chickens, and generally make a semi-good natured nuisance of yourself?

Less mayhem focused than the Goose game, but Walden, The Game does exist.
posted by codacorolla at 7:39 AM on October 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm guessing you just skimmed jessamyn's post, then?
posted by zamboni at 7:53 AM


Good grief, you’re right! I remembered I’d seen the quote (faux-ote?) on MeFi at some point, went looking for it on Google,found it (not in Jessamyn’s post), saw Jessamyn’s post was in my top hits also and was amused I could cite that instead. And now I’m part of the problem! Thanks, Recent Activity and Zamboni and (belatedly) Jessamyn, for teaching me something this day.

I am a little sad it’s apparently invented, but TMYK.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:55 PM on October 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


The universe is wider than our views of it.
"The facts are always less than what really happened." -- Nadine Gordimer
posted by lathrop at 8:10 PM on October 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


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