Walden and Known Failure

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For many years, I assigned to my high school juniors whatever excerpts from Walden the literature textbook had supplied. This usually included the opening lines from “Economy” (though the editors may have fragmented some portions) and ended shortly after the heavily cited and depressing sentiment “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I believe that was followed by the meticulously detailed account of the building and planting materials from that same initial chapter. The opening of “Where I Lived…” appeared next and stretched until the line about living “deliberately” met my students’ eyes. Later, of all things, “Brute Neighbors” was portioned out in our textbook, but the section chosen by the editorial team centered on the aerial view of the large red and black ants, included because, we eventually discussed, that it was a relatively strong sample of Thoreau’s use of symbolism concerning, some students suggested, themes such as individualism, war, and community. As a career educator, I would eventually like to slip into future conversations concerning the American canon, and I continue to believe passages of Walden are essential to the shaping of literary thought in America. While each of the aforementioned excerpts represents either a general or specific thematic feature of the book, this week’s re-reading of Walden paired with the supplemental articles by Arsic and Walls identified for me other valuable portions that might pull back from Thoreau’s desire and ability to check out of society (more or less) for twenty-six months, and instead center on some revealing stylistic choices that make the book relatable to individuals born since 2000. 

I was especially drawn to the thorough examination Laura Dassow Walls identifies in her analysis of the relationship between the Thoreau of Walden Pond and the “everyman” neighbor Mr. Field (later, Mr. Farmer) from the latter half of one of the shortest chapters in the text, “Baker Farm.” The theme of this scene directly echoes a key remark from  Emerson’s “Nature” essay (which, I would argue, should also remain accessible in standard anthologies) where he shrewdly observes how mankind takes ownership of land, but that “no one owns the landscape.” Walls cites how the first half of Walden establishes themes of industry and fortitude as the cornerstones of soulful satisfaction. By inserting John Field–a man who respects the sage words of the author/narrator, but who also elects not to heed his advice–into the narrative, however, Walls sees that Thoreau has set himself and the project of the book up for failure. Because the Fields (who Walls suggests may represent a hesitant-to-change Us) remain unaltered by his words, Thoreau is reduced to dwell on their irrationality. Walls, though, believes this short scene was structured “deliberately,” in order for it “to confront us unequivocally with the true sources of evil in our own well-meaning desire to improve ourselves by working hard, buying more stuff, and rising in the world, just as we have been told to do” (20). 

This passage from Walls struck me because it runs parallel to so many themes found in the various essays and fiction from David Foster Wallace, one of the subjects I’m considering for my area of specialization. Wallace, like Thoreau–or, what Laura Walls suggests is the character named “Thoreau”–often discussed The American Dream of proudly and ceaselessly logging hours at work (and consequently away from one’s friends and family) in order to climb the corporate ladder, upgrade a car every so often, move into a larger living space and fill it with stuff no one needs in what ultimately will end, whether we want to believe it or not, in a fruitless quest to secure happiness. Walls believes Thoreau sought to appear defeated in this scene because Walden “will succeed only if [Thoreau] can pivot his audience from material failure to spiritual success” and that readers “must feel this failure” (21). 

Branka Arsić’s essay uncovers a focal point from Walden that I had not considered earlier either. This approach toward Things was, for me, a much more abstract analysis, but I applaud her efforts in identifying and tracking the Things themselves and navigating through different classifications of those Things. The portion of the essay that resonated the most with me appeared toward the end of the middle section “Deathway of Things.” By labeling things from Thoreau’s perspective as either living or dead, she cites from the book the “two different responses to the phenomenon of dead things, that of the Mucclasse Indians and Mexicans, and that of the New Englanders” and notes that Thoreau “does not side with either” (165). Walls notes that the way the author seems to understand things aligns with the “non-dualistic understanding of the world” to which the Mucclasse Indians subscribe”[m]eaning must be embedded in the material” of the Thing (165).  

The value of Arsić’s essay and Walden is that these two Things themselves have potential in formal and informal educational venues. The book itself allows students in classrooms or readers in book clubs multiple opportunities to identify what is or should be treasured, to discuss the evolution of our moral values, and to express the bond we have with material (or immaterial) Things. While culturally, we may clash about the value or usefulness of living or dead Things, the discussions themselves about these differing perspectives can lead to a greater appreciation for one another as human beings, which, it seems safe to say, is among Thoreau’s central objectives within Walden.

Question for Class Discussion

  • Walls discusses how past analyses have concluded that Thoreau’s alleged disdain for the Irish is short-sighted. Are there other instances in the book where he reveals his privilege and/or expresses any level of contempt or prejudice toward an individual or group? 

Sources

Arsić, Branka. “Our Things: Thoreau on Objects, Relics, and Archives.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 23 no. 1, 2014, pp. 157-181. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/556056.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. (original 1845 publication).

Walls, Laura Dassow. “‘As You Are Brothers of Mine’: Thoreau and the Irish.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 88, no. 1, 2015, pp. 5–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718201.

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THEATER REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (September 2019)

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The 2019-2020 season at First Presybyterian Theater season kicks off this month with Oscar Wilde’s timeless classic The Importance of Being Earnest. This pointedly amusing story features various perspectives on the institution of marriage and the great depths we can reach to maintain our reputations. Often noted as the legendary author’s most treasured work, The Importance of Being Earnest will either introduce or remind viewers of Wilde’s distinct voice. His unique descriptions of London society and the modern world are just as applicable today as they were when it was first published in late-nineteenth century.

Aaron Mann stars as Algernon, a playboy brimming with confidence and rarely at a loss for words, and boldy rejuvenates the character director John Tolley associates the most with the Wilde himself. Chance Parker captures remarkably well the quieter, but equally clever and well-intentioned Mr. Worthing, Algernon’s acquaintance. Together, Mann and Parker loop viewers into their world and their amusing (though elitist) lives as they carry the rapid-fire pacing of the plot and dialogue throughout the bulk of the first of the two acts.

In a play replete with irony and parallel plot lines, Mann and Parker are countered by two outstanding performances by Laura Laudeman and Kelly Maloney as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, respectively. Laudeman’s consistent balance as a dutiful daughter and impassioned woman genuinely catapult the momentum of the first act. After intermission, Maloney highlights the naivete of Mr. Worthing’s ward Cecily, whose shift into adulthood has been overlooked by all of those around her. 

As the tension rises among these four individuals throughout the second act, audiences are greeted with moments in the play where Wilde is all but snagging us by the collar and expressing what we think and how we are flawed. One strong attribute of this particular performance is the presentation style where characters rarely speak in the direction of one another. By turning toward the audience, viewers themselves become the ones addressed and discussed, which adds to the universality of this examination of human desires and fragility. Through his seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical tricks, Wilde’s remarkably interwoven script lends itself to the audience in ways that other playwrights have not done and may never do. At the risk of drawing from a cliche, this play has everything. From Algeron and John Worthing’s first few lines, viewers can easily draw parallels not only to themselves, but also the themes of independence, loyalty, and even deception. 

One of the funniest characters in this play is that of Aunt Augusta, and Kate Black’s extraordinary version is not to be missed. In a role that is equal parts elitist and hysterical, Black enriches each scene with unparalleled authority and biting commentary.  

Though it is a secondary plot, be sure to watch and listen closely to the words and interactions of Marsha Wallace as Miss Prism and Scott Rumage as Reverend Chasuble. While these two combine for a comparative lower amount of overall presence, Wallace and Rumage exude  Oscar Wilde’s style and wit in perfectly timed jabs at relationships, love, and religion.  

Rae Surface and her set design team have created another appealing and appropriate stage for a play so dependent on dialogue, and Jeanette Walsh’s distinct costuming aligns well with the era of late nineteenth century London.  

We live in a time where one can curate his or her own image out to the world in ways Oscar Wilde likely never dreamed possible. However, can we ever truly love ourselves or anyone else if we misrepresent ourselves to anyone, regardless of our justifications for doing so? True love, perhaps Oscar Wilde was suggesting, is not satisfying the expectations of someone else. It is, on the other hand, acknowledging one’s own flaws and accepting the flaws of others as nothing more than a common attribute of the human condition. The play is a really good read, but witnessing it first-hand through the stellar performances of this cast is unmatched.