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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