Walden and Known Failure


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? 


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.

Liquid Soapbox


You found it!  The secret bottom tab with all the really JUICY commentary!

Need an explanation for the name?  It’s simply a moniker I created to describe a metrosexual who thinks he has something important to point out from time to time.

I’ll put all types of writing here that doesn’t quite fit into the other categories.  While I never really set out to offend, it’s bound to happen.  Who am I?  No one, really.  Just a guy who is using technology to exert some built-up mental tension.

This is Only a Test


NOTE:  The blog below was drafted a few months ago.  At the end of any semester, I usually have brief discussions with students about “test anxiety,” and, while I only have actual teaching experience on which I base anything resembling advice to give to these students, I try to let ease their anxiety by encouraging them to avoid allowing a single test assigning them the incalculable ability to define their individual intelligence.

Today, I had a little time to read THE PALE KING by David Foster Wallace.  In short, he’s describing the differing levels of high school students’ attention to “homework.”  To him then (and to me about fifteen years later in the early ’90s), he observed that one group simply applied themselves hard enough to meet the minimum requirements to satisfy their parents and the teachers.  Wallace  believes he fell into a second category (oftentimes the recipients of peer group labels like “grinds” and “tools”)  primarily because his work was put forth in the spirit of actual learning and not in the spirit of passing.  I too felt this way about my secondary and post-secondary education.  I now must quote the book directly about his perception of his high school peers.

“In Philo [his hometown], educating yourself was something you had to do in spite of school, not because of it–which is basically why so many of my high school peers are still there in Philo even now, selling one another insurance, drinking supermarket alcohol, watching television, awaiting the formality of their first cardiac” (p. 295-6).

I love teaching, but one of m professional struggles centers on the fact that so many of my students seem to be in the first category and not the second.  If there is a formula to create more personal integrity and instill a passion for learning, I have yet to find it.

Finals week for college.  For most, the last week of classes in December or May virtually forces many college students to do some crazy things they’ve never done before.  This includes increasing their caffeine intake to incredibly unhealthy levels, behaving neurotically around their friends and family due to the stress, and studying.  However, taking final exams is a time-honored tradition and probably will never end.  Last year, when a lot of people suddenly subscribed to the fate that awaited us on the Mayan calendar, there were some high school students who probably felt that studying was unnecessary because their test was scheduled after the world was going to explode.  They woke up December 22nd sad, dejected, and frustrated with themselves and the Mayans.

Let’s talk about tests.  No?  Oh, right.  This isn’t interactive.  Allow me to comment on tests.  Tests are meant to measure someone’s comprehension of a topic.  For instance, if I gave you a test over this blog, Question One might be this:

1.  What are tests meant to do?

And, since you’ve read this far, you could probably recall reading something about tests a little bit ago and scan…scan…scan..OH!  THERE IT IS!  be able to answer in probably the same terminology I provided.  Tests are, as we BOTH now succinctly agree, meant to measure someone’s comprehension of a topic.

Fantastic.  I can see by your answer that your native language has not escaped you.  You win as a student.  I win as a teacher.  One of us thanks the other; the other says no no no..you did all the work.

Now what?  If the student continues this behavior over the course of an academic year (August/September through May/June–which, by the way, is NOT they Mayan calendar but rather a common sequence of months adopted over a century ago in order to enable young people to work on family farms during the summer months), then that student is promoted to the next grade level until Grade 12 has been reached.  Why Grade 12?  Well, it stands to reason that most people upon finishing Grade 12 are approximately “legal” and are considered “adults” who are ready for the “real world” (a place filled with employers who, comically,  rarely hire young people due to their “inexperience.”)

So, when these Grade 12 graduates see that the job market for them is rather slim, they (voluntarily?) enroll in the next level of education of college.  These 2-4 years (avg.) typically offer young people more specific courses that will prepare them for life in the “real world” and open up many more employment opportunities.  These years of college are, for many, much more difficult and demanding that the ones recently spent at Grades 11 and 12.  The “homework” load becomes really, really intense.  The expectations are higher.  The food is sensationally better.  The environment usually promotes culture and art and music and entertainment and fun and tomfoolery and teachers who may or may not use “vulgarity” in the classroom.  It’s very very different, but in a few ways it is the same.

And during these years of college, students are regularly required to take (and pass) cumulative semester exams.  The professors and instructors and enormously expensive textbooks have offered boo-coo information.  The classes have been lecture, hands-on, small-group, widely open, incredibly strict, musically accompanied, or some wild mixture of all of the above.  But now, on this day of the exam, students must exhibit a full understanding of some or all of the main concepts provided over the last sixteen weeks.

Upon finishing the exams, students feel one of the following emotions:  complete and utter relief, freedom, satisfaction, or nausea.  The outcome/result of the test may truly affect that individual’s life path.  It could determine whether or not the student is allowed to continue his/her education at that institution.  It could determine the graduation likeliness.  It could determine that the student showed absolutely no sign of learning over the last few months, which contrasts with assignments and quizzes from before (this can lead to a determination that the student “got help” for those assignments and “cheated” on those quizzes.)

But here’s where I’m going with this.  Thanks for sticking around this far, BTW…

Why?  Should a single test really have that much weight to it?  Should any one test ever affect someone so much?  Who in adulthood has anything that means that much to them as a final exam, the SAT or ACT, or some standardized test means to the children and young adults?

Did an expectant mother have to take a test in order to be able to keep her baby?

Did someone out there recently take a test that could enable them to purchase groceries for his/her family?

Was there a test that you took that determined whether or not you would be able to sleep indoors or outdoors tonight?

Tests tests tests tests tests.

It’s insane how much our young people are tested.  It’s overkill.  And it’s killing them.  I truly believe testing–at least the amount that is given to students–is mostly unnecessary.

Would you like to know what your children/students learned?  Ask them.  Did they get it?  If so, great!  If not…try again!

This is a terrible ending point, but I’m nearing 1200 words and there’s little change you finished this anyway.  Thus, it’s back to THE PALE KING for me!

10 of My Favorite Books (All-Time, as of Dec. 2013)


*When one of my favorite books comes up in conversation with a student or class, I will often say that the book is in my Top Five.  Over the years, I have probably named twenty different books that are in my Top Five.  Here ya go…no particular order, really.

1.  Native Son – Richard Wright

2.  The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger

3.  Zeitoun – Dave Eggers

4.  Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

5.  The Jungle – Upton Sinclair

6.  What is the What – Dave Eggers

7.  In the Time of the Butterflies – Julia Alvarez

8.  The Tragedy of Othello – William Shakespeare

9.  Harry Potter (whole series) – J. K. Rowling

10.  Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman