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.

Fall Musings and Other Non-essential Reading


Not sure where this will end up, but here goes.

If you’ve ever had to endure a conversation with me, you are aware of a few things.  Number 1) My breath indicates my adoration of coffee, especially if it’s before ten.  2)  I have an annoying tendency to make light of just about everything.  3)  You are never quite sure if my words are genuine or sarcastic because I am incapable of exhibiting a change in tone.  4) I tend to begin lists that have no real direction.

In short, opposed to what my mother might say, I’m not perfect.  Nowadays, though, she’ll incorporate passive-aggressiveness (a Lively tradition since the mid-70s) and say things like “I had the best dream last night, Steven.”  Of course, I’m dying to know what Tom Selleck was wearing in this one, but she slams me with “You brought Katy and Whitman over and had shaved your beard.”

What can I say?  I’m the son of one clever lady.

I asked students last week to explain whether or not people in chosen professions (coaches, teachers, ministers, etc.) should be held to a higher moral standard.  I sifted through several responses and learned that younger people–predominantly my high school students–firmly believed that “everyone should be treated equally” while a majority of my college-level students believed those within leadership/representative roles take on an expected obligation to be role models and should be held to that higher standard.

While I did not take the time to calculate percentages, it was something like 53.294% felt everyone is the same while the other 46.706 believed the opposite.

What does this say about our country?

We’re pretty mixed on that one.

Were you hoping for some magical analysis?  Maybe YOU’RE the one whose mathematics are a little rusty.

Side note:  Whenever I call out a page number for the students to find, I tend to complete the prime factorization of that number aloud while I wait.  For example, today I called out “Page Five Eleven, ladies and gentlemen!” then subtly added “Seven times seventy-three for those of you playing at home.”

Anyway, I was reviewing some essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (yes, THAT Ralph Waldo Emerson) to better prepare the students for their incredibly difficult quiz tomorrow.  [It’s actually NOT that bad for the students who read the passages, mind you.]  In the class textbook, there is a sample from Nature.  The section that they read touches on some of the main themes of the entire book.  Emerson believed that (in the early 1800s, gang) Americans were becoming too dependent on a rapidly changing world.  Industry and technology were advancing the nation, but the Romantics held firm that it could spell disaster for the SOUL.

I’ll pause so you can say “Ooooohhh….”

The Romantics were passionate artists.  They adored the little prizes that the earth provided for all of us:  observing a starry sky on a clear evening…taking in the landscape as a whole and dismissing the fact that the land is owned by someone, etc.  This is probably why we still have Pinterest material that encourages us to “Stop and Smell the Roses” or that to “Live, Laugh, and Love” is what we truly need.  Notice it doesn’t say “Live, Buy, Argue, Judge, Insult, Bully, and Demean.”

The other Emerson essay is from a piece called “Self-Reliance.”  As the title suggests, Emerson encourages the reader to seek out a life that one desires and not simply wait to be told or led around.  Of course, it may be our parental duty to expose the youth and guide them, but we cannot, for their sake, pull them by the snout throughout their lives.  True success in this life–I’m paraphrasing now–has nothing to do with one’s bank statement or corner office.  Shouldn’t we instill our children with more faith in humanity and not act on childish impulses to judge?  I’m pretty sure that if Jesus had a tattoo, it would have said “4Giveness iz Key.”

I distinctly remember sitting in my guidance counselor’s office when I was in high school.  He/she, while looking directly at my most recent transcripts, wanted me to rattle off some careers I’d considered.

“Teacher” prompted an eye roll.  Now, perhaps he/she was hoping I would say something like “Forensic scientist” or “Litigator” but I didn’t know what either of those two words meant when I was fifteen.  Then again, he/she might have been jaded by Education and stifled his/her empathy for yet another misguided youth.  In either case, I felt like I was letting him/her down.  But I showed him/her, didn’t I???

I have to mention one more piece before you go back to your other favorite thing to do.  The kids are assigned to read an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s (yes, THAT Henry David Thoreau) “Resistance to Civil Government.”  Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax that he knew would fund a war he didn’t support.  While he only stayed in prison one night (and I believe a relative paid the tax for him), he was inspired to write a scathing essay on any government’s role toward its citizens.  Please don’t quit now.  This one’s good.  In short, he supported a citizen’s right to stand up for what he or she believed was morally right.  He urged readers to not sit back idly and allow the government to intervene at its will.

This is still going on today, folks.

While I may not have all the accurate data to show you [a great pie chart would be perfect here…ya know, because apple PIE is the all-American dietary choice], I can say-slash-type with the utmost conviction that about 4530% of what you do online is being viewed by Barack Obama right now.

Well, anyway, something like that.  So…here’s the point.  If you’re interested in reading about what some of these Romantic authors had to say about 200 years ago, please seek them out.  Chances are their work is accessible for little or no cost on your e-reader, phone, tablet, wrist-microchip, etc.

And help celebrate Banned Book Week (a week that ironically promotes the reading of books that have been banned in schools and libraries nationwide).

Hey, thanks for sticking around to this point.  It means a lot to me.

And Obama.

And the Romantics…maybe.