Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Works of Thoreau

Portrait: The Literature Network

Works of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Lily Owens, Illus., (713pp. 1981, pub. By Crown Pub., Inc., Avenel Books, New York), including Walden and other writings originally published in 1906 and original photographs by H. W. Gleason.

Walden and From the Maine Woods are, of course, familiar at least in name to anyone with even the scantiest acquaintance with American literature. Even Thoreau’s discourse on Civil Disobedience is being quoted by the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Included in this collection of writings also are From Cape Cod, Wild Apples, Life Without Principle, Autumnal Tints, and A Winter Walk. I find his writing interesting, and even identify with some of his principles, but still occasionally find some of the discourse tedious. It’s as though he is sitting alone with a continuous mental stream of thoughts, and every thought goes onto the page without editing or consideration of its value. Although I admit I might find myself in the same position if I was locked away in a small cabin in the woods for two years. (On the other hand, it may be that I’m presently sick and feeling miserable, and perhaps looking more to be entertained than enlightened.) The parts I found most interesting, and the ones likely most interesting to those who love the outdoors, are the chapters on the pond, winter and summer, and woods. You can share his feeling of transcendence into nature as he describes in detail the impressions made by the wildlife he encounters, snowfall, trees, even the ripples in the sand on the lake bottom or air bubbles under the ice.

His thoughts on economy in living were most interesting on the backdrop of our disposable, wasteful, narcissistic, Kardashian society. While not adjusted for inflation, at a time (1845) when land in New England could be purchased for $8.08/acre, he found he could live off of 27-cents a week for groceries, and by working for six weeks at manual labor, could earn enough to cover all of his living expenses for the remainder of the year. Here’s one I’ve always considered true. “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.” “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.” “It makes little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.”

As if touching on the current suits over navigation rights (the right to float on or paddle) on rivers and streams, Thoreau had no tolerance for the greed of property owners, especially those that would go so far as to name a section of water after themselves. “What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky (reflecting) water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled on it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like.”

Like Emerson, Dickens, or Twain, Thoreau should probably be looked on as required reading for oneself. Thoreau himself was a devoted reader and held the practice in high regard. “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise…” Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”

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