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17 june 2013

Walden is a curious and querulous classic. I am about to – not to say "inflict it on" – introduce it to students in an American literary history course next fall, and as I've been rereading it I've had some misgivings. Not enough to remove it from the syllabus, mind you. Everybody really should read Walden.

I read Walden for the first time when I was in my teens, in high school in New Jersey in the 1970s. I didn't read it because I was in high school; it wasn't required. I just happened to be in high school, and impressionable, and living in one of the uglier corners of one of the uglier United States. There was a train embankment near my school where long-ago construction had left behind a pond that had gone back to a quasi-natural state, and I'd take my copy of Walden out there in late spring after the maples had leafed out, and enjoy my own little version of the Thoreau experience. (A surprising amount of Walden is about trains.) I reveled in my miniature Walden, at least until a teacher warned me off hanging out beside the tracks, because other guys were going out there to sell drugs. (See "New Jersey," above.)

If you read Walden as a teenager, and don't experience at least a temporary inoculation against consumer society, you have no heart. "To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" (59): when you're 15, it's very hard to discern what those essential facts might be; all you really know is that high school isn't interested in teaching you how to discern them.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" (4). "The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior" (6). "A life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust" (9) These words can help you get unscathed through high school, and for the rest of your life, for that matter.

Add to that Thoreau's gift for describing nature, and you have a potent package. The things I still remember best about Walden are the battle of the ants, the loon teasing Thoreau over Walden Pond, the ice axe skidding across its surface, falling through a hole, and coming to rest perfectly visible at its bottom.

But it's not all different drummers and the life deliberate. I've enjoyed Walden less with each subsequent reading. Possibly because I'm growing old and heartless, but possibly too because elements of its tone and language are becoming clearer to me in a way they couldn't, 40 years ago; possibly, I'll grant, because I see too much of myself in Thoreau's voice. (And just possibly, because too much of my voice is borrowed from Thoreau.)

It's not that Thoreau is politically objectionable. He is, a bit, though in ways we don't expect from a writer in 1854. His nastiest trait is his bizarre prejudice against Irish people. ("The culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe," 133.) It's the more surprising that he has deep respect for Indians, and an utterly colorblind empathy with black people that is in stark contrast to even some of his most liberal contemporaries. It may be that the Irish thing is akin to a 21st-century white liberal's stereotyping contempt for trailerpark whites, but it seems less superficial than that; white liberals (to stereotype them!) who scorn rednecks can be ultra-conscious of ethnic identity, and Thoreau is not; an African-American to him is a person first, and a color only incidentally, as in his startling reference to a black man of Concord legend: "'a man of color,' as if he were discolored" (166). No, there's something deeper in Thoreau's contempt for the Irish, and it's kind of late to talk to him and get him to open up about why.

Still less do I want to make the offhand charge you sometimes hear about Thoreau, that he was more pampered hypocrite than true survivalist. Walden is an essay, not a guidebook; in many ways it's more a thought experiment than anything else. It's a bit late to scorn its author for not walking the talk; and anyway, there are more attractive candidates nearer to hand: any best-selling author with a book contract and a tax write-off who decides to go off the grid for a year is both more hypocritical than Thoreau and far less original. No, I don't sense problems of ethics (in either the rhetorical or the moral sense) behind Walden; or at least, they're a very small concern.

No, as I said, the problem is one of language, or languages; Walden is a profoundly "dialogic" book that engages many different registers and dialects. The author is insufferable about his Latin and Greek (something I caught from him and kept up till I'd forgotten most of my own Latin and Greek). He's insufferable about his handiness (even his frequent admissions of failures in carpentry or housekeeping are insufferably backhanded, I find). He's baroque, for want of a better term, full of over-elaborate metaphors and precious conceits. He's cryptic, labored, and contemptuous: you can look a long way through Walden to find anyone who comes up to his standards. As I noted, he reminds me more than a little of myself, which is uncomfortable; yet I learned a lot about writing prose from Thoreau, so he's partly to blame for reminding me of him. He's full of scorn for the philistinism of his neighbors, but doesn't seem to exert himself in any direction except thinking up more cleverly philistine things to say about them. Again, I'm looking in the mirror here, and don't like what I see.

Walden has the great virtue of being immediate, about what its author knows; and like most great local-color texts, of being supremely convinced of the importance, and the representative qualities, of the place the writer knows best. It so seems to be about the world at large that one can miss – in small-town New Jersey, suburban Texas, or a lot of places in between – the extremely specific use it makes of Concord, and its general sanguine approach to its ignorance of almost anywhere else. That too limits its appeal, in ways hard to define: yes, Walden Pond can be anywhere, but it's also very specifically Walden Pond, a place where you're not, by definition, and can no longer ever get to.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, life in the woods. 1854. New York: Dover, 1995.