Thoreau in a History class

I’ve read Walden with my Environmental History sections as a Teaching Assistant, and when my turn came I considered assigning a bit of it to my class. In the end I didn’t, but Thoreau was present anyway, in Ted Steinberg’s Introduction to Nature, Incorporated, and in my lecture about Environmentalists in America. Thoreau is a landmark for environmentalists and for historians, but like many landmarks, we don’t really examine him that closely anymore, which is unfortunate. Although they were all aware who he was, only a couple of my students had ever read any Thoreau. It was interesting for me talking about Thoreau in a history class, rather than in English, which was where I first encountered him. I wonder if that led to a greater effort on my part to talk about context—or is that just me?

There were certainly things about
Walden that surprised me, and that I had not picked up on when I read it as a teenager. One thing was, the way Thoreau seems to jump back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the same page where he sublimely observes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau also says, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave driver of yourself.” Stephen Fender, the editor of the Oxford World Classics edition, apologizes for this passage by saying Thoreau was one of the first critics of the northern factory system. Fender tries hard to put a “free labor” spin on what really amounts to a ridiculous, insensitive statement. But ironically, I think it’s partly Thoreau’s middle-class, northern-white-guy ignorance and self-centeredness that makes Walden so rich and enduring.

Sure, there are enough literary and cultural references to keep classicists and concordance-writers happy. But is this why we still read
Walden? And there are beautiful, graphic passages about nature, and about Thoreau’s experience of the woods and the pond. But I don’t think this accounts for his continuing popularity, either. I think it comes down to two things: Thoreau gives us a view of nineteenth-century America from a perspective way outside the frame; and he’s a white, middle-class, suburban intellectual, like most of us.

It’s very difficult to critique the system from within. By leaving and looking at his society from the outside, Thoreau helps us see things that ought to be obvious but are not. He reminds us that “the principal object” of the new textile factories is “not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.” Once we’re pulled out of the frame a bit by that thought, Thoreau continues, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Thoreau is a sensible guy, but he’s not a saint — he keeps reminding us that his perspective is personal and limited. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross,” Thoreau says. “It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune.” But just when you want to hit him upside the head with a 2x4, he redeems himself and concludes the paragraph with “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

When Thoreau looks at Concord and sees “the village was literally a
com-munity, a league for mutual defense,” it’s easy to recognize echoes of the culture of fear playing itself out in our own time. Thoreau is right: “if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with.” The wish to “live deliberately…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” is as contemporary as it could possibly be. Thoreau’s critique only becomes stronger, as our culture moves farther from simplicity. In the end, it may be the ahistorical nature of Walden that has made it so enduring. Marching to the beat of a different drummer and cultivating wildness (a fabulous oxymoron) are timeless. As opposed to something like Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular contemporary book Looking Backward, which was filled with specific recommendations that don’t wear nearly as well, a hundred years later.

But when I’m reading
Walden with my history class, I question the historical accuracy of those “lives of quiet desperation,” even though the statement is intuitive and resonant. I suspect that it’s a bit of a projection, both when Thoreau originally said it and when we read it and nod knowingly. But yeah, there’s something to it, then and now. Similarly, the idea that they built a telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas have nothing meaningful to say to each other is just a bit of a sneering, elitist misrepresentation, isn’t it? There will be a lot of data and facts in my dissertation, but the real meat of the thing will come from thousands of letters that people wrote to family members. They clearly thought they had something meaningful to say to each other, even if it was only “I just planted six acres of potatoes” or “How is Mother?” If Thoreau doesn’t deign to consider that type of communication worth the penny postage, that’s his problem.

But I
did still compare the telegraph to Facebook and Twitter, and the students got it.