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The Transcendentalism Project > Transcendentalists Week 5

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments The discussion of Emerson is still going strong, and I expect will for awhile, but we need also to keep moving forward.

We now leave Emerson for his friend Thoreau. The moderators wished we could read all of Walden, but it just didn't seem to work in the time frame, so we're treating what may be a somewhat less central part of the book, the first section on Economy, as optional, and reading the remaining portions of the book as the "official" reading. But if some people are eager to read and discuss Economy, just ask and we'll be glad to open a separate thread for it.

So, this week we read "Where I Lived" through "Baker Farm." (Next week will be the rest of the book.)

There are lots of copies on the web, and probably in almost any library, but I tend to favor Gutenberg when it's available there since from that one site you can read it in your browser or download it onto almost any reading device, so here's the link to that:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/205

There's also an audio version on Librivox, but I don't know how good it is:
https://librivox.org/walden-by-henry-...


message 2: by Ashley (last edited Dec 09, 2015 09:24AM) (new)

Ashley Adams | 327 comments Everyman brought up an excellent point in an earlier thread. While we often envision Thoreau as a hermit in the forest, his hut was actually far from secluded. I haven’t been to Walden Pond personally, but from looking at this map I can see that Thoreau’s hut was between a road and a railroad- population must be close at hand as well.
description

I actually think Thoreau’s proximity to the railroad in particular adds important context to his work. Here’s Thoreau with his mantra of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!,” standing in direct contrast to the industrialization of commerce.

For me, Thoreau sort of embodies the impracticality of the transcendental movement. The ideal Walden cannot exist because society insists on encroaching, either through the railroad or in an arrest for civil disobedience. Many in the group have also noticed the impossibility of being truly self-reliant. Let’s not forget, Thoreau was squatting on Emerson’s land. Thoreau describes building the cabin in the section on economy, and acknowledges that to begin “I borrowed an axe… It is difficult to begin without borrowing.”

Though not a true hermit, a lot of Thoreau’s impact comes from the ever-present Emersonian desire to live as a great “who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

*image squished. A link:
http://www.cyberbee.com/henryhikes/ma...


message 3: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Ashley wrote: "Let’s not forget, Thoreau was squatting on Emerson’s land."

And let's not forget that he walked into town often to socialize (his era's equivalent of spending time on Facebook and Twitter!) and, despite his famous bean patch, to buy groceries and other items. A hermit he most definitely wasn't.

Which doesn't make his thoughts any less valuable, but as Ashley points out, it shows to some extent the impracticability of pure Transcendentalism.


message 4: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments I tried, and I am still trying, to look for the positive takeaways with Thoreau (he writes well) but I started with the optional chapter on "Economy". This chapter has all the appearance of a rather immature, entitled, one-sided, and unreasonable rant written by an 1850's troll. His knowledge is accompanied with an arrogance that makes him difficult to like. His is very unabashed when he should have been bashed. After my admittedly brief exposure to Thoreau I am able to mostly agree with this rather unfavorable review from the New Yorker.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...

Worst of all, reading Thoreau makes me feel old.


message 5: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Ashley wrote: "Everyman brought up an excellent point in an earlier thread. While we often envision Thoreau as a hermit in the forest, his hut was actually far from secluded. I haven’t been to Walden Pond persona..."

Where did the notion of Thoreau as hermit come from? He details some of his guests to the cabin in "Visitors," and he mentions that passersby could see him hoeing his bean field from the road. He does appreciate solitude as well, but he doesn't portray himself as a hermit exactly, so I wonder where that idea came from...


message 6: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments David wrote: "I tried, and I am still trying, to look for the positive takeaways with Thoreau (he writes well) but I started with the optional chapter on "Economy". This chapter has all the appearance of a rathe..."

Thoreau is a bit of a curmudgeon, it's true, but his writing is so much clearer and wittier than Emerson's. It took quite a while for me to get into the rhythm of Emerson's prose, and I found my self re-reading a lot. Thoreau is quite straight-forward by comparison, but maybe that is because he is swimming in shallower waters.


message 7: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Thomas wrote: "Thoreau is a bit of a curmudgeon, it's true, but his writing is so much clearer and wittier than Emerson's."

Emerson's writing is in the clouds. I am already feeling an affinity for Thoreau's writing. Or maybe it is more like Plato's dilemma. Is relief from pain a pleasure?


message 8: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Adams | 327 comments Thomas wrote: "Where did the notion of Thoreau as hermit come from? He details some of his guests to the cabin in "Visitors," and he mentions that passersby could see him hoeing his bean field from the road. He does appreciate solitude as well, but he doesn't portray himself as a hermit exactly, so I wonder where that idea came from... "

Hm. A second look at the text does show visitors everywhere. I'm not sure if the concept of Thoreau as a hermit really presents itself in the pages. However, we can be sure hermit-hood was attributed to Thoreau early on. I found a few reviews of Walden from 1854- one calls Thoreau a hermit and refers to him as a Yankee Diogenes. :)

Another review says "The man who, with any fidelity, obeys his own genius, serves men infinitely more by so doing, becoming an encouragement, a strengthener, a fountain of inspiration to them, than if he were to turn aside from his path and exhaust his energies in striving to meet their superficial needs." Sound like The Fountainhead to Rand fans out there?

A third review says of Thoreau "Individualism is the altar at which he worships"...no wonder the Transcendentalists are criticized for selfishness.

*all early reviews are found in the Norton Critical edition of the text.


message 9: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Ashley wrote: "I found a few reviews of Walden from 1854- one calls Thoreau a hermit and refers to him as a Yankee Diogenes. :)"

Thanks, Ashley. "Yankee Diogenes" is perfect for him.


message 10: by Genni (last edited Dec 11, 2015 07:15AM) (new)

Genni | 837 comments Thomas wrote: "Thoreau is quite straight-forward by comparison, but maybe that is because he is swimming in shallower waters.."

I noted this as I finished reading and I wondered....Emerson touts the philosophy of the Transcendentalist, while Thoreau applies it. But in Thoreau's writing, I mostly saw just descriptions of his life at Walden. There are very few references to the lessons of Nature or connections with the "deity within" that Emerson espouses. So is the application of Transcendentalism more shallow than the philosophy? Or does the application of T reveal the shallowness of the philosophy? Or is it deeper and I just didn't see it from a cursory reading?

Here are two references to the "deeper side" of his writing that I noted from the last chapter:

"the same thought is welling up to its surface that was then; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, in whom there was no guile! He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say,

Walden, is it you? It is no dream of mine, To ornament a line; I cannot come nearer to God and Heaven Than I live to Walden even. I am its stony shore, And the breeze that passes o’er; In the hollow of my hand Are its water and its sand, And its deepest resort Lies high in my thought."


"White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors; but being liquid, and ample, and secured to us and our successors forever, we disregard them, and run after the diamond of Kohinoor. * They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters, are they! We never learned meanness of them."


message 11: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Ashley wrote: "I'm not sure if the concept of Thoreau as a hermit really presents itself in the pages. However, we can be sure hermit-hood was attributed to Thoreau early on.."

Analytical psychology was not really popularized until Carl Jung, right? And he wrote after Thoreau died. So, I wonder if Thoreau was thought a hermit simply because reviewers did not understand extroversion-introversion? If not a hermit, It seems Thoreau was most definitely an introvert....


message 12: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments In the visitors chapter, Thoreau describes a French-Canadian that he often conversed with. The gentleman sounded to me like a Transcendentalist himself, but Thoreau seems to think not since, "the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant." and "If I suggested any improvement in his mode of life, he merely answered, without expressing any regret, that it was too late.".

But in his descriptions, he describes the man as supremely content in nature and "In physical endurance and contentment he was cousin to the pine and rock." Thoreau talks about how humble, how genuine, authentic, and original the man was, all things that Emerson says a Transcendentalist should be.

So to be a Transcendentalist, it is not enough that you be one with nature and in touch with the deity within, you must also be aware of it intellectually?


message 13: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments
"To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
Is this a rare moment of humility in Thoreau claiming that he himself is not awake/alive and would feel shame in facing a man who is truly awake/alive?


message 14: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments
"...but before the owner gave me a deed of it, his wife—every man has such a wife—changed her mind and wished to keep it..."
This sounds like a rather backhanded insult directed towards all married men, all wives, or both. I wonder if he thought of Emerson and his wife in this way?

As it turned out, he should be thanking that couple for not selling to him. Otherwise he would have purchased a farm, which is contrary to his principle of not committing to one for as long as possible.


message 15: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments David wrote: "
"To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?"
Is this a rare moment of humility in Thoreau claiming that he himself is not awake/alive and would feel shame in facing a man who is truly awake/alive? ..."


I didn't read it that way, as humility; I read it more as that a truly alive person is like the sun, something dangerous to look at. But I'm not wedded to this interpretation at all; it's just how I read it the first time through.


message 16: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Adams | 327 comments David wrote: "As it turned out, he should be thanking that couple for not selling to him. Otherwise he would have purchased a farm, which is contrary to his principle of not committing to one for as long as possible."

Just before the section you mention Thoreau says "...a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." As he walks through the farms he eats wild apples. Wild apples each taste differently- the ones we buy in the store with a taste we have come to expect have been grafted to retain flavor consistency. Wild apples have not been tended by farmer's hands and represent a unique set of experiences.

The apples are like the farms around him, each unique. As he wanders around farms, he's sort of trying on the lives of those that live there while maintaining the freedom to experience other possibilities. I don't think he ever intended to literally buy a farm, but is offering the story as an illustration of the temptation to settle. Thoreau uses the term "wife" when he could just as easily referred to any attachments such as a home, family, or a job (that's what I like to think he means when he says "every man has such a wife," that everyone has responsibilities weighing them down). In the end, his experience is richer by not having many attachments.

I also think Thoreau should be grateful for his encounter with the couple. As he acknowledges when the sale does not go through, "I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty."


message 17: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Genni wrote: " There are very few references to the lessons of Nature or connections with the "deity within" that Emerson espouses. So is the application of Transcendentalism more shallow than the philosophy? Or does the application of T reveal the shallowness of the philosophy? Or is it deeper and I just didn't see it from a cursory reading?."

I think Thoreau is true to the old cliche that a writer should show rather than tell. Emerson, on the other hand, does a lot of telling, and he shows how easy it is to get lost in the depths. Emerson is trying to demonstrate universal truths, but it seems like Thoreau is just living his life. Thoreau isn't formulating grand perspectives: he's talking about how many chairs he has and how to hoe beans. He's very concrete compared to Emerson. This is how Thoreau talks about God (or Nature personified, perhaps):

I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things, even without apples or cider — a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much, who keeps himself more secret than ever did Goffe or Whalley;(10) and though he is thought to be dead, none can show where he is buried.

I find that really refreshing, compared with Emerson's ambiguity.


message 18: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Genni wrote: "If not a hermit, It seems Thoreau was most definitely an introvert.... ."

When Thoreau was invited to come live on the Brook Farm commune, a transcendentalist community, he reportedly said, "I had rather keep bachelor's hall in hell than go board in heaven."


message 19: by Ashley (new)

Ashley Adams | 327 comments Thomas wrote: "Thoreau isn't formulating grand perspectives: he's talking about how many chairs he has and how to hoe beans. He's very concrete compared to Emerson. "

I really enjoy Thoreau's examples. His bean farming makes me laugh, though. He plants in the wrong season, other farmers warn him "Beans so late! Peas so late!" Ever the individual, Thoreau will farm as he pleases. He finds his own joy in tending them and asking "What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?" I wonder if he ever learned that the best thing for his beloved beans would be to plant them earlier...


message 20: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Thomas wrote: ""When Thoreau was invited to come live on the Brook Farm commune, a transcendentalist community, he reportedly said, "I had rather keep bachelor's hall in hell than go board in heaven."


Well that puts that question to rest! Lol


message 21: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Thomas wrote: ""Emerson is trying to demonstrate universal truths, but it seems like Thoreau is just living his life."

Maybe this is my problem. I really enjoy the search for universal truths, but I can't jump on Emerson's train. In some sense, I get where he is coming from, but I don't get where he's going. Lol As for Thoreau, I enjoy his writing and his humor. But I guess I was hoping he would clarify Emerson for me, or expond on his thought. But he doesn't do that. So I drop that expectation and move on, I guess.


message 22: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments In Nature, Emerson praises the post office as a result of the useful arts, a commodity with the purpose of allowing a man to do work.

Maybe Thoreau should have read Emerson more closely because Thoreau thinks the post office is an unimportant waste of resources:
For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage.
The description of this book: The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau: Volume 1: 1834 - 1848 seems to contradict this claim.
When completed, the edition's three volumes will include every extant letter written or received by Thoreau--in all, almost 650 letters, roughly 150 more than in any previous edition, including dozens that have never before been published. Correspondence 1 contains 163 letters, ninety-six written by Thoreau and sixty-seven to him.
https://books.google.com/books?id=DEV...

How plausible is it these 650 letters were all unimportant and delivered without passing through a post office? Is this an example of Emerson's claim of artists that "The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain"?


message 23: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments Thoreau's thoughts seem to be at both extremes of a dichotomy at different times. In one place he will state an ideal absolute:
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.
Walden (p. 51).

Then later he claims another absolute but more practical thought that goes against the first.
I confess, that practically speaking, when I have learned a man's real disposition, I have no hopes of changing it for the better or worse in this state of existence.
Walden (p. 67).

In this case Thoreau demands the opposite poles of a black and the white extreme at one time then another and excludes the possibility of any middle gray on a continuum between the extremes. I have heard it said that Thoreau was very "sensitive" which explains how he can see both extremes. Does his exclusion of the middle betray some immaturity or some arrested development?


message 24: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments David wrote: "Thoreau's thoughts seem to be at both extremes of a dichotomy at different times. In one place he will state an ideal absolute:
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability ..."


I don't read these two passages as strictly dichotomous -- in the second Thoreau is describing the commercial goods that are shipped on the Fitchburg railroad that runs near the pond, and the "obstinacy" of Spanish hides reminds him, for some reason, of man's "constitutional vices." A man in "this state of existence" is indeed hard to change, but I think it is a different kind of man than the one he refers to in the first quotation.


message 25: by David (new)

David | 2615 comments Thomas wrote: "I don't read these two passages as strictly dichotomous -- "

I agree the context of each is different. The first refers to, man or mankind's ability to "awake" and reform his morals. The second refers to a man's inability to change his his habits or mankind's ability to change the established set of principles governing their society.

Even in these different contexts it seems that all men, individually or together (mankind) does, in the former, and does not in the later, have the ability to change. In neither case does Thoreau simply demonstrate that some do change and some do not change or ponder the middle ground of different circumstances for either case. In the first case he just makes a claim; and in the second case he hems himself in to make his metaphors work.


message 26: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments David wrote: "In neither case does Thoreau simply demonstrate that some do change and some do not change or ponder the middle ground of different circumstances for either case. "

Maybe that is what is "transcendentalist" about him. Like Emerson, Thoreau seems to think that morality just comes to a person naturally, and there is no need for circumspection. Which makes me wonder, if transcendentalism doesn't involve circumspection or consideration of circumstances, can it be called philosophy?


message 27: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Genni wrote: "I can't jump on Emerson's train. In some sense, I get where he is coming from, but I don't get where he's going".

Why would you (or anyone) want to jump on Emerson's train? You are not welcome there.

He is not going anywhere either. He has arrived.


message 28: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments David wrote: "I started with the optional chapter on "Economy". This chapter has all the appearance of a rather immature, entitled, one-sided, and unreasonable rant written by an 1850's troll ."

I didn't get that impression when I read Thoreau many years ago. Which passages are you referring to specifically?


message 29: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments I agree with David that Thoreau can be contradictory at times. For example, at one point he writes "I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper." Yet he also writes "If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspaper in the world at once?—not be sucking the pap of "neutral family" papers, or browsing "Olive Branches" here in New England."

And not much further on, he writes "My days in the woods were not very long ones; yet I usually carried my dinner of bread and butter, and read the newspaper in which it was wrapped..." Presumably it was he who wrapped the dinner in newspaper; why would he waste time reading one when he was so negative about them?

At another point, he wrote "I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book?...We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. " Isn't that pretty insulting to Emerson (who supported him quite willingly and to the extent of letting Thoreau live with him at one point, and use his land on Walden Pond) and the other Transcendentalists? Weren't these men and women pretty well educated about the "worthies of antiquity"? Why does Thoreau need to insult basically every Harvard educated person in Concord?


message 30: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1717 comments Thoreau reminds me of myself in my teens, when I wondered why cereal boxes could not have Platonic dialogues on their backs, rather than inane games and advertisements.


message 31: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Nemo wrote: "Genni wrote: "I can't jump on Emerson's train. In some sense, I get where he is coming from, but I don't get where he's going".

Why would you (or anyone) want to jump on Emerson's train? You are n..."


I don't want to. :-)

I am with him as far as not being materialist (where he's coming from: an assumption that there's more there than meets the eye), but as for his destination(being a transcendentalist) I don't know how he gets there, or "arrives", as you put it. That is why I am curious about the French-Canadian he talks about. How do you know when you become a transcendentalist? This guy walks about, one with nature, virtuous, but has no intellectual curiosity. Is he not a transcendentalist? Who can say?


message 32: by Nemo (last edited Dec 15, 2015 11:58AM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "At another point, he wrote "I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here...."

I don't see it as Thoreau insulting the educated people in Concord, but simply him pointing out that there are wiser men than they, especially the "worthies of antiquity", whose books are worthy of studying. In other words, he is endorsing this group. :)


message 33: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Roger wrote: "Thoreau reminds me of myself in my teens, when I wondered why cereal boxes could not have Platonic dialogues on their backs, rather than inane games and advertisements."

Now I wonder whether any kids ever wanted verses from the Scriptures on the back of their cereal boxes.


message 34: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Genni wrote: "How do you know when you become a transcendentalist?"

Before knowing "when", it is better to know "what" and "why" first, isn't it?


message 35: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "I don't see it as Thoreau insulting the educated people in Concord, but simply him pointing out that there are wiser men than they, especially the "worthies of antiquity", whose books are worthy of studying. In other words, he is endorsing this group. :) "

It wasn't so much the wiser men part of the comment I found insulting, certainly Plato is wiser, at least IMO, probably than almost anybody in Concord at the time. It was the "whose names are hardly known here," which implies that almost nobody in Concord has even heard of Plato, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, et. al.


message 36: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Nemo wrote: "Genni wrote: "How do you know when you become a transcendentalist?"

Before knowing "when", it is better to know "what" and "why" first, isn't it?"


Emerson has supposedly told us "what" and "why". This is why I am wondering about this guy; one with nature, simple, authentic, etc etc. Why doesn't Thoreau consider him a T?

Actually, I should probably go back and reread the description of this guy. Maybe I will see it differently,


message 37: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4409 comments Does Thoreau ever say anything about transcendentalism per se? Does he consider himself one, or is that just the label that was attached to him? It seems to me that he's too grumpy and concerned with his own space to join the club.

I would think that the Canadian was a transcendentalist in his own way, and that is why Thoreau tells us about him. He is a simple man and he is happy in his simplicity. That seems to be the one virtue that Thoreau aspires to most -- simplicity and common sense. Contrast him with John Field, the man described in 'Baker Farm' who works like a mule to keep himself and his family supplied with unnecessary luxuries.


message 38: by Chris (last edited Dec 28, 2015 10:13AM) (new)

Chris | 374 comments My little paperback that I bought in 1973 is literally coming apart at the seams as I read through this. And sigh, I am just going to accept that I can not keep up with the group! Anyway I found it comforting that I still like the passages that I highlighted all those years ago and latched on to a few more on this reading. Thoreau is much more accessible to me than Emerson. Perhaps because the waters are "shallower" as someone suggested or that he is more "concrete" as Thomas@17 put it. A breath of fresh air. I just enjoy being immersed in his pleasure of the simple things, of living with nature without totally eschewing the necessity of human social interaction, his humor and humanness. Even his contradictions. It brings me back to the pleasure I found in times of solitude in the woods, or camping, hiking, kayaking with others etc. Too trivial? Not enough thinking?


message 39: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Chris wrote: "My little paperback that I bought in 1973 is literally coming apart at the seams as I read through this. And sigh, I am just going to accept that I can not keep up with the group! Anyway I found it..."

Chris, I always feel behind, too! I think the fact that you are opening yourself up to readings that you would not normally pick is commendable. :-)


message 40: by Chris (new)

Chris | 374 comments Genni wrote: " Chris, I always feel behind, too! I think the fact that you are opening yourself up to readings that you would not normally pick is commendable

You are too kind. Thanks.



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