I Hate Thoreau

5 Oct
Grave of Henry David Thoreau and Family

The Mind-Reading, Mind-Bending Thoreau

In anticipation of our upcoming downsize (see what I did there?) I stumbled across this essay while sorting through paperwork.  I wrote it sometime in 2000, but I’m doing a bit of “oh my gosh I can’t believe I actually wrote that” editing as I retype (though there’s not much I can do about the uber-long first paragraph without rewriting the whole darn thing).   I’m © this 2010, so don’t steal it, mmkay?  It’s called…

HOW NOT TO WRITE A MEMOIR, UNLESS YOU’RE THOREAU

First, move to the woods.  Tell everyone how wonderful you are because you’ve decided to move to the woods.  Instead of writing deliciously quaint childhood anecdotes, make flow charts citing the prices of everything you’ve used to survive while living in the woods.  Never EVER say anything interesting until the last chapter of your memoir (that way readers will be surprised you’re not a moron when they finish the book, that is IF they finish).  Next, be catty.  Insult everyone you know in an underhanded, mean way by comparing them to animals, trees, or ice.  Do this in such a way that only the most careful of readers will know you’ve insulted him. Use dull, bland language like “Economy,” “The Bean Field,” and “The Pond in Winter” to title your chapters.  Be sure to veer completely off topic at least twice per chapter. And, while digressing, be careful to use as many extended metaphors and hyperboles as you can, thus confusing your readers even more.  Use the most interesting subject matter you can think of, like tree branches and cows.  Devote an entire chapter to a field.  Devote another chapter to ponds.  Make hundreds of references to books you’ve read so readers will know you’re a literary genius.  Next, write your memoir so that it is not, in fact, a memoir, but rather a representation of your personal philosophy.  Also, your memoir should represent a microcosm of the world at large.  You can accomplish this by telling people your memoir represents a microcosm of the world at large.  Finally, die of tuberculosis with only your ego and the chipmunks living under your floor to keep you company, wait about seventy-five years, and voila!  Your memoir will be a literary classic!

WHY IT WORKED FOR THOREAU

Henry David Thoreau was not a moron, nor was trying to outsell the Bible.  He had a specific purpose in mind, and that purpose was to make a statement about the society in which he lived.  He did so by rejecting that society and creating his own.  Though Walden is often tedious, it is an exceptional piece of literature.  I’m not sure why it works, but I have a few ideas.

First, Thoreau says things like “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” and man is “merely a mass of thawing clay.”  Yeah, I mocked the metaphors earlier, but maybe it’s the language that fuels this book.  Maybe it’s this sentence on page 275:

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit – not a fossil earth, but a living earth.”

I’ll also, albeit grudgingly, admit this: even if he said it arrogantly and sometimes confusingly, Thoreau had a point.  “The universe is wider than our views of it,” he writes.  Yes, yes it is.  And writing about a book I don’t like, especially writing GOOD things about it, has certainly got to count as expansion.  It appears Thoreau is also a time traveling mind-reader from beyond the grave, because just as my utter determination to loathe Walden reached its peak, I read this: “As if there were safety in stupidity alone.”  Point taken.  Unfortunately for this paper’s original thesis, Thoreau was not some crazy man living in a cabin in the middle of the woods.  He was smart, meticulous, and often poignant, and his book demands respect (and maybe even a little bit of awe).

Finally, Walden works because, in following with the above outlined model, Thoreau really DID die of tuberculosis.  There you go.  })i({

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