|"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  25 Sep 2008
"In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted," or so Thoreau tells us in the second paragraph of Walden, or Life in the Woods. He continues, "in this it will be retained."1 No shit. Walden is written in the first person. We readers should thank Thoreau for alerting us. He does so, of course, after the narrator has already referred to himself as I. This passage, therefore, accomplishes nothing any observant reader would not have already noticed and further typifies Thoreau's excessive and unnecessary long-windedness.
So there we have it. Except that drawing me to that observation is exactly Thoreau's point. The passage is obviously unnecessary to the observant reader, and by its inclusion Thoreau states that most readers are not observant. The entire book does the same; it draws attention to the fact that most readers -- including, perhaps, the reader -- assumes certain things about the way a book and the world in general works. What is unnecessary to the observant reader is, in actuality, the entire book.
I have thus made some general observations about the purpose of the "In most books..." passage as well as some likewise crude general observations about the book as a whole. I now will endeavor to analyze the content of the passage itself. The passage has sixteen words. Strangely, only three of those words are more than one syllable, "person" and "retained" being two and "omitted" consisting of three. It has five nouns ("books," "I," "person," "this," and "it"), three adjectives ("most," "the," and "first"), two prepositions ("in" and "in"), one conjunction ("or"), one predicate adjective ("omitted"), one simple verb ("is") and one complex ("will be retained"). It is separated by a semicolon into two sections, the first being "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted" and the second being "in this it will be retained." The first section has ten words and the second six. The first has three nouns ("books," "I," and "person"), all three adjectives, one of the two prepositions (since both are "in" I shall make no reference of the specific preposition used within these parentheses), the only conjunction ("or"), the only predicate adjective ("omitted"), and the simple verb ("is"). The second section has two nouns ("this" and "it"), none of the adjectives, one of the two prepositions, no conjunctions, no predicate adjective, and one complex verb ("will be omitted"). That verb contains exactly half of the second section's words. Two more of the words in that section are contained in a prepositional phrase ("in this").
The second section is starving for adjectives. The river of words runs dry too soon and looks backwards towards the river that preceded it, wishing it were as long as its predecessor. It marvels at the first river, its father, admiring the commas that bend the father river in elegant, swift "s"-like motions. The father river digresses, explains; its terse son does not. The father knows to enjoy life, to take the time to explain himself; his son does not. His son cannot wait to get to his goal, but having gotten there he wishes he took a longer route. This young boy seeks to strike out on his own, separating himself from his father, but cannot see himself as a reflection of the choices his father has made, of what his father has done. It is an eternal story. The son is focused on the future -- and if one listens to him his speech will make this abundantly clear -- but he reaches the end of his life having missed his life, or more specifically, the twists and turns, the love affairs and career changes that characterized his father's life. The father is a playful squirrel, the son an ant or honeybee, professional but not alive.
The split between an "objective" description and a "personal" one, as (imperfectly) demonstrated by the preceding too paragraphs, reflects the writing method of Walden. The "objective" approach is characterized in its extreme by a map of Walden Pond showing labeled measurement lines and an arrow representing the True Meridian (1866), as well as charts showing the cost of materials used in the building of a house (1744), all food expenses for eight months , and a farmer's expenses and income (1802-3). Prose written through this approach is typified by the following passage, which describes Walden Pond in impersonal detail, using the language of a biology report:
It [Walden Pond] is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation. The surrounding hills rise abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet, though on the south-east and east they attain to about one hundred and one hundred and fifty feet respectively, within a quarter and a third of a mile. They are exclusively woodland. All our Concord waters have two colors at least, one when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand. The first depends more on the light, and follows the sky. In clear weather, in summer, they appear blue at a distance, especially if agitated, and at a great distance all appear alike. In stormy whether they are sometimes of a dark slate color. (1809) The preceding passage could be described as "accurate." It deals with readily observable facts and invites criticism or verification. The "objective" approach to prose in Walden can also be seen in the following passage, which treats humans as biological phenomenon and keeps an "objective" or "scientific" distance from its subject matter:
Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homśopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the cats rattle. (1805) By contrast, the "personal" approach might be described as "poetic" or "subjective." It is characterized in its extreme by descriptions of flowing sand as "lava," "sappy leaves or vines," "coral," "grotesque vegetation," "imitated in bronze," "a puzzle for future geologists," "agreeable," "embracing the different iron colors," "semi-cylindrical," "sand foliage," and "foliaceous" (1874). These descriptions last two paragraphs or fifty-nine lines consisting of approximately fifteen words per line (1874-5). It contains words italicized for no discernible reason. The second paragraph describes the scene as "the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me," explains that "the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves," adding that "the atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype" (1874-5). It then discusses the origin of the words "lobe" and "globe" as well as the appearance and sound of its letters (1875). It concludes:
The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils. (1875) The next paragraph proceeds to compare the thawing clay to humans:
Such are the sources of rivers. In the silicious matter which the water deposits is perhaps the bony system, and in the still finer soil and organic matter the fleshy fibre or cellular tissue. What is man but thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body. Who knows what the human body would expand and flow out to under a more genial heaven? Is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins? The ear may be regarded, fancifully, as a lichen, umbilicaria, on the side of the head, with its lobe or drop. The lip (labium from labor (?)) laps or lapses from the sides of the cavernous mouth. The nose is a still larger drop, the confluent dripping of the face. The cheeks are a slide from the brows into the valley of the face, opposed and diffused by the cheek bones. Each rounded lobe of the vegetable leaf, too, is a thick and now loitering drop, larger or smaller; the lobes are the fingers of the leaf; and as many lobes as it has, in so many directions it tends to flow, and more heat or other genial influences would have caused it to flow yet farther. (1875) The subsequent paragraph then compares the sandflow to all of nature and to God:
Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Campollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? (1875-6)
In the "personal" sections, flowing wet sand is not "literally" flowing wet sand but a metaphor for all of humanity, nature, and God himself.
This approach is further demonstrated by calling Walden Pond a "character" (1818) and by so "personalizing" or "subjectifying" the environment as to claim:
Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore [of Walden Pond] and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. It struck me again to-night ... -- Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago ... ; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. ... I can almost say, Walden, is it you? (1818) In the previous passage, not only is Walden Pond an entity with a face but time itself is "subjectified." Time receives similar treatment in the following passage:
Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. ... I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. (1770) The following passage, another very "personal" example, includes abundant and even mixed metaphors:
Having each some shingles of thought well dried, we sat and whittled them, trying our knives, and admiring the clear yellowish grain of the pumpkin pine. We waded so gently and reverently, or we pulled together so smoothly, that the fishes of thought were not scared from the stream, nor feared any angler on the bank, but came and went grandly, like the clouds which float through the western sky, and the mother-o'-pearl flocks which sometimes form and dissolve there. There we worked, revising mythology, rounding a fable here and there, and building castles in the air for which earth offered no worthy foundation (1856).
The American Reaction
It is necessary here to generalize about the typical American reaction to such passages. Reading the highly "objective" passages, charts, and map may be somewhat alienating to a typical American reader, but he is a great deal more comfortable with them than with the highly "personal" passages. Occasionally such a reader might object to the inclusion of charts into a work of fiction, but he is quite at home among a passage of prose describing Walden Pond in analytical detail. He might even be thankful for the inclusion of the map, which places the setting of the story (which he has previously had to imagine for himself -- a highly "inaccurate" pursuit) into a "scientific" map of real place that can be measured and verified to exist exactly as the text describes. He may check the statements of an "objective" paragraph with the "facts" they refer to (checking against the map the distances given for travel on Walden Pond) and even do so "automatically," without really thinking about the "decision." To members of a society that stresses logical confirmation of statements and "realistic" writing, making such checks and expecting "realistic" and "verifiable" writing appears instinctual.
In contrast, the typical American reader is confused and angered by the "personal" passages. To him, the "personal" descriptions seem drastically different from the "objective" or "verifiable" ones. A sudden apparent change between the two is likely to startle and upset him. His thoughts as he reads the above example of a highly "personal" description may include:
"How can the sand be lava and lichen at the same time?"Thoreau's intention is to get the reader to think about these questions. If he answers them he can only come to some of the following answers:
"How can a sand flow be 'agreeable?' Agreeable to whom?"
"Why are 'sand' and 'banks' italicized? They're not in a foreign language."
"How can the earth express itself? We're talking about things."
"What the hell is he talking about atoms for? How can atoms learn or be pregnant?"
"Why the fuck is he talking about words and letters and etymologies? This is a sand flow here!"
"What the hell is all this cheap philosophy of the universe stuff doing at the end? We were talking about a sand flow, dammit!"
"Because 'sand' is only a figure of thought and speech."
"The only 'sand' here is what the writer puts here. It is agreeable as he and/or the narrator says it is agreeable."
"To draw our attention to the words themselves and remind us that they are in a language."
"Because the writer made it that way. The only 'earth' here is a figure of thought and speech."
"The narrator decided to put 'atoms' in for some reason I can't figure out, but it was he that put them there and made them learn and become pregnant."
"He's talking about words and letters because that's what I'm reading. Actually, that's all I'm reading."
"The philosophy is there because the writer put it there. The narrator apparently sees the sand flow as a metaphor for the world as a whole, not as a physical phenomenon."
These answers focus the reader on the writer and on the narrator, making the reader see the text as an expression not of something "objective" and physically confirmable but of the writer and his passions.
Most American readers, however, will not answer the questions raised by such a reading. The answers to these questions are obvious and unavoidable once the question is raised and thought of to any real degree by the reader. Since the answers are uncomfortable for most Americans, they will try to ignore the questions they have thought of while skimming over what they do not wish to think about. They will probably note only that the descriptions of a "personal" section of text are "strange" as they continue, scanning ahead for more hospitable passages.
By repeating the apparent split between "objective" and "personal" throughout the book, Thoreau hopes that his readers that do skim or scan without thinking and evaluating will eventually perceive what they are doing. This is virtually inevitable since they would likely find themselves skipping over large sections of text. Just as Americans find it difficult to read Walden without skimming, they likewise find it difficult, after some duration, to completely ignore the fact that they are doing so. We, as Americans, don't like knowing that. It's uncomfortable. Our tendencies are to read unconsciously, to breeze through Walden as we might Candide. But Thoreau will not let us. He forces us to realize that we are missing whatever point may lay in the text we are skimming, and part of the point we are missing is this realization.
The Rest of the Book: Paradox, Simplicity, and Self-examination
Thoreau attempts to force the typical American reader to confront the questions raised by the "strange" "personal" sections. Accordingly, he makes the book lengthy and includes many "personal" passages of considerable size. He also includes "objective" passages that, by contrast, draw attention to the "subjectivity" or "personalization" of the "personal" passages. Most of the book, however, is a hybrid between these two extremes. Far from failing to prompt the reader during these textual portions, Thoreau draws attention to his readers' discomfort.
During these hybrid sections, Thoreau develops three themes: paradox, simplicity, and self-examination. The finest example of paradox to be found in Walden is Walden itself, a fact which might be considered paradoxical. One of the book's themes is simplicity, yet it is a lengthy and incredibly complex book, dealing as it does with multiple styles of narration, paradoxes, and whatnot. That it deals with and stylistically embraces polar extremes and yet advocates against those very extremes is yet another paradox. Thoreau himself wrote:
For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. But other examples may be found within the text.
In proportion as he [one] simplifies his [one's] life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. (1884) Through the use of paradoxes, Thoreau draws our attention to our own perception of paradoxes, dependent as it is on our belief in a dichotomy between "fiction" and "fact." Readers might ask, "How can Walden Pond be a character? Is not 'Man' separate from 'Nature?' Are not there 'things' and 'people,' separate and fully distinguishable?" Thoreau tells us the answer if we let him:
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make [for our purposes we shall be dealing solely with America], that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toad-stools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them [words?]. As if Nature could not support but one order of understandings... [this is followed by a series of seemingly inexplicable "ramblings"]. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments... . The truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. (1884)
In other words, "I'm doing this on purpose, stupid reader. You want what I say to be logical but that is a ridiculous demand. I want to communicate without language. You interpret or translate what these words mean, stupid reader, but the only 'truth' is here on the page, the literal reality of ink and paper." The final line too draws attention (or exposes) Western dichotomies: "The sun is but a morning star" (1889).
This leads into the theme of simplicity (which itself leads back into the theme of paradox).
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand ... . Simplify, simplify. (1766)
This avocation of simplicity, of course, is paradoxical. Why not use one "simplify" rather than two, one "simplicity" rather than three? Why not make the passage (and indeed the whole book) one word: "simplify?" Why not do nothing instead of writing such a passage? It would certainly be simpler.
Simplifying in Walden means the consolidation of Western dichotomies, destroying the line between "fact" and "fiction," "Man" and "Nature," "logic" and "illogic." It means not over-interpreting and over-analyzing words which are, finally, only human constructions made of sounds and letters of ink lines, an expression of human wants and needs. Thoreau has fun with the reader in the following two passages. To a awake reader conscious of what Thoreau has been pressing him towards throughout the text, these passages are avocations through example for simplicity. To an unconscious reader, they are confusing and frustrating just as the highly "personal" passages are.
In sane moments, we regard only the facts, the case that is [namely ink letters on a page]. Say what you have to say, not what you ought [what you have been trained to see as instinctual]. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if her had any thing to say. "Tell the tailors," said he, "to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch." His companion's prayer is forgotten. (1886)
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves. (1727)
It is not surprising, perhaps, that many scholars, not understanding Thoreau's point, have sought to discover who Tom Hyde is and whether the story concerning him is true. Likewise are they still on the trail of the hound, bay horse, and turtle-dove, trying to interpret what they mean. Are they the Trinity? They certainly can not be ink, letters, words, and patterns of thought and speech. Somewhere Thoreau must be both laughing at their stupidity while likewise, perhaps, (paradoxically) crying that the many devices of Walden have failed with them.
In the parts of Walden that advocate self-examination, we find further indication (or, to use the "objective" word we have been trained to use in essays such as these, evidence) that Thoreau intends us to recognize our perception of this split. If the use of paradoxes is intended to indirectly draw readers to examine their own preconceptions, the use of lines discussing or implying a process of self-examination and self-determination are intended to do so more directly. Two examples follow:
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. (1883)
The three themes or literary techniques used in these less extreme passages are each designed to trick the reader into examining what seem to be discrepancies within the text. These discrepancies include not only the paradoxes, but the very large number of passages and paragraphs that seem to make little or no cohesive "sense" and the questions raised in the typical American mind by the highly "personal" passages as well. Eventually, by the end of the book, certain messages can be gleamed.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. (1766)
So what are these messages? How does Walden push us to look at the world? It certainly forces us, as readers, to focus on the words themselves and on the agent(s) writing those words. It makes us aware that words and concepts such as "Nature," "humanity," "logic," "emotion," "Self," "Other," "Truth," and "fiction" are human constructions. Animals probably do not contemplate whether they are a part of or apart from "Nature." They probably do not worry whether they are being "logical" or "emotional." They probably do not have "identity crisises," nor wonder what is "truth" and what is "fiction." They are probably too busy hunting for food to survive, looking for other animals to have sex with, and trying to sleep. The concepts they "fail" to realize do not exists as separate entities. They have no Platonic form except what humans have constructed for them. And if animals do contemplate these (it is, after all, a human -- and primarily a Western human -- conception that they do not), they have their own "forms" which they too have constructed. Concepts by their very nature are constructions of the animals that think of them.
The distinction between "objective" and "personal" passages is no more or less than a choice of words. Everything is "subjective" or "personal," including (importantly) the statement that "everything is 'subjective' or 'personal.'" That "subjective" statement, an expression of human perception and illusion though it is, is also "real." It exists exactly as much as anything else does.
Likewise, words and anything expressed either in written or audible form is a human construction and Thoreau continually shifts the focus of his readers to the words themselves. A squirrel is only called a squirrel because we say it is. It does not come prepackaged with a name-tag that reads "squirrel." We have assigned "artificial" names to things. Of course, the concept of what is "artificial" is a human invention as well. What distinguishes "artificial" from "natural?" That an animal we call a "homo sapien" made the thing rather than an animal we call a "squirrel?" What distinguishes, for that matter, a "homo sapien" from a "squirrel?" The concept of neatly ordered specieses is, of course, a human conception. It is a word, a figure of thought and speech.
In the following passage, Thoreau not only does that, but transfigures an owl into a pessimist:
Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one [owl] on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the grey oaks. Then -- the I had never been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods. (1783)
The owl is not said to be saying something like "Oh-o-o-o-o that I had never been bor-r-r-r-n!" Instead, he is saying that. How can he? Because he exists only as a figure of thought and speech. He exists only on paper and will say exactly what Thoreau wants him to say.
Walden Pond does not exist as an entity separate from humans. The expression "Walden Pond" is constructed by humans, an expression of human needs and desires just as the text is an expression of Thoreau's. It would be more accurate to say that a pond exists that we, living in America and speaking English, commonly refer to as "Walden Pond," but even this statement is constructed from language which is, by its nature, "artificial" and made of lines and sounds, not water. If one imagines a picture of Walden Pond and the surrounding landscape, with no words attached, one has evaded the word problem but is still representing a body of water with paint. The painting would still reflect human drives and desires. No doubt it would also leave out the infrared and ultraviolet of the light spectrum. It also would only represent the pond rather than be the pond, and only represent it from one particular angle and in one particular season besides. If we were to travel to Walden Pond in order to look at it, we still would not see the whole of the pond. We would "see" only the light rays hitting our eyes that our eyes can collect and our brain can interpret. We also would not see the bottom of the pond or what it looked like from all angles. We also would not know what it looked like at all times from the earliest gathering of water to the end of the pond sometime in the future. In fact, the concept of a pond itself is a human construction. When would Walden Pond as a temporal occurrence begin or end? When the first or last single water droplet sat or will sit where the pond now lies? When there is the first or last appearance moisture in the ground? Similarly, where is the border of Walden Pond?
The following passage illustrates the railroads, like Walden Pond, are a human construction.
If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if the railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. (1766) Railroads are not inevitable. They are not, strictly speaking, necessary. They are, rather, and expression of human thought and need.
The Role of the Writer
We now may return to the passage from which all of this began:
"In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained." (1720)
Does any book, from the most "personal" autobiography to the most "objective" history, anthropology, or physics textbook omit the I? Not really. The words the writer chooses are his own. The historical "facts" are not "facts" if they are never recorded. They only become "facts" as the writer writes them and people believe them. Are the Kung really more "egalitarian" than our society? Really? By whose measurement? Who defines "egalitarian?" Isn't "egalitarian" a Western human construction? Are quarks really colored? Does that mean they have polka dots and neon dresses? Isn't that an expression of thought and speech? Ah.
Having understood (in some crude fashion) the rest of the text, we can now understand that the "In most books..." passage is ironic. The difference between "omitted" and "retained" is, after everything, human designations. This is not to say they do not exist, but they exist only in the minds of homo sapiens.
As Americans, we probably were initially put off by the passage. It pays attention to the narration while we (in the words of another great American character) "prefer not to" notice our narrators. From the start, Thoreau will not let us. So long as we read his book, we are reading his book.
So let us follow Thoreau's advice (for the moment) and examine the writer. What is Thoreau doing with Walden? Why did he write it? The typical American reader does not already recognize what Walden has to tell him. He is unlikely to recognize the map as a ink on processed plant matter. He is unlikely to recognize the distances given as based on an arbitrary human standard. He is unlikely to recognize the arbitrary nature of meridians, to see them as a human construction existing solely in ink and human thought, and thus to laugh at the inclusion of the True Meridian (as if any meridian could be truer than any other). Thoreau's goal is to "wake us up" to the way things are. He wrote:
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake.
So Thoreau is trying to get a message across. Pure and simple.
Except that what Thoreau's doing is, by his own admission, expressing his own passions, desires, needs. The typical American reader does not realize Walden's messages, but he does not have to. The void in his understanding does not necessitates the writing of Walden. No, Thoreau was not an agent of cosmic balance, writing because the universe demanded people "understand." He wrote because he was an organism. He wrote because he wanted to. Because he needed to. He wrote because, like all organisms, he had to survive.
He propagated his message because he had to, not in the sense that fate demanded it but in the sense that he was obsessed with that message. He was so obsessed, in fact, that he wrote a book -- a rather lengthy book -- about his message and allowed it to be circulated. He allowed it to enter our perception, the light rays diffracted from its pages to hit our eyes, making the book a figure of our thought as well. His obsession is clear in his seemingly mad repetition, the extremes of his digressions, and the paradoxical passages in which Thoreau (now a figure of the reader's thought) laughs at his reader. Thoreau (or, more accurately, the figure of thought and speech which we commonly refer to as "Thoreau") writes, "We can never have enough of Nature" (1880), and laughs an angry laugh at his readers (and my) perception of "Nature" as a separate entity from ourselves that can be "gotten."
In his conclusion, Thoreau writes:
To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world. The buck-eye does not grow in New England, and the mocking-bird is rarely heard here. The wild-goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou. (1881) Not only does this passage transfigure a "wild-goose" into a "cosmopolite" (making it such rather than saying it is like a "cosmopolte"), as well as draw attention to the words themselves ("buck-eye," "mocking-bird," and "wild-goose"), but it also pokes fun at the reader. Thoreau is offering his American readers "a change of air and scenery." It is they that are "sick" and Thoreau that is the "doctor." But Thoreau is also the "mocking-bird" whose message is "rarely heard" in "New England." But, as Thoreau writes, "here is not all the world."
I could not have understood to any significant extent the messages of Walden without also addressing what I, as a writer and the narrator of this tale, am doing. Am I conscious that the statements this paper has made apply to me and to this paper as well? I have claimed that "Walden Pond does not exist as an entity separate from humans," but have I also realized that this paper does not? I have claimed that Thoreau himself is a figure of our thought and speech, but have I realized that I am as well? I have written a paper that advocates the destruction of the dichotomy between "objective" and "personal," but have I really realized that what I am doing is also "personal?" Am I conscious of the fact that in writing of what Thoreau reveals as the "truth" and what the typical American reader "falsely" believes while simultaneously attacking the usage (and "reality") of that dichotomy, I am embracing the same paradox that is at the heart of Walden? Do I realize that writing a paper structured in this "objective" and "organized" manner a paradox just as Thoreau's book is and that the use of "improper" contractions and sentence fragments further add to this paradox? Did I do so self-consciously? Do I do so consciously self-consciously? Does not the inclusion footnotes pretend that this is an "objective" paper that can be checked and verified? Have I realized that my entire argument is a figure of my own thought and speech, no more "real" than anything else, and that once it passes to another it will become a figure of his thought and speech? Have I realized the flaws inherent with putting quotes around some words and not around others while I write that all words are human constructions? Have I realized that the I, or first person, is retained in this essay as well? Having posed these questions, the answer must (I hope -- oops, shouldn't have included that) be yes.
Perhaps now we can understand what Thoreau meant when he wrote:
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.
This essay was first made available online sometime during or before May 1996. It was, as best as I can determine, written on 12 and 13 May 1996 for Peter Fritzell's class on American literature at Lawrence University.
1 Norton Anthology of American Literature, fourth edition, volume I, page 1720. All subsequent parenthetical citations to Walden come from this edition.
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