Having just gone through 5 weeks of analyzing Walden for my English class, I had to get a few things out before I could say I was done.
Walden, that revered book upheld by the multitudes as a great piece of written work, is probably one of the most tedious and poorly thought-out books in American Literature. It’s author, Henry David Thoreau, was a scatter-brained person. He liked to make long arguments about why people shouldn’t live the way they do, or make the decisions they do, then get a brief surge of inspiration that maybe they should live the way they do, or act the way they do. Thoreau goes even further in that some of his writing is so unintelligible, that it makes no logical sense no matter how hard people may study it. Despite all of this, Walden has gathered much popularity, being considered one of the “Great pieces of American Literature.”
Thoreau’s lack of consistency is actually one of the less aggravating issues with Walden. First, Thoreau uses the beginning quarter of the book (the first chapter) slowly touching on his many views against progress. For instance, “savages are warm in a wigwam during a blizzard, while civilized people freeze in their homes”. He also mentions reducing the amount of furniture one owns, and avoiding the division of labor completely. The problem is that there are several instances, strewn throughout his philosophical arguments, where he backtracks and claims that, after all, it’s quite alright to make progress and to even make your life better:
“Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.”
This leaves the reader wondering if Thoreau is ever going to make up his mind later in the book (he doesn’t). It’s not usually a good thing to make your reader question whether your mind is made up or floating between ideas. Later, Thoreau says that reformers and do-gooders are boring and immoral:
“Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatest bores of all,”
“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
He can have his own opinion, except that’s not what this is. The biggest reform, the biggest way to do good at the time, had a war fought over it. It was called abolition, and Thoreau voluntarily involved himself heavily in it’s promotion. Not only did he help runaway slaves escape north to Canada, a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 (not adjusted for inflation), but he also wrote an essay praising John Brown’s unlawful vigilante raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which resulted in the deaths of 24 people.
Unfortunately for Thoreau, he not only can’t decide which side of an argument he stands on, he also fails to make a single compelling argument of his own… at all. Almost all of his attempts are either horrendous, mind-numbing run-ons, or they are total incomprehensible gibberish. One of his sentences is a record-breaking three hundred and forty words long. In it, Thoreau dreams about a giant house with only one room. This monster-sentence is located on pages 169-170. It is one of the finest examples one can imagine of an out of control run-on sentence, and should never be replicated. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Thoreau has dozens of sente-graphs (single-sentence mega-paragraphs) splattered all throughout Walden. When he isn’t committing grammar-crimes, he’s writing such nonsense as this:
“Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a worn-out China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.”
Let’s examine this sentence: First, we are told to go west, farther than the Mississippi or the Pacific. Fine. Then, we are supposed to avoid conducting toward a worn-out China or Japan, as indicated by the singular conduct. Well, they are past the Pacific, so it’ll be hard to not conduct towards them while going west. Then, Thoreau says: “but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere,” implying that he is still referring to that farthest western way. This is very confusing, as he first tells us to go on that way, then he tells us not to go to China, and then is back to describing the western way, all without stating that he is changing the subject. He tells us the western way is on a tangent to this sphere (Earth, presumably).
For clarity sake, a tangent is a straight line that is just barely ‘brushing’ a circle or sphere at one point. If we were to succeed in following that tangent line, then the curvature of the Earth would eventually pull the surface away from the line. This would leave Thoreau’s admirers who followed his tangent floating in space, painfully dying of radiation exposure. Yet, one wonders, if, in their final moments, they would smile, secure in the knowledge that they would never read another book like Walden again.
Thoreau didn’t even care about making sense. In his conclusion of Walden, this most excellent sentence can be found on page 224:
“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you,”
Which he immediately follows up with,
“Neither men nor toadstools grow so.”
He is clearly trying to be difficult. Nobody demands that writers make themselves understood; They can do what they want. What Thoreau seems to be referring to is that readers, by their own free will, don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on books that are confusing and have no clear purpose. Thoreau wanted to escape the consequences of his literary choices, basically responsibility to his readers. A free market should not do anything to artificially increase the demand for pointless books.
All of this raises the question: Why is this book regarded as one of the great pieces of American literature? It is difficult to answer this question, but it is possible to imagine chains of events which would result in Walden‘s current publishing history. From 1854 to around 1890 – 1930, Thoreau’s only admirers were likely environmentalists who were drawn in by the idea of someone living alone in the woods and living in harmony with nature (For 26 months). In the 1890s, a group of people started promoting Walden with much more energy than previously. This movement only gained real traction in the 1930s, when overall interest in the book increased sharply. This is where things get strange, as it doesn’t seem possible that so many people could have actually read the book, then decided that they enjoyed it and would recommend it to friends. One possibility is that people would get Walden recommended to them by a friend, and would fail to read it. For various reasons, those people might then start acting as if they enjoyed it, whether to save their friend’s feelings, or perhaps the personal fear of seeming ignorant, or for other reasons. During the Great Depression one could see that desperate people would glom onto the idea of a simpler lifestyle extolled in Thoreau’s Walden. This effect would snowball, with only a few quotes being widely used to gain interest. This scenario played out exactly in my own household. My dad read Walden when he was about my age, thinking he was getting ahead in literary experience. He finished, wondering why it was so popular. In contrast, my mom has never read it, and had a romantic image of Walden until I started revealing some of Thoreau’s less admirable “points”.
That being said, I would not recommend Walden as personal reading to ANYONE, unless they want to see an example of very bad writing. Thoreau’s flip-flopping among ideas throws doubt upon his stated beliefs, and when he does support one and only one idea, he puts it to shame with his run-ons and illogic. In response to Dr. North’s question in Lesson 152 of his Autobiography course (“What has this guy been smoking??”), my answer is: Toadstools.
I can also say that I never, ever, ever want to hear or read the words Thoreau, or Walden again. If I do, just shoot me off on the tangent.