Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Visiting Walden/Thoreau's Legacies
My wife's sister lives just around the corner from a monument to the lost soldiers in King Philip's War, and down the road from Walden, which--even when we don't visit when we're here--brings me close to Thoreau.
I'll always be thankful to Professor Charles Reilly for his enthusiastic teaching of the 19th century; in some ways, I find myself more drawn to those writers than to the 20th century--I'm more fond of Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson and Thoreau, Melville and Douglass than Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. There is a sense, at times, of pessimism and diminishment, of dread and specialization, in 20th century literature that sometimes leaves me cold. It is the age when literature became an institutionalized object of study, and poetry anxious about mass culture. Perhaps because I did my studies in the 20th century, when I teach the 19th century in my introductory survey class, "Major American Writers," I do so primarily as an enthusiast rather than a scholar.
It's difficult to imagine how such a minor literary figure as Thoreau would later become the touchstone to so many movements (both social and otherwise)--communitarians, Back to the Land-ers, ecologists, vegans, war resisters, birders, inveterate walkers. My admiration for Thoreau is partly in expressed in his own doggerel: "My life has been the poem I would have writ,/But I could not both live and utter it." There is something to be said for people whose lives are poetry, who don't need to be architects of another kind of language when they live that language.
On my drive to Orono early this year, I listened to a decaying audio version of Walden, and found the fragmentation--when only certain words or phrases would emerge from the tape's hiss--a Cagean tonic for Thoreau's occasionally didactic tone. (The drive poem, flecked with Thoreau, is forthcoming...)