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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

more on thoreau

I’ve thought some more about the essay on Thoreau that I dissed yesterday. I actually see where Schulz is coming from in her recoil from the idea that Thoreau was a saint, rather than a writer. But Schulz certainly fails to understand Thoreau the writer.
It is a misprison that comes out best, I think, in Schulz’s staging of the gotcha moment. Which is here:
“The book is subtitled “Life in the Woods,” and, from those words onward, Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude.
In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal.”
This reading of the book can only be held if we think that Thoreau was thinking of his audience as composed of high school and college students one hundred fifty years hence.
But Thoreau did not think of his audience as composed of people reading Walden in a classroom. His audience was composed of people who knew exactly where Walden was. If, as I think is evident from the text itself, this is the case, then Schulz’s idea that the subtitle tells us that “Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude” is simply foolish, a denial of the mass of references and ironies that any literary text brings with it, especially one written in the train of an essayistic tradition of crossing the serious and non-serious – in other words, the romantic tradition of the ludicrous. In American culture, as I pointed out yesterday – following in the footsteps of such pioneers here as Constance Rourke and her book on American humor – the ludicrousness of Dequincy or Lamb or Byron (when he was in the mood) becomes the deadpan. By erecting a vision of Thoreau which makes Walden and all his works the direct, unironic expression of Thoreau’s personality, Schulz gives a perfect classroom reading of Thoreau’s work, one in which the idea that Thoreau was talking about Life in the Woods shows how he was throwing dust in our eyes, and hence was no saint, and hence can be tossed in the dump.
But if you are not sold on the the idea that the text can be read with absolutely no attention to the contexts that make sense of the effects it aims for, then Schulz’s piece reads like less of an attack on Thoreau than on some odd poster of Thoreau, with an inspiring quote caption, hung up in a dorm room. The class room, the dorm room – these are very much reading scenes. And of course any text that is worth killing trees for should lend itself to multiple reading scenes. But what is usefully done in a college classroom, or should be done, is to invigorate the text with its material context. If I read Thoreau mentioning dead drowned children cursorily and turning from them to evoke the landscape and I put this in some universal moral place, eliminating the time and place of the writing, I have one reaction – one tracked by Schulz. But putting the writing in the context of the vast amount of sentimental writing about dead children – Thoreau’s was the era in which the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop became an actual cause celebre, as was famously attested by the anecdote about American readers gathering on the docks when ships from England came in, wanting to know more of Dickens’ story – than you might pause and ask what is going on here. Schulz thinks what is going on here is that a misanthrope – Thoreau – is expressing his hatred of humanity, un point c’est tout. But that an author might devise an image of himself as a misanthrope – in fact, a standard practice in the ludicrous thematic throughout romantic literature – never seems to cross her mind.
Writers lie. Hunter Thompson really probably didn’t take all the hallucinogens he claimed to have taken in his self report in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Writers lie, but they hope to illuminate something larger with their lies and sometimes they do.  Fredrich Prokosch, in his memoir, Voices, wrote that “in order to be truthful, one must always lie a little, just as in order to tell a lie, one must tell the truth a little,” The art of adjusting that ratio is the writer’s business.

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