Walden Study Text
Notes on the
by René Pinet (Bahia, Mexico)
"Walden," write the Editors of Time, in the 1962 Time Incorporated edition of this work, "is not simply a social misfit's report of escape from his fellow
man; it is not a bookish fellow's account of how to slip away and live with the classics; and it is not a handbook by a lazy man designed to explain how other lazy bachelors can live comfortably in the woods without trying either their brains or their muscles."
Well, T. Carew seems to say, that is just a matter of opinion -- if indeed "The pretensions of poverty" would have written in response to Thoreau's work (the Thomas Carew lived from 1545 to 1640). Just look at his first mention of a tub (in the chapter "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"), and tell me if "it is not a bookish fellow's account of how to slip away and live with the classics":
"I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of king Tching-thang to this effect: 'Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.' I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages."
Action, even more, heroic action -- Carew indignantly lectures, not in dactylic hexameter, though -- is the only base on which to claim a station in the firmament. Such passions are to be learned from patterns Antiquity has left us in immortal stars, such as Hercules, Achilles and Theseus. By stripping them from our minds (worse yet: from students' minds) the senses are numbed, and we become passive, petrified as if we were in the presence of the three Gorgon sisters.
Why did Thoreau included this piece in his Walden? Perhaps he wanted to give an example of "professors of philosophy, but not philosophers", of "some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life"? I don't think so. He gives it a special section and one whole page -- more than the scant two quotes above. Besides, the mischievous Thomas Carew doesn't exactly fit the role.
If illustration of anything, I think it is of the competition for Thoreau's audience: "..these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students", more specifically: "Cambridge or elsewhere cost him or somebody else ten times as great a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants". To some academicians, this must have seemed Emile all over again.
It was not, of course. At least, it was not Thoreau's intention, as was Rousseau's. Walden was not even Thoreau's life-style when it was published ("I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again"). As metaphorical as it is ("labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh"), as lacking in compromise as it seems (Thoreau was much compromised in the fight against slavery), much of the discussion in chapter one is in real economic terms.
I think the inclusion of "The pretensions of poverty" serves a double purpose: first, it refuses debate by letting the blow pass, but acknowledging it -- an act, I think, of great intellectual honesty. Second -- and I think in this he was much less successful -- by warning its readers not to become the target Carew aims at, and the first paragraph caricatures.
I think the real lesson Thoreau intended is not his life-style; not even his two-year prescription for cure. It is his attitude. And of this, as the Editors of Time remind us, Walt Whitman's portrait is the best: "Thoreau's lawlessness -- his dissent -- his going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses". This, I think, has been a distinguishing mark of the American character, ever present in its folklore, its politics, its classical and popular art, even in what Americans admire of other cultures -- just watch, if not, Hallmark's production of Merlin.