Summer Reading Part 5: Walden, or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau Chapter One: Economy

Collier Books, New York. Introduction by Charles R. Anderson 1962 Paperback (1854)
You may want to review what I previously wrote about plot-sparse texts, but this is a bit different. There are stories that follow a narrative that have little plot. Walden, on the other hand, is a series of essays that do not follow a character or a storyline. I would describe these essays as descriptive writing. Thoreau followed the Transcendental doctrine of the all-sufficient individual. As a practice in this belief, he went into the woods, not too far from civilization, to live on his own for a while and observe what would happen. When my son handed me the book (he’s my book picker-outer) I groaned because the font is so small and the text-per-page so dense. Not that I don’t like Thoreau…I just recognized it would take a while. And it did. I do like, though, that introductory materials to Walden remind the reader to view these observations with a light heart; look for the humor and you will find it. Just because an author is writing about nature does not mean that everything has to be serious and forbiddingly contemplative. Even Chapter 1, Economy, opens with a light-hearted tone. “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience” (15).
These are my margin notes along with direct quotes from the text.
In Chapter 1, Economy, Thoreau asks why humans must make everything about work? We work so hard that we actually contort ourselves into machines. We often work only to pay others for what we want. Further, we insist upon having money in the bank. [In Thoreau’s day] there are real slaves, but we also turn ourselves into slaves as well. “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate” (18). We attempt to ignore oncoming death and play games only on vacation, but we do not PLAY in our daily lives. The world of work was set up [as a social construction], but we act like there is no other way to live. “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion” (19). This quote points out that just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean it is the best way, or the most fruitful option for all people. Older people have taught me nothing, and I have yet to experience the world. “One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;’ and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle” (19).
“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been they failure hitherto, ‘be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou has left undone’” (20)?
“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be had, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well” (20)?
“The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one center” (20).
What do we truly need to live? Food, water, shelter, clothing, fuel. Would it not be a good thing to make intellectuals physically tougher? We all seek warmth in one form or another. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor” (22).
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers…To be a philosopher is…to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (23). “How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men?” Once you have obtained the basics, begin to live! “When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” I am speaking to those who are discontent. I like to live in the present and seize every moment.
“I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others” (26)?
“No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience” (28). “Often if an accident happens to a gentleman’s legs, they can be mended; but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloons, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow” (28)? We must change before new clothes are even needed. “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Necessary clothing can be cheaply had.
Hey! Thoreau mentions tattoos! “Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable” (31).
“Man was not made so large limbed and robust but that he must seek to narrow his world, and wall in a space such as fitted him” (31). How elaborate must our houses really be? Big houses make you pay and pay. “…we may possibly so live as to secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage” (34). Great dwellings are for great men. “It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where the usual evidences of civilization exist, the condition of a very large body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages” (36). Why do we assume we must have a fancy house? “I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass…It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow” (37). Once we began living in houses we forgot how to live. “Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper” (39). All our ancestors made it their mission to secure things we wanted, “But are the more pressing wants satisfied now” (39)? Use what is beautiful and available. I cut the timber to build my house. A neighbor steals some of my supplies as he brings them. All humans dig below ground first. “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” So we need much more than a cellar? Each man should build his own house. “It would be worth the while to build still more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even. There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest” (43). How can a carpenter create the perfect space for YOU? “The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces merely, which makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will be the citizen’s suburban box, when his life shall be as simple and as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining after effect in the style of his dwelling” (45). I build my own small house. “I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually” (46). If students built their own rooms they would be getting an education and also wouldn’t have the expense of on-campus dorms. “I think that it would be better than this, for the students, or those who desire to be benefited by it, even to lay the foundation themselves. The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.” “…they should not play life, or study it merely…but earnestly live it from beginning to end” (47).
We should teach through life experience, not books. Plus, experience is cheaper. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate” (48). One can see more on foot than from a car; cheaper too! “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once” (49).
Once animals are brought in to work it makes more work and comes with its own set of problems.
“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon” (52). Man-made monuments are not worth anything; even furniture bogs us down. Furniture slows us and we can’t even take it with us.
We can feed ourselves; we can make our own bread. “Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and fluctuating markets for them. Yet so far are we from simplicity and independence that, in Concord, fresh and sweet meal is rarely sold in the shops, and hominy and corn in a still coarser form are hardly used by any. For the most part the farmer gives to his cattle and hogs the grain of his own producing, and buys flour, which is at least no more wholesome, at a greater cost, at the store” (56). “There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once,–for the root is faith,–I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails” (57).
“I would observe, by the way, that it costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and I am willing that they should look in. The moon will not sour milk nor taint meat of mine, nor will the sun injure my furniture or fade my carpet; and if he is sometimes too warm a friend, I find it still better economy to retreat behind some curtain which nature has provided, than to add a single time to the details of housekeeping. A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil” (58). [See? That last line is funny.]
“In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do” (61).
“…the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off” (62).
Philanthropy is not really my thing. “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, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoon, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me,–some of its virus mingled with my blood. No,–in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way. A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one’s fellow-man in the broadest sense. Howard was no doubt an exceedingly kind and worthy man in his way, and has his reward; but, comparatively speaking, what are a hundred Howards to us, if their philanthropy do not help us in our best estate, when we are most worthy to be helped? I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me” (63).
“I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious” (65).

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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