Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Thoreau-ly Eccentric: Teaching "Walden"

When I was in high school, I was a major eco-head. I belonged to Greenpeace, insisted on recycling everything not nailed to the floor, and gave up eating meat, despite my family's innate fondness for... um,  meat. I was probably pretty insufferable, but people put up with me for the most part. I remind myself of this phase when dealing with self-righteously insufferable kids as a teacher.

I bring this up because I kept thinking about a poster I had up in my bedroom during that time. It was a photo of Walden Woods, in Connecticut, with a phrase from Henry David Thoreau's Walden superimposed: "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." That, my friends, was the entirety of my knowledge of Thoreau's writing. Until this week.

Therefore, like many people, my image of Thoreau was that of a gentle naturalist, going about his daily business with a song in his heart and a bird perched on his shoulder. He's sort of like Cinderella — accomplishing simple tasks in his woodland home along with his mouse, squirrel and deer friends. We know his words from Ansel Adams posters, and Mary Englebreit bookmarks, and they seem like nice words, don't they? About liking the Earth, and hey, who doesn't like the Earth? I do! I like the Earth!

So it comes as a bit of a shock to actually read Walden, his best known work. Turns out that Henry David Thoreau is quite the misanthrope. He loved our natural world but his love doesn't seem to have extended to the majority of his fellow humans.

Mr. Cranky Pants

If you asked how Walden begins, many people would quote, "I went into the woods to live deliberately..." and that makes sense. It's one of the best-known quotes from the book, and, besides, it sounds like a good first line, doesn't it? Sets you up for what's about to come and shows you that you are about to read the words of a thoughtful man. Here's the kicker: it's not the first line. In the edition I read, we don't get to it until page 72. Before that manifesto of deliberate living, we must wade through Thoreau's fulminating and very grumpy thoughts on "modern" (circa 1850) life.

Here are some of the things that annoy Thoreau: the railroad (and peoples' need to see who's boarding or disembarking from it); the post office (and the annoying habit of people communicating via letter — he's only received two or three letters in his life that were worthwhile); and the newspapers (who cares about the news from England or Europe?). One shudders to think of what he might make of our era of cellphones, lipgloss, and LOLing. While reading this book, I had a recurring image of Thoreau bursting into apartments all over New York City and smashing televisions tuned to "The Real Housewives of Something Something" yelling that we are even more "underbred, and low-lived and illiterate" now.

I dwell on this because it's important to understand this aspect of Thoreau's personality. He really has serious issues with society and he's a true eccentric. If your students don't understand his distaste for the lives that most people live (he famously calls them "lives of quiet desperation") they will not understand the consolation he finds in living by himself in the woods, nor will they see the beauty of the world through his eyes. It's not just that the natural world is beautiful — most of us can see that — it's that the natural world is better. For many of us, it's one thing to bemoan the vapidity of popular culture; but few of us would go as far as Thoreau does to avoid it, and along with it, many aspects of human life. These would include enjoyment of food (in one of my favorite sections, he advises that three meals a day is overrated, and that you can get by on one, easy-peasy!); companionship with a small, select group of people; having more than a few books to read, some of which are not written in ancient tongues; running water; and money.

You know, if I were to use this book in the classroom, I think I might skip the first chapter, or present excerpts from it to my class. Or perhaps we'd read ahead and then return to the first chapter, comparing the lyrical quality of Thoreau's writing about his simplified life to the first cranky outpourings. It's just so very judgmental, I'd worry that I'd lose the kids before we've even really begun. I mean, the man is railing against trains, for heaven's sake. Trains!

Funny, He Actually Lived Pretty Close to the Railway

Here's something else your students should know about Thoreau — lots of people think he was a big old faker. If they're not pointing out that Thoreau infamously and accidentally burned down 300 acres of a friend's woodlands before moving to Walden, they're dissing his simple style. It's pointed out often that his great escape from society was not a Unabomber-esque set-up off in the New England woods, but rather a tiny house on the outskirts of town, within a mile of his nearest neighbor's, and in view of the railroad that ran by Walden Pond. His mom brought him Sunday lunch.

Now, logically, there's no reason why someone can live simply and deliberately and still be within spitting distance of the village. But I think it can be hard to give Thoreau the benefit of the doubt because he is so darn smug about his decision, as when he dismisses the idea of community as a bunch of folks who "would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest." At least I don't let my mom go a-huckleberrying for me, Henry D., jeez.

You kind of get the feeling that he was that guy in Art History class who wore a tweed jacket and used words like "penultimate" correctly at 19. He probably had some very good points to make; too bad he was so insufferable that you had trouble listening. The American poet W.S. Merwin, after quoting an extended metaphor about Thoreau's set-apart-ness from the book, pointed out the problem here: "It is a kind of writing almost certain to annoy somebody..." Keep in mind, Merwin likes the book.

Here's the thing, though. All of us — with the possible exception of Hugh Jackman who seems to be equal parts talent, contentment, kindness and charm — have times in which we need to cast off the foolishness of the world around us, and think about ourselves as solo travelers on the journey of life. Some would say that is an essential truth, in fact. And no one needs the permission to get know their unique self more than a teenager. As Merwin goes on to write, "...yet he was speaking not only for himself but for many who have read him since, at all ages of their lives, and for many who will never read him at all." Whether Thoreau's solitude was a choice or a result, or both, he models for us the thoughtful life.          

Something in the Way He Writes

And because Thoreau was unencumbered by family and friends and things like, um, you know, eating, he was able to devote a great deal of time to his writing. The Walden we read today is believe to be the product of at least 8 full edits of the manuscript. It shows. Nothing here is sloppy.

That's not to say the book is simple to read. In our 21st century of graphic novels and television, we have moved quite a ways away from the clause- and phrase-driven style of Thoreau's time. Your students will probably need your help in understanding how to read these long, long sentences. When reading something from the 1800's, I will actually model how I'm reading it to my students, showing them that when I see a comma or semi-colon, I pause and think about what I've grasped so far, then carry on to the period, when I stop and think to decide if I understood the sentence or not. And if I haven't I'll go back to where I got lost. Tell your kids that it's OK not to get it the first time through!

Unless you teach at the Lumberjack School of Crusty Yankee Words, there are going to be quite a few unusual words for your readers, too. You've got words that are old, words that are scientific and words that are about highfalutin ideals. It's quite a lot to take in (I refer you, once again, to "a-huckleberrying").

Lucky for you, Visual Thesaurus's awesome new VocabGrabber is up and running. The good folks there have already sent Walden — a public-domain text, mind you — through it, and you can see the words it grabbed here, here, and here. If you haven't checked this tool out, by the way, you should. It's best understood by trying it, but what I like is that it pulls words out any text by the relevance, scooting words you or your students really need to understand to the top of the list. Cool! (Also cool is that as long as I keep reading public domain texts for this column, I don't have to do the vocab word pulling on my own anymore!)

DIY Guy

There are two major reasons, to my mind, to read Walden now. The first is that Thoreau literally embodied many of the traits we are extolling in our present culture. He was frugal (household expenses for one year were $61.99 ½ cents). He believed in recycling and reusing (he bought someone else's house and moved it on to his property!). He was a locavore (at one point killing, butchering, and eating a woodchuck). He ate close to the bottom of the food chain (although he did purchase molasses, "the cheapest form of the saccharine"). He made good energy choices (chopping wood to keep warm). He hated human bondage (to his credit, he attacks slavery more often than the post office!).

In short, Thoreau was startlingly ahead of his time. And, let's be frank, he's ahead of our time too. I have big dreams of living a simpler life — all I have do it de-clutter all of the junk I've amassed, go to the Container Store to get some containers and... Oh. Well, I'm doing better on eating locally and lower on the food chain. Except for the pint of ice cream... Well. Hmm. I do make good energy choices. Except when I leave my apartment with the air-conditioner running.

Yeah, Thoreau was pretty hardcore, and perhaps we need to look to him more as a model than we might like. What do your students think? I doubt they want to give up the Jonas Brothers for woodchuck killing, but what aspects of Thoreau's do-it-yourself philosophy resonate with them, especially given the state of our planet's climate? (I smell a Science cross-curricular unit!)

Living Deliberately

The other reason to read Walden now is the same reason that people have ever read Walden: Thoreau's beautiful hymns to nature. He wrote some poetry, which is not to my taste, but it's the simpler writing that resonates with me. "I... endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast," he writes in the chapter "House-warming." Constructing a metaphor of his life as a sea voyage, and his desire to remain on the deck of it, he writes, "I do not wish to go below now." "I should not talk about myself so much if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience," he writes to begin.

These turns of phrase, along with many more, are the joy of Thoreau's experiment by Walden Pond. He went into the woods to live deliberately, and more so, to record with deliberateness how his solitary life played out over the two years he was there. He saw the pond freeze, thaw, teem with fish and freeze again. He watched animals form patterns around his eating schedule, and shared his food with them. He noted the changes in the leaves' color, and dug up stumps to burn for fuel. He planted and harvested. He sat in the silence of the dusk and drifted off to sleep.

Thoreau's life there was not perfect, nor is it completely accurately reflected in the book he wrote about it. But it is carefully described with a loving hand, and very different from the lives we live today. He was not asking us to come and live with him on the pond, and I, for one, would not have enjoyed his company (I like mail!), nor he, mine (I would have been no help, and possibly a hindrance, vis-a-vis the woodchuck). But I am still glad he did it, because there are moments in his book that make me feel like I still have much to learn about myself and my world, if only I would put down the laptop and go and see it.

Perhaps you and your students will feel the same.

Godspeed

Many of you, like me, are probably nearing the end of the school year. Tests to take, books and rooms to be packed away, vague plans to be made with departing colleagues, right? I wish you well in all of it. And I'll be back this summer with a few columns less for the classroom and more for you!


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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