Walden and Points East

There is an interesting essay on Thoreau in that wicked newspaper that people around here say such hard things about. I’m very keen on Thoreau, especially Walden, myself. Thoreau was such a damn phrase-maker, for one thing. I once memorized this paragraph, just because I liked it so much:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

Phrase-maker. You have to admit. And there’s a lot of it like that; it’s a joy to read.

Speaking of joys to read, what fun I’ve been having this afternoon. On and off, because I was away for a few hours. But I’m engaged in an enthralling correspondence with someone who thinks I’m just unspeakably reprehensible because there is a sentence that ends with a preposition in ‘About B&W’ and I flatly refuse to share her outrage at the matter. She is quite remarkably agitated about it. It’s cruel of me, but I can’t help finding that funny. It’s especially funny because she insists on confusing me with those people who don’t care about language and grammar and How to Write With Ellegunts, which to anyone who knows me is just – well, pretty uproarious. She wanted me to add Eats, Shoots and Leaves to In the Library; nope, I said, not going to do that; she says that proves all sorts of terrible things about me. Oh? I’d have thought it just proved that I don’t particularly want to add that book, that’s all. How funny people are. My colleague told me amusing exchanges with indignant readers would be one of the perks of working on B&W, and he was right.

Back to the subject. Martin Kettle makes an interesting – albeit quite arbitrary – comparison between Walden and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and more particularly the respective belief systems rooted in each book. I don’t want to agree with what he says, and I don’t really agree, but I see what he’s getting at.

Thoreau can be seen as quite individualistic, solipsistic, even selfish, at least in Walden. He’s not very worried about poverty there (though maybe that’s not surprising in the 1840s, when land was cheap and labor was scarce and fairly well-paid) (and he was concerned about slavery), and he wasn’t a joiner of social experiments like Brooke Farm. But on the other hand, his ideas also didn’t do much harm; they didn’t inspire any mass killings. I don’t think mass killings are an inevitable result of socialist or utopian ideas…but the possibility does seem to hover over them.

And actually Thoreau is concerned about more than himself. His is a reformist, ameliorative vision. That’s what Walden is – an exploration of different ways to live and to think about one’s life. It is meant to awaken others.

One of the letters written in response to the article mentions Ted Kaczynski – which I noticed, because I mentioned him the other day myself, in an earlier chapter of this rumination on utopian ideas and where they can take us. People like him can make one start to think dark thoughts – that perhaps it’s impossible to have any ideas at all about how things could be different and better, without ending up wanting to kill random people by way of persuasion.

This article by Tibor Fischer about the Booker Prize longlist is good for a laugh too. Or maybe it’s not, maybe I just think so because I laugh every time I look at it, because the picture of him reminds me of someone I know, or rather don’t know but have seen a picture of that looks a lot like that. The same slightly truculent ‘Yeah, so?’ expression. Anyway, I particularly liked this part –

Distaste for the middle class was one common denominator. Writers are entitled to berate and conjure whatever they want, but it was curious to see how the middle class (particularly the white, home-counties middle class) got clobbered: racist, xenophobic, childkillers or just generally evil. Any prostitute, beggar, asylum-seeker or non-caucasian was likely to have a heart of gold. The conformity was such that I felt sometimes that only members of the Socialist Workers Party were allowed to publish novels (I never want to see the words “miners” and “strike” adjacent again on the page).

See, there it is again. That equation of underdoggery with the heart of gold. The sentimental illusion de nos jours. Hey, nobody has a heart of gold, okay? Not caucasians, not non-caucasians, not plutocrats, not miners, nobody. If you want a heart of gold, get a damn teddy bear; otherwise, forget it.

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