Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review or Announcement: Walden and Civil Disobedience

Title: Walden and Civil Disobedience

(Amazon failed to link to the correct image; this is the copy I physically have for sale at the time of writing. Many editions of this book are available.)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Date: 1854, 1960

Publisher: Ticknor & Fields (1854), Signet (1960)

ISBN: none

Length: 255 pages including publisher’s notes, bibliography, and a few of Thoreau’s poems

Quote: “Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars…I planted about two acres and a half…chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.”

Walden is a classic. You know that. One does not review classics; one announces them, saying, as it might be, “I seem to have acquired two complete copies of Walden. This is the one in better condition. You can buy it.”

Classics are, however, reprinted with “special contents” to which publishers retain copyrights. Those special contents are subject to review, so let’s begin by saying that the Signet edition comes with a very 1960s-mod cover mixing two shades of bright aqua with dark green and black. Possibly you needed to have been born in the early 1960s to appreciate it fully. The colors of my copy are "cooler" and more artistically pleasing than the photo appears on this computer screen.

After Walden, the full-length book, in the Signet edition is printed the “Essay on the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” followed by the poems “Sic Vita,” “Winter Memories,” “To the Maiden in the East,” “Smoke,” “Mist,” “Inspiration,” and a final four-line epigram:

                Fame cannot tempt the bard
                Who’s famous with his God,
                Nor laurel him reward
                Who hath his Maker’s nod.

Was Thoreau capable of being tempted by fame? He was out of step with his time. Like Emily Dickinson, he wrote informal, pithy lines in New England dialect rather than long, laborious expositions in formal Latin-influenced style. People who hadn’t read Thoreau’s writing (most of which he offered for publication, but couldn’t sell) dismissed him as a less learned disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. It’s true that Thoreau was a disciple and protegĂ© of Emerson’s, and eked out his famously frugal meals by eating many free dinners at Emerson’s house, and let Emerson bail him out of jail when he was Taking the Consequences of his Civil Disobedience…but he was his own man; his ideas were more original, and many now find his writing style more interesting, than Emerson’s. Thoreau might have sold more of his books if he’d slowed down and padded out his thoughts, come a little closer to where the audience’s minds were in order to lead them a little closer to where his mind was. He didn’t choose to do that. Thoreau’s relationship with Louisa May Alcott may explain why, in Good Wives, she let the character apparently based on her reject a cute boy and marry an older man. (Thoreau was older than Alcott; Alcott maintained that her models for the cute-boy character came from the younger generation, which probably does explain why she was so happy to pair him off with a younger woman.) Thoreau’s relationship with the rest of the world just might have had something to do with the character of “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

Nevertheless, after both were dead, Thoreau became more popular than Emerson. In 1960 Percy Miller could comment: “the history of the growth of  Thoreau’s reputation is documentation for an intellectual revolution throughout the last century [,] which would be altogether staggering did we not also inherit from that confused era the equally amazing example of the rediscovery of Herman Melville.”

Thoreau’s posthumous fame owed no small part of its growth to the successful protests of Gandhi, who listed Thoreau as a source of inspiration, and Martin Luther King, who listed both Thoreau and Gandhi. It’s ironic, then, that Thoreau was not a successful activist, or really even an activist at all. He lived mostly alone, although he had friends. (He’s been called a parasite, but he wasn’t one. If your friends, who have more money than you, insist that money means nothing to them and the ashcake you might offer them is as valuable as the roast beef, four veg, and apple pie they might offer you, and then it mysteriously turns out that you and they nearly always eat dinner at their house, your friends have only themselves to blame.) He probably had himself in mind when he wrote the famous line about letting the other man march to the beat he hears, and in some ways Thoreau marched along a path of discipline, but it’s hard to picture his passage through life as more of a march than a dance. Thoreau walked about, read everything he could get his hands on, studied nature, could do a labor job as well as most young men when he needed the money, sold a poem here and read a lecture there, and persisted in being a writer whether his books sold or not. His protest against the Mexican-American War did nothing to stop the war, or even rally other activists. His sympathy for John Brown did nothing to stop Brown’s hanging or, worse yet, the secession of the Confederate States.He must have seemed to himself quite an ineffectual fellow, if he thought about himself at all.

Would Thoreau have enjoyed knowing that, about a hundred years after his premature death, American intellectuals would buy up reprints of everything he ever wrote, even the private journals he used as working notes for the publishable manuscripts he couldn’t sell? I suspect he would—not because he wanted to be rich and famous, particularly, but because he enjoyed irony. 

If you specify the somewhat obscure, vintage Signet edition, prices may be higher. If you order a copy of Walden including "Civil Disobedience" from either address at the bottom of the screen, you may get a different edition--possibly including other poems and/or short essays--for $5 per book + $5 per package. Please feel free to add books by living authors to the package.