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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Henry David Thoreau Was A Knucklehead


I've never had much use for him. He has a whiff of trust fund about him. And he's become a sort of patron saint of the idle rich neurotic. Strike two. When I go to visit the mansions in Newport Rhode Island, I am struck by how frenetic the lives of the scions of the captains of industry were, and how little they accomplished compared to their fathers and grandfathers. Cornelius Vanderbilt built a steamship line from nothing. His children raced yachts. I don't mind that people race yachts, but such activities do not advance the sum total of human accomplishment. Leisure, however frenetically engaged in, is still leisure.

Thoreau is the patron saint of everybody that thinks that amusing themselves with asceticism isn't a form of leisure activity. Living in the Petit Hameau doesn't make you a peasant. And peasants have to pay with the sweat of their brow for you to pursue asceticism; a leisure they generally never see. The rapacious Cornelius made steamships to deliver things to poor people, and to deliver the poor people themselves. The yacht just delivers the owner. No one that's not rapacious has ever helped me one bit. The same goes for the factory of the mind. Thoreau is just a yacht racer of lettered asceticism. His minions can shove a rope up a drainpipe, as far as I'm concerned.

But I read Thoreau, because Thoreau wandered around, looked at things and talked to people, and he wrote it down. He was a good writer. He was just a bad thinker. Good writer/bad thinker should replace "All the news that's fit to print" on a certain masthead, now that I think about it. And "Bad writer, worse thinker" should be the name we use if we ever rename the Internet. At any rate, there's lots of interesting and remarkable things in Thoreau's writing. He wrote about Cape Cod with a lot of affection and interest, and that's how I read it.

Here's a snippet from The Wellfleet Oysterman, a chapter in Thoreau's Cape Cod.

Before sunrise the next morning they let us out again, and I ran over to the beach to see the sun come out of the ocean. The old woman of eighty-four winters was already out in the cold morning wind, bare-headed, tripping about like a young girl, and driving up the cow to milk. She got the breakfast with despatch, and without noise or bustle; and meanwhile the old man resumed his stories, standing before us, who were sitting, with his back to the chimney, and ejecting his tobacco-juice right and left into the fire behind him, without regard to the various dishes which were there preparing. At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea. The old man talked a steady stream; and when his wife told him he had better eat his breakfast, he said: "Don't hurry me; I have lived too long to be hurried." I ate of the apple-sauce and the doughnuts, which I thought had sustained the least detriment from the old man's shots, but my companion refused the apple-sauce, and ate of the hot cake and green beans, which had appeared to him to occupy the safest part of the hearth. But on comparing notes afterward, I told him that the buttermilk cake was particularly exposed, and I saw how it suffered repeatedly, and therefore I avoided it; but he declared that, however that might be, he witnessed that the apple-sauce was seriously injured, and had therefore declined that. After breakfast we looked at his clock, which was out of order, and oiled it with some "hen's grease," for want of sweet oil, for he scarcely could believe that we were not tinkers or pedlers; meanwhile he told a story about visions, which had reference to a crack in the clock-case made by frost one night.He was curious to know to what religious sect we belonged. He said that he had been to hear thirteen kinds of preaching in one month, when he was young, but he did not join any of them, — he stuck to his Bible. There was nothing like any of them in his Bible.

So read Thoreau, even though he's a knucklehead. The real dolts revere Walt Whitman anyway. And visit tomorrow the king of the internet knuckleheads -- me -- because I've found pictures of the actual house of the Wellfleet Oysterman, and if you're pleasant I'll show them to you.

13 comments:

Glynn said...

This is the only blog I read every day, and this post on Thoreau explains why. And the suggestion for a certain newspaper's masthead is perfect.

SippicanCottage said...

Well, glynn is certainly pleasant so he/she/it/they/them get to see the pictures tomorrow.

The jury's out on the rest of you.

Bruce G Charlton said...

Am I allowed a teensy disagreement? - My word: that's a harsh judgment on HDT!

Thoreau is a bit better than 'good' as a writer, surely?

But I would agree that his philosophy palls as one gets older and more experienced - I have grown into Emerson. But I still think HDT wrote the better prose - not many better.

Robert C Richardson's biography of Thoreau is masterly - but his biog of Emerson is even better.

Ooops, maybe I haven't been nice enough for you to let me see the picture...

SippicanCottage said...

Bruce g- you have a lifetime pass anyway.

"Good" is fulminating praise from me.

Heh. You mentioned Emerson. Now we're gettin' somewhere. Ralph Waldo was teh shiznit!

Glynn said...

Glynn is a "he."

Sissy Willis said...

Knucklehead, yes, but he was sometimes capable of the sublime:

"The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him."

Chris Byrne said...

Everyone must believe in something... I believe I'll go canoeing.

Billy Beck said...

"Civil Disobedience" is still a principally crucial American political document, even if very few people these days realize the fact.

gotmoose said...

My Complaint? Thoreau pushed his "lifestyle" in the woods with evangelical fevor, but only managed to live the lifestyle for 3 years, so what's with that?

tjl said...

"At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea"

What a menu! But the tradition of the hyper-abundant breakfast is still very much alive on the Cape. All the Cape towns are dotted with breakfast restaurants serving overloaded plates that would satisfy the 19th-century appetites of Thoreau's hosts, minus the tobacco juice.

Last Sunday morning I had breakfast at Jack's Outback in Yarmouth, and judging by the body mass index of their average patron, a little of Thoreau's asceticism would do them good.

GeorgeH said...

I felt that way about Thoreau till I read "The Pencil" by Herry Petroski, ISBN 0-679-73415-5.

Thoreau was the working guy who hung with the trust fund crowd like Ralph Waldo Emerson. His family did own a pencil factory, but he was the engineer who designed the machinery to mass produce pencils, not a remittance man.

Anonymous said...

I do realize this comment is several years past the prime of the post, but (a) this is timeless and (b) Huh - so Bruce Charlton reads Sippican Cottage? Who'dathunk. I encountered each of you entirely independently, and only now saw the connection.

My years-ago English (and, later, Bible-teacher) once made a semi-disparaging comment on seeing that I was reading both a volume by Thoreau and another by Emerson, at the time. He certainly didn't dissuade me from reading them, just sort of commented to the effect of, "So, you think the answers are in there, huh? Hmph. Well, you're young. You have time to learn." I'm not sure if this was meant to be advice, per se, but it has stood me in good stead over the years.

- ChevalierdeJohnstone

SippicanCottage said...

Hiya Cavalier- Thanks for reading and commenting. Bruce is a peach.

I think educators often think their young charges are a tyre into which they are tasked with injecting the correct kind of air. It confuses them when you read all sorts of things, and terrifies them when you make up your own mind about what you read.

When I was wee I went to a school stuck in amber and we read Hawthorne and Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau and Poe and Twain and Hart and London and Cooper and Kipling and Walter Scott and Ferlinghetti and it never did us any harm.