TSO and Thoreau

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Oh Dear, I find myself about to give birth to another of my endless opinions.

TSO asks why there is a dearth of Scholarly Biographies of Thoreau. I find that there are probably three groups of reasons.

(1) Thoreau, by all accounts, was a thoroughly (pardon the pun)unlikable person. I think often of his quotation, "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than share a velvet cushion." Yes--and so he sits on his pumpkin and everyone leaves him alone--I think it right and proper.

(2) Thoreau does not fall easily into the many different quagmires that amount to "victim studies." Reputable scholarly works outside the historical sciences (and even within) seem to be much more interested in publishing agenda-driven victim studies than they are in really doing research. So far as anyone is able to discern Thoreau was not gay, lesbian, trans-gendered, a member of an oppressed minority; he didn't stutter or have a noticeable physical defect; when he was in company he was not unduly flatulent or disturbed by excessive gaseous eructations. In short, a Thoreau biography would not serve to advance any of the seriously limited agendas of modern scholarship, so why waste the time, ink, and paper?

(3) Thoreau's work was primarily a work of adolescence. That is to say that his primary contribution to our understanding of the world is rooted in adolescent non-compliance. Now, that isn't to say that it wasn't put to good purpose, but coupled with statements like the one above regarding velvet pumpkins, and an almost insatiable interest in himself, this makes Thoreau a rather less than entertaining figure to consider in any detail.

Now--let the fireworks of Thoreau's admirers begin. Oh, by the way, did I mention that I am actually one of them. Civil Disobedience is a useful and necessary concept--A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers is, at times stirring and lovely, as are snatches of writings here and there. And how can you not have a grudging admiration for a curmudgeon who was old at the age of twenty?

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Number 1 I don't understand because Hitler and other thoroughly unlikeable figures have lots of biographers.

Number 2 is very convincing indeed.

Number 3 isn't too convincing since if his way is non-compliance, then he would seem to be a fit biographical study since this age is the age of adolescent non-compliance.

And per your reasons for not blogging in the other post, they are excellent beyond ken and my post was a tweaking that was selfish in nature -- seems a very healthy thing to do to take a blogging break!

Henry David Thoreau
Had a little cellar below
His cottage at Walden Pond
Where he kept a nubile blonde.

(Caution: this biographical detail is as yet unverified.)


You take my responses too seriously--these were meant as jests. However to (1)--Thoreau is unlikeable and not particularly earth-shattering as historical figures go.

On the other post--also a matter of jest (in part) and a public love letter (in part). Thanks for writing--have loved what you've done the past two days!



Dear Bob,

If true, it would make him a much more likely candidate for a critical biography as the overt oppressor and Dead White Male. Thank you--perhaps you've given a springboard to Thoreauian Studies.



'Twas said he offended not one,
Not even his blond nubile lass
with the passing of gas;
But, oh woe, for poor Mr. Thoreau,
Whose soul lives eternally naught
I fear; for he loved the creation,
But not the Creator as he ought.


This puts me in mind of an essay by Hayden Carruth, another curmudgeon albeit a far more likeable one. Concerning Walden, Carruth writes ‘Again and again, not only in the first chapter but in many other parts of the book, he excoriates his neighbors in Concord, the farmers and artisans, and does so in the most condescending terms. Why? Because they work; which is to say, because they have wives and children. The farmer cultivating his fields is a fool . . . . Thoreau playing with himself in his cabin is a wise man . . . .’ He continues, ‘I have yet to meet a woman who cares much for it. The fact is that Thoreau acted out, for a short time and in a limited, easy way, a primary and perennial fantasy of the American male. To escape, to be on one’s own, without the anxiety of sex or the clutter of human responsibility: it is the dream of the failed man. . . . Do away with art, do away with history, abolish every civilization more complex than that of the anthill beneath your feet. It is the American dream’ (‘The Man in the Box at Walden’).

As always, Mr. Carruth is vague and not a little reticent in his prose. In any case, he’s right.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 18, 2005 10:37 AM.

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