Another Edition of Charter School Hysteria
Philosophy During PD Week

Thoreau on Writing

    In this second part of my journal analysis, I would like to examine how Thoreau might have been trying to inspire future writers. Because he was a prolific writer, and because his art was so well-developed, I believe that in certain journal entries he was writing metacognitively in order to instruct others. He almost sounds like a writing teacher in his entry of 4 September 1851:

“Be greedy of occasions to express your thought. Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth. Improve the suggestion of each object however humble, however slight and transient the provocation” (95).

When we take each sentence to itself, and then we apply the advice to our own time and place, we realize he is talking about the importance of not just figurative language, but raw detail…even details that pertain to what we assume is a triviality. It’s excellent advice for writers of all levels, and it makes me wonder what kind of positive comments and suggestions he would take the time to put on a student paper.

He talks about developing theme in his journal entry of 18 October 1856:

“My work is writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards; for, ye fools, the theme is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited. We touch our subject but by experience, or our interest in it, rests on us by a broader or narrower base. That is, man is all in all, Nature nothing, but as she draws him out and reflects him. Give me simple, cheap, and homely themes” (288).

I believe he is trying to advise the writer about character development when he says, “All that interests the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited.” He could be referring to his own sense of self, and how he wants his own characterization understood, he could be referring to any writer, on any characterization…it is the “depth” and the “intensity” of a character that makes us fall in love with it for whatever its faults or virtues. “Give me simple, cheap, and homely themes” could refer to anything we experience in contemporary entertainment, from reality shows, to metal music. The themes are in essence, cheap, simple, and in some cases shockingly homely.

Finally, as an educator, I value the power of reflection, and the lack of false drama and overdone hyperbole. In his entry of 28 March 1857, Thoreau discusses reflection in his own stylish way:

“Often I can give the truest and most interesting account of any adventure I have had after years have elapsed, for then I am not confused, only the most significant facts surviving in my memory. Indeed, all that continues to interest me after such a lapse of time is sure to be pertinent, and I may safely record all that I remember” (311).

The best stories are told over and over again, orally. I am sure Thoreau was able to flesh out much of his thematic genius by visiting and recounting details with his various friends and family members. His thoughts and stories grew in value over time, and he wants future writers to have an awareness of how much of writing takes place away from the desk.

If we aren’t sharing these insights with our students, then we should be. Thoreau’s thoughts on his art are certainly worth learning.

Thoreau, Henry D. I to Myself. Ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 207.




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