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August 2016

Thoreau on Intellectual Pursuit: Journal Entry Interpretation

    This piece serves as an allegory where the fruit metaphorically conveys a hermetical tenor. At first reading I really believed Thoreau was simply suggesting that we harvest only the fruits found in our area, simplifying life and minimizing our reliance on capitalism. On the surface the entry is seemingly very simple. The fruits are important, “not on account of their flavor merely, but the part they play in our education” (444). That lead me to believe that a student of nature should go out into the wild and pick berries off the bushes she/he finds in a forest close to the house. And on the surface that is the meaning, and I think most people would be satisfied with that reading.

    But if you simply analyze the three paragraph topic sentences then you can imagine an alternate and more meaningful metaphorical expression. His first topic sentence makes a declarative statement, “The value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight or enjoyment of them” (443). In his supporting sentences he further explains that it is “the spirit in which you do a thing which makes it interesting”, suggesting that the actual picking of the fruit, the way you do it, is the actual reward. This places the emphasis on some action, not the fruit itself.

    In his second topic sentence he illustrates some sense of fragility for the working class, “A man fits out a ship at a great expense and sends it to the West Indies with a crew of men and boys, and after six months or a year it comes back with a load of pineapples” (443). The tone of this sentence is rather rudimentary, almost boring. The beginning of this paragraph alludes to the stark life built upon a schedule of the investment of capital and the commercial products arriving at port. No intellectual enjoyment is suggested by this paragraph. Finally, in his third paragraph, he writes an imperative topic sentence, “Do not think that the fruits of New England are mean and insignificant, while those of some foreign land are noble and memorable”, adding value to the symbolic place, or stance one chooses to pose (444).

      This journal entry is about more than just picking fruit; it is a contrast between the boredom of life without intellectual enjoyment, as to the freedom and inspiration found in literary pursuit. The fruits are books, and the picker is a reader, and the disenfranchised are the souls without time to build an insightful and self-actualized, educated soul. I suggest reading this journal entry, and more, from Thoreau's annotated edition, I to Myself, to expand your understanding about literature, and help other people (such as your students or friends) grab more meaning from life.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. New Haven: Yale UP. 2012. pp. 443, 44


Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts: Today’s Journalism and Politics


            Any true Thoreauvian would already have made note of some of the interesting parallels between today’s social problems, and the contemptuous tone of Slavery. Not only that, any bona fide scholar would probably not even find these parallels noteworthy. But me ensconced in my Thoreauvian passions, busily kissing the cover of Walden and wondering why I never noticed the strange Transcendental past creeping up on the horrifying present, simply can’t repress my excitement and shared anger.

            I just love what he says about the torrid state of journalism and the witless readership, and I couldn’t agree more, especially when I think about a certain, local, education reporter, “And as they live and rule only by their servility, and appealing to the worst, and not the better nature of man, the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit” (188). He is spot-on with this description and its garish imagery, its humorous undertones.

            This is why I abstain from the local rag, but sometimes buy a sweat-covered copy from the homeless man on the corner. My son and I hand over our 4 bucks, throw the mess on the floorboard, and stow it quickly in the recycle bin without ever taking it from the garage to the house. But just like Thoreau, “When I have taken up this paper with my cuffs turned up, I have heard the gurgling of the sewer through every column” (188).

            Finally, just a little bit of shared fear about the upcoming election. Today I saw a cute online post that read “Out of 318million people this is all we could come up with?” Underneath the caption it had a couple of very unflattering pictures of Clinton and Trump. If you read the first full paragraph of page 190 without getting chills, then you are simply not paying attention:

“The amount of it is, if the majority vote the devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly, and obey the successful candidate, trusting that some time or other, by some Speaker’s casting vote, perhaps, they may reinstate God. This is the highest principle I can get out of or invent for my neighbors. These men act as if they believed that they could safely slide down hill a little way—or a good way—and would surely come to a place, by and by, where they could begin to slide up again” (190).

I think it’s safe to say that we are almost at the bottom of the hill, and it is pretty hard to slide back up. This isn’t the right forum for a complete breakdown on how we managed to slide down this far, but every voter is aware of what is happening, at least in some sense.

            This brings me to a slightly mystical, but relevant, and slowly developing, belief about the Transcendentals. We know of the soul/mind connection to the past via language, specifically ancient texts, and how Thoreau believed this was somehow supernatural i.e. God. Now we are doing a close reading of Thoreau, and we are finding ourselves on every page. I think if we possessed the intellect to truly understand this gracious and all-consuming connection between the actual words of the past and the scary present, then we too would be Transcendental. All of these many years later, Thoreau continues to make his point, truly Transcendent.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Lewis Hyde. The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau. New York: North Point, 2002. Print.

Walden, Economic Injustice, and the Commercialization of American Society

The Ponds is my favorite Walden chapter because Thoreau is writing from his heart. He isn’t trying to impress anyone with his extensive vocabulary, his high GRE score, or his third-person-passive-voice-boring-sentence structure. He isn’t some disengaged Ivy League scholar speaking from the pages of a journal article, a journal article that nobody really cares about. He sounds a bit like me, totally sick of social injustice. The following is one of my favorites: 

“Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face: who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like; --so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him not to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that he had made it” (189). 

I enjoy analyzing literature from a Marxist perspective. This piece embodies everything I despise about human nature, greed in particular. It encompasses a wide range of unethical behaviors, the type of behaviors that I am privy to, those happening behind the scenes, those pathetic political maneuvers. This little excerpt is heavily contemptuous of arrogance, and while I read it, I am cheering Thoreau on. 

Put my personal, Marxist, and petty political concerns aside, and expand this paragraph into a community scandal, such as the naming of an 18million dollar high school football field. Of course, just like the prostitutes they are, a commercial entity will pay to put their signage on the field. Us parents were asked whether or not we thought the naming rights should be sold, but, of course, that decision had already been made long before the survey hit the inbox. I can remember a time when nothing was named after a corporation, simply nothing. We didn’t have a Minute Maid Park, or an NRG Stadium, and somehow places were named in some meaningful way.

We are reminded of the destructive and deformative nature of greed when Thoreau writes “his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like” suddenly produces an uncomfortable, but familiar, mental image. His depiction emphasizes the unattractive nature of greed, while punctuating the importance of how something is named in conjunction with how the naming process affects the overall enjoyment of that space.

The naming of a public space should never be associated with some corporate entity—it reduces everything in its shadows to some cheap marketing strategy. I'm not against small business advertising at a game, or having the odd Coca Cola sign around. I am talking about the insidious way that corporations control us, and how Thoreau innocently raises this modern ethical question.

 Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. Walden. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2006. Print.


"Summer Vacation?" Whatever!!!

            Saying good-bye to “summer vacation” hurts, and it’s ever more painful when your precious time and money has been stolen by a greedy and selfish landlord, who is by nature a sniveling coward. The expense and time spent moving wiped out an entire month of our “summer” life, and now we are in a better house, under the dominion of a normal landlord, but the inconvenience and the pain continues.

            Saturday morning was spent on the phone negotiating with ATT, because they have such an ineffective and unprofessional customer service department that the left hand is literally in the dark about what the right hand is doing. If you move service, then God help you! Expect double charges, charges for service you didn’t receive, and expect to sit on hold with your telephone—pack a sandwich, because you will spend hours explaining when you moved, how you moved, when your service began, and the details of your original deal. You will be expected to know dates, times, when your installation crew arrived, what issues they faced, and how much time they spent at the “box” untangling wires. Get ready, because even though the customer service person will make promises, your problem is not solved. When your bill comes, with its accompanying overcharges, you’re back on hold, waiting for another round of frustrating nonsense, screaming into the phone at the stupidest electronic secretary in all of the digital kingdom.

            Rather than feeling rested after this summer experience, I am just plain, old exhausted. Last week I completed 30 hours of training for my district, and tomorrow I head back to work. I’m not hosting any students for two more weeks, but I’m still required to attend meeting after meeting. On top of that, my grad studies continue in a rapid rotation of payments, books, papers, and lectures. Today I finish working with Walden, and last month it was 18th century thinkers, and before that it was composition and twentieth century novelists, but, sadly, my electronic bibliography manager still occupies an unused computer tab because I haven’t had the time to complete the 50-page tutorial. Meanwhile, the lonely hours spent doing research are wasted in a sea of expensive, printed journal articles that are almost impossible to organize; a growing stack of obscure books are now occupying precious shelf space, spaces that require constant dusting. And while moving to please the greedy money muncher, much of the best stuff accidentally marched off into the recycling bin.

            This is my summer, a summer that should be toasted with a bitter brew, after a long period of mourning.