Friday, March 28, 2008

Walden revisited

Just before I quit academia in 1995 (to return eight years later in the odd hybrid form I now occupy), I had a paper accepted at American Quarterly. The paper was my dissertation chapter on Walden. AQ wanted some revisions, which I never did because I had decided to sever all ties to my old life. It was an interesting time, when something that seemed supremely important one minute--publication in a major journal--meant nothing to me the next.

For a long time I couldn't bear even to look at Walden, because it was so closely woven into all my academic work. I couldn't read it outside of that tense, grinding mindset--must find more ways Thoreau is a masochistic fascist! While I think the Thoreau piece is my best work from that era, I'm glad it wasn't published. I can see in my marginal notes on the pages how aggressive I was as a reader. My goal seemed to be to prove myself superior to this great, influential, and brave (yes, I know the cabin was in Emerson's backyard) thinker. So lately I've been rereading Walden as more of an aspiring kindred spirit.

I doubt I'll do any more academic writing beyond the occasional half-baked thought on this blog. But if I did, I'd like to write on this bit from the first section of Walden, "Economy":
I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails,and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts, at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy.

So much going on here. Thoreau has bought and dismantled another Irishman's cabin to reuse the boards for his own. We've just seen that Irish family walking off into the unknown, all except their cat, who "took to the woods," became wild, but then died (Thoreau has heard) in a trap set for woodchucks. I'd like to say more about these vanishing scenes at some point. I'm sure this very scene has inspired similar ones in my fiction.

But what I'm most interested in here is the way Thoreau leaves the stage and lets someone else, young Patrick, and Seeley also, take over the narrative. It's like the line in To the Lighthouse, the boiling-down of Mr. Ramsay's philosophy: "think of a kitchen table when you're not there." It's a moment when the first person narrator, a stand-in for all of us, who are always the first-person narrators of our stories, sees himself as peripheral. Life goes on in our absence, our plans and our cabins quietly dismantled. Thoreau returns to claim Seeley's thefts as lending grandeur to his little project; he's joking and not joking at the same time. Still, that doesn't change the fact that he has left both his boards and his story in others' hands, "in the intervals of the carting."

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