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Originally a handout used in my American Literature courses. I include it here as a sample. This short piece gets at the heart of Thoreau's most famous work and also tells us what it can teach us about "education" and about ourselves.

[Page references are to the Signet Classics edition]

On Thoreau's Walden


Steven C. Scheer

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. (216)

The Thesis of Thoreau's Tale: Thoreau's Walden is mythic, poetic, fictitious, fabulous, and metaphoric in the best senses of these terms. In it the artistically re/created real-life experience (itself an experiment in "artistic" living) becomes a symbolic model or paradigm for an embodied spiritual quest for the disembodied, for a journey from the "gross" to the divine "necessaries of life." The thesis of Walden is clearly indicated in the first chapter of the book. True economy has nothing to do with the ways and means of increasing wealth, with methods for multiplying the superfluities, the "gross necessaries of life." True economy is that which simply provides the flesh with what belongs to the flesh so that the spirit may go about its own business. The problem for Thoreau is that people don't seem to know this. People seem to believe that the "gross necessaries of life" represent all that there is to their humanity. This, as Thoreau sees it, is a social fiction which the people of everyday reality take to be a God-given truth. Thoreau's strategy in Walden is to expose this social fiction for what it really is, namely, a false fiction, a fiction that represents the triumph of the flesh over the spirit.

The best formulation of Thoreau's "message" is embodied in the following passage: "shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous . . . I perceive that we . . . live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. We think that that is which appears to be" (69, italics Thoreau's). At this point Thoreau's poetic strategy expands to become a demonstration of its own thesis. Reality is fabulous in the sense that it is something the human spirit fables for itself in order to satisfy its own higher demands. There is no one way in which such fabling can be accomplished except it needs must be such as to satisfy the total person, that is, both the flesh and the spirit. Having awakened his readers to the true realities that are within humankind's reach, Thoreau is in a position to pinpoint that flaw in human thinking which can easily lead to the acceptance of the false social fiction that the book exposes. The best formulation of this flaw is embodied in the following passage: "for the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out" (217).

The Frame of Thoreau's Thesis: [The following is taken from a "Glossary of Critical and Theoretical Terms" found at the end of the Case Studies of Contemporary Criticism volume of James Joyce's "The Dead"]: "Ideology: A set of beliefs underlying the customs, habits and/or practices common to a given social group. To members of that group, the beliefs seem obviously true, natural and even universally applicable. They may seem just as obviously arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and even false to outsiders or members of another group who adhere to another ideology. Within a society, several ideologies may coexist, or one or more may be dominant. / Ideologies may be forcefully imposed [as in totalitarian societies] or willingly subscribed to [as in democratic societies]. Their component beliefs may be held consciously or unconsciously. In either case, they come to form what Johanna M. Smith has called 'the unexamined ground of our experience.' Ideology governs our perceptions, judgments, and prejudices - our sense of what is acceptable, normal, and deviant. Ideology may cause a revolution; it may also allow discrimination and even exploitation."

The trick is to be an outsider within. This is not easy. Few can really manage the feat. Thoreau has apparently done it. But which Thoreau? Thoreau the Real or Thoreau the Fiction? The latter of course is a projection by the former. Even in real life, though, we project versions of ourselves . . . but for the most part such versions conform to pre-established roles. Emerson (in "Self-Reliance") says that "conformity loves not realities and creators, but names and customs." Of course, when this happens we are really dead to ourselves in a world that has already been made dead for us by commonly accepted conventions.

Quotes to think with/about (from my Pious Impostures and Unproven Words): " . . . we seem never 'quite ready to hear' our most valued works of fiction which repeatedly and endlessly remind us that our least questioned ideas may turn out to be our most questionable ones" (133). " . . . the 'truth' is that which eludes verbalization, escapes discourse. It keeps eluding/escaping words perhaps precisely because words, no matter in what clusters we organize them, can never re/present a final, absolute, non-questionable non plus ultra of the 'truth'" (136-37). "[W]e may find more 'fiction' in the religious/political orders of the 'real' world than in the artistic representations of 'conventional' fictions" (137).

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Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.

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