3.) John Burroughs — Digging for Gems in Thoreau

I find myself  in strong agreement with much of what Burroughs has to say about Thoreau, based upon the selection from Walden and Walking that I’ve read. I can’t say that I can correct any of Thoreau’s errors in the arena of scientific facts or naturalist observations, but I do believe, as Burroughs says, that Thoreau does not so much teach us anything irrefutable about us – the audience, or mankind – as he does share with us many a personal gesture or idiosyncratic interpretation or musing grounded in idealist thought. Thoreau is, as Burroughs describes him, “too personal and illogical for a philosopher…only interested in things so far as they related to Henry Thoreau” (Burroughs 45). However, Thoreau does attempt to lend us something in his very self-specific revelations, and this is something that, though I do find myself disagreeing with him when he begins to push the boundaries of radicalism and smugness, I glean a certain sense of reasonable philosophy in his writing. In this way, Burroughs yields, Thoreau is more of “an idealist, a fervid ethical teacher, seeking inspiration in the fields and woods” (43). Thoreau cannot be a philosopher simply because his writing reads more like an independent how-to guide than a well-developed thesis, and it is truly full of what can be boiled down to slanted opinions, such as in the case of his feelings about wisdom and the elderly: “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors” (Walden 9). What I believe about Thoreau, and I think Burroughs would agree, is that when reading Walden, for example, the reader must filter through the subjective to find gems of philosophical wisdom, and when one finds it, it’s something of substance. In Walden, for instance, the “civilized man” is defined as “a more experienced and wiser savage” (31), but Thoreau provides this definition after spending many paragraphs comparing things like the “civilized” and “savage” approach to housing, often finding the civilized approach to be no more labor or cost-efficient. How, then, are we to believe that the civilized man is any wiser or more experienced? Pardon the “civilized man” definition – which appears as at most, an afterthought – and focus on the argument about housing itself, and Walden is capable of being read a bit more in-focus, so to speak.  If one can excuse Thoreau’s frequent and unapologetic generalizations and half-digested definitions, there is, believe it or not, some wisdom to dig out of his writing.

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch/Art: Walden; Walking p. 5-70, 260-287. pub. WW Norton 2008

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    While I agree with your initial agreement with Burroughs’ criticism of Thoreau, I take the highly personal position of strongly disagreeing with the assertion that there is, as you said, “some wisdom to be dug” out of Thoreau’s writing. My whole experience with reading Thoreau has been one of at best, confusion and at worst, an alternating sense of extreme boredom and hatred. Burroughs makes an interesting point in his writing on Thoreau that I found most pertinent in saying: “Thoreau called himself a mystic, and a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. But the least of these was a natural philosopher.”

    I felt like the tone of Thoreau’s writings (that we’ve read for class) have been neither distinctly philosophical nor particularly literary. There is little to no argumentative or narrative structure in them; they are mostly what I would consider to be a form of bedazzled psychobabble with little meaning to even a patient reader. But then again, if there’s anything that studying Thoreau has taught me, it’s to never discount the importance of subjectivity, so that’s (obviously) just my $0.02.

    Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

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