The best thing about a carefully crafted mix CD is that it often contains your friend's favorite songs or a band's best songs. The mix CD cuts out the process of having to work hard to find the good songs and just allows you to hear what is worth your time. If I were to make a mix CD from Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," I would include the first two chapters of the book titled "Economy" and "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For." These two chapter would be on my mix CD titled "American Lit from the 1800's."
If you wanted, you could pick up Walden at the book store and sit down and read these two chapters and get some inspiration without much prior context and be satisfied with what you've read. These chapters are cohesive and don't need much prior context. The latter parts of "Walden" left me thinking "Well, we've passed the good parts" since the first two chapters were so strong. Yet when you are reading Thoreau, you are not really searching for a plot or a mystery of whether he is going to survive in the woods, but you are searching for individually well-worded observations about how life is and always will be, whether it is 1854 or 2015.
Nonfiction writer William Zinsser says this about the book: "Walden isn't really a book about how Henry David Thoreau spent his days at Walden Pond. It's about what went through his head for two years at Walden pond."
What probably keeps people reading Thoreau over the last 30-40 years is that what he says in Walden can apply to American life in the 20th and 21st centuries. We see Thoreau, the sober minded philosopher, with a message for 1854 America. Certainly his descriptions of the changing of the seasons, his excellent ability to describe what he sees and his association with the transcendentalists make us think about rustic America in a sentimental way. Yet I don't think that is what you get at the beginning of this book. This is a man who seems pissed and grumpy that Americans in his day are becoming vain, obsessed with stuff and are being careless about what they mentally inhale in the newspapers.
"Economy" is the first chapter of the book. It focuses primarily on the financial habits of New England life (and perhaps the entirety of America) in the 1850's as it is compared to Thoreau's own lifestyle he has created in the woods. The problems that Thoreau had with Americans back in the 1850's were clearly stated in his essay, but to read what he has said in this first chapter and consider how we might live a less anxious and surface lifestyle would do us some good. I will break down three passages from the first chapter "Economics."
1. Anxious about Style
Thoreau's sentences and paragraphs are generally long. He writes long paragraphs. Yet the following addresses Thoreau's thought of people's concerns about outer appearance and clothes in his day. It seems people were very concerned what they wore in his day:
“No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes: yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and un-patched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this -- Who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon."
It shouldn't surprise anyone that a man who dedicates himself to live in a cabin that he built himself would say something like this. Building your own house and living in the woods often requires rugged clothes that are built to last. People who want to live country lives apart from society, especially hermit-types, typically dress strange. But he gets his counter-cultural thought across clearly-----why do we care so much about how we appear? Why do people feel the need to always have new clothes? Thoreau says that if a "new enterprise" requires new clothes, we should be skeptical: "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes . . .If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be." Thoreau's words sound somewhat like the North Carolina State Motto which states "to be is better than to seem."
His words hardly seem outdated. Sadly, our society is probably more self-conscious about appearance than it was in 1850. Certainly in the professional world being well-groomed and intentional in your appearance helps to persuade your boss that you are serious about your job and organized. However, in general, as Thoreau suggests above, it seems that American society would rather walk into town on crutches with a broken leg rather than with an old shirt or hole in our khakis. Our prospects for life would not be ruined if we went to the store with an un-cool pair of shoes.
Thoreau later says this about style: "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." He attributes this attitude to "the manufacturers" who have learned that people's "taste is merely whimsical" in terms of fashion. In a way, Thoreau and his buddy Emerson were devoted to an American way of life, and creating a culture that was different than English culture. I would guess that an obsession with fashion and clothes was something that characterized English culture, where as Thoreau hoped for a more minimalistic and practical American culture.
2. Home-Improvement and Comfort Urgent Even in 1854
A second anxiety that Thoreau points out in his society is man's focus on improving his house. He does spend lots of time explaining the advantages of a man building and working on his own house. He says that building his own house built his own character. However he says this about man's view of the house in 1850's:
"Granted that the majority are able at last either to own or hire the modern house with all its improvements. While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings. And if the civilized man's pursuits are no worthier than the savage's, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?"
It seems that Thoreau views himself living in the modern age. In many ways, the term "modern" is used as a synonym for contemporary or new in 2015. But he recognizes a trend in the 1850's for a greater emphasis on improving the house more than improving a person's character. This clearly seems to disturb him as he implies that anyone can build a palace, but who can create or train a king or a nobleman? To create character requires training, and it seems there is an over-emphasis on the house. Again, such a trend of "modern improvement" has been prevalent for years in America. In fact, you might say that since 1854, we've been improving our houses. Yet does this eclipse our anxieties about our character? Flip on the television and you'll see multiple prime time shows geared towards good Americans about how to improve your home to make it appear up with the times. HGTV is an entire network designed to help people feel insecure about their small houses. These shows are geared towards the hardest working, most successful Americans. But do we need more comfort? Isn't a 2014 house as comfortable as it gets?
Thoreau asks a similar, long-winded question:
“Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes be content with less? Shall the respectable citizen thus gravely teach, by precept and example, the necessity of the young man’s providing a certain number of superfluous glow-shoes, and umbrellas, and empty guest chambers for empty guests, before he dies?"
The last part of that extremely long second question always caught my attention. It doesn't make sense to me that some people have more than one guest bedrooms, if they are too busy with their job to actually have guests over. Could it be that some Americans have plenty of space to have guests over and a gigantic back deck, but have absolutely no time to actually make friends or have parties? Generally, Thoreau is right--------we need to be content with less.
3. "In Great Haste" about Being Ahead with Technology
Finally, the last part of "Economy" Thoreau questions our anxieties about being progressive with technology and to speed up our society. Throughout the book he mentions the Iron Horse, or a train, that is quickly a sign of travel is speeding up. Thoreau senses a trend among Americans to speed up physically, emotionally and in terms of communication. It seems since the publication of his book, we haven't slowed down. He says this: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." At the time Thoreau wrote this book, much of the west was barely established. California had just become a part of the US, as did Texas. Yet what did those two different climates, Main to Texas have to communicate? Thoreau strikes correctly at our priorities. It doesn't seem that he thinks there is anything wrong with new communicative technology, he just questions whether there is something of more importance.
He continues to poke fun at the news that people in 1850 would have found out immediately: "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." Today we might understand that there is a serious crisis going on in Iraq or about businesses new from Japan, but in general, our American public has for 160 years has increasingly been curious about celebrity gossip more than actual news. Along with that------it is very interesting to think that Thoreau expected in 1850 for Americans to build a tunnel underneath the sea that would connect to Europe. That idea sounds like something out of a Jules Verne book. But I guess we didn't need to build a tunnel, the Wright brothers built a plane.
Ultimately Thoreau's first chapter, "Economy" shows Thoreau is skeptical of our hurried feeling to prioritize technological advancement and material possessions more than character development and knowledge of the natural world. Other parts of this book are somewhat boring, however this book is timeless because the first chapter of Walden shows how little our attitudes of changed since then. While our society has changed in many ways in contrast to America in 1854, it seems we either need to read or re-read his observations about life or accept the fact that we will always be tempted to get our priorities mixed up with unimportant ends. All that to say------a quick skim of these chapters would give you the gist of Thoreau's urgent message.