Nov 25 2010

Romanticism to Modernism 4

Published by Peter Schneck

Not the real house - but close to it!

Not the real house - but close to it!

Thoreau’s lengthy stay at Walden Pond (two years and two months, as he announces in the beginning of his journal) could be looked at as an experiment in practical or applied philosophy – putting some of the transcendentalist ideas and notions he shared with Emerson and others to the test, as it were.

At the same time, the journal about the stay itself could be called an experiment in experiential writing, i.e. both a written record of his experience as well as a form or medium of his experience. In other words, the journal is as much part of the experience at Walden pond as the experience is the major concern of the journal. The importance of writing for enhancing and documenting experience, and making it more meaningful, is emphasized by Thoreau in a letter, where he says:

Let me suggest a theme for you: to state to yourself precisely and completely what that walk over the mountains amounted to for you,—returning to this essay again and again, until you are satisfied that all that was important in your experience, is in it. … Don’t suppose that you can tell it precisely the first dozen times you try, but at ’em again, especially when, after a sufficient pause, you suspect that you are touching the heart or summit of the matter, reiterate your blows there, and account for the mountain to yourself. … It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do? (Letter to Blake, 1857)

To give you a taste of Thoreau’s own writing, download the first 5-7 pages of the Walden here, and carefully read through them, especially the marked passages. Them try to answer and comment on the following questions:

  • At the outset, Thoreau comments on his way of writing and the things he will talk about in the course of the journal. What do you make of his assertion that “we commonly do not remember that it is … always the first person speaking”? What kind of attitude towards oneself does this express and how is this relevant for his writing and the experience he writes about?
  • In a later passage we find some comments on slavery and self-emancipation (it’s the second marked passage) – what precisely is Thoreau trying to say? How does that fit into some of the things we said about the basic traits and notions of transcendentalism?
  • On the same page, just two paragraphs down, Thoreau talks about old thoughts and new thoughts, and the relation between truth and opinion. What is his argument here? How does this compare to, and probably support, some of Emerson’s statements and sentiments about ‘newness’ and tradition? You may also look at the last passage marked at the end of the excerpt in order to answer the last questions.
  • In general, could you comment on some ‘typical’ transcendental features in Thoreau’s remarks and his rhetoric? How does his non-conformism show through? What is his relation to nature? Do you find the same concern for spiritual matters and issues as we found in Emerson?

You may hand in your answers in the usual way and your answers will count as one take home exam out of three (Master: four). You may also expand your answers and comment in more detail – more than two pages – and then your exam would count as two take home exams.

Good Luck!

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