Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoreau and invisible men

Let's see if we can work Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Ellison into our conversation, alongside Mill and the Jameses. John Kaag, author of the terrific American Philosophy: A Love Story, helps connect the dots in his new essay for The Stone (joined here in progress):

"...In 1945, a century after Thoreau made his home on the banks of Walden Pond, Ralph Ellison began to write “Invisible Man.” “I am an invisible man,” Ellison’s black narrator explains. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

This refusal, whether conscious or not, is nonetheless, strategic: a way to superficially erase the injustice that silently underpins progress and affluence. The Native Americans of the Merrimack Valley vanished first to make way for the settlers — then the workers and slaves who supported the nation and the even-then-affluent Concord. What remains is the myth of the rugged, forward-looking individual fitted precisely to a country that would rather not retrace its questionable history. This, however, was never Thoreau.

“There are few things “in this world as dangerous as sleepwalkers,” Ellison wrote. Eyes closed, oblivious to the world, they proceed at their own peril, but more tragically, the peril of invisible others. If you rise before the sun and travel to Walden Pond, it is easy to understand the advantages of keeping your eyes open. We must, according to Thoreau, “reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep.”

To take Thoreau’s example, however, is not simply a matter of appreciating the natural world, of taking careful note of every woodchuck and birch. It also involves looking into the trees, into the near darkness, to discern the hidden, human figures who silently abide there. And slowly disappear."
From a review of a new Thoreau bio:

"...And so, seeking to “simplify, simplify,” he repaired to the shores of Walden Pond, where he built a one-room structure measuring 10 feet by 15 feet by 8 feet. On July 4, 1845, just shy of his 28th birthday, Thoreau moved in, opening his journal with the line, “Yesterday I came here to live.”

These words laid the groundwork for an American masterpiece, one in which Thoreau revels in the wonders of nature, his book echoing a theme he had sounded in an earlier work: “Surely joy is the condition of life!” Walls deftly sketches how Thoreau lived anything but a monastic life at Walden, noting that his cabin was in sight of the main road, that he entertained many guests, that trains regularly rumbled past on the new rail line to Boston and that he took dinner with his family once a week. Indeed, Walls writes, Thoreau was so much in the public eye at Walden that his retreat there “would forever remain an iconic work of performance art.”

Thoreau continued to write and lecture after he left Walden Pond. He and his family were active in the abolitionist movement, their home a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax and spent a night in jail because he believed the tax funded the state-sponsored violence of slavery and the mistreatment of Mexicans and Native Americans. “Let your life,” he wrote, “be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Witnessing the widespread destruction of nature as America’s industrial economy boomed, Thoreau lamented, “Trade curses everything it handles.” ...
UPDATE, July 12 - Happy 200th birthday!

"It's the birthday of Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He went to Harvard, but he didn't like it very much, nor did he enjoy his later job as a schoolteacher. He seemed destined for a career in his father's pencil factory, and in fact, he came up with a better way to bind graphite and clay, which saved his father money. But in 1844, Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson bought land on the shore of Walden Pond, a 61-acre pond, surrounded by woods, and Thoreau decided to build a cabin there. It was only two miles from the village of Concord, and he had frequent visitors. During the two years he lived there, Thoreau kept a journal that he later published as Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). In the conclusion to Walden, Thoreau wrote, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." WA

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:54 AM CDT

    If we go through the world sleep walking, it affects not only the quality of our live but it affects the quality of the lives. I feel as though it is our responsibility to open the eyes of others when necessary.