The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

 

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau

5 thoughts on “The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

  1. Lets be honest. I wish you commented more on my Blog, if only just to say, “It is Monday all day to day throughout the planet, but the weather is different everywhere” or some other nonsense, because it prompts me to come over to your Blog and, believe me, when I read your reflective and conversational posts I am thinking. “This is really good and enjoyable.”

    I have no idea what you are reduced to doing for a living, but I do hope it is something which makes use of your conversational writing abilities, and your lovely way of delving into a subject

    • What a kind compliment, thank you! I do hope you check back often and find something in my quirky mix of interests and styles to please. I have future plans to write more about the weather, as it keeps on happening. :o)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, it made me giggle because I did about the same thing as you did as a younger woman. I remember being so excited about that book, a gift from my older sister, and then it fell flat in my hands, sadly, never to be opened again. Oh well, “to the making of many books, there is no end.”

    • I’m glad you could relate! And yes, so true–no end to the books. I come by it honest, having descended from a long line of storytellers, raconteurs, book collectors and readers. I try to stick to the classics, but even THAT gets a bit much! So glad you stopped by, Jennifer!

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