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Thoreau's Method of Composition 
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Post Thoreau's Method of Composition
I wonder if Thomas, babyblues, or others who know Thoreau so well could comment on the method of composition in W and its implications for interpreting him. In rereading "Economy", I see possibly a pastiche of passages from different writings, most likely from his journals. The section is anything but tightly unified in the manner of the modern essay we are most used to, but a little more like the essays of Montaigne, to whom Thomas refers. I find this discursiveness to be richly satisfying as a reader. And I think that if T did indeed assemble this section from other materials, it could explain why he doesn't always appear consistent (not a problem, though).

What impresses me this time is that, on balance, T is not dogmatic in his beliefs. I would have said previously that flexibility is not his finest quality. But he often appears to realize that in a passage he has been too categorical. He significantly qualifies his statement on quiet desperation, for example, saying that he does "not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perchance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest." He is speaking only of "the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them." Is this "mass" of men even to be taken as a majority at this point? T, I believe, clearly admires, at least to an extent, anyone who advances in the world with purpose and boldness. It is those who complain of being discontent and are floundering who he criticizes for not seeing the solution right before their eyes.

Even on the subject of material wealth, he says that with those for whom accumulation of these fine thngs pose no harm to the spirit, he has no argument.

I got off my main point, which was to ask if his method of putting his book together accounts for a variety of viewpoints from him. I would not otherwise expect to see, so soon after he sweepingly characterized the the lives of his countrymen, this passage: "Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant." This is a rather fine statement of human understanding, by the way, one that is not that common in T.

Of course, the passage about the hound, the bay horse, and the dove, just has to have been "dropped in."

Any comments?
DWill



Sat Jul 05, 2008 6:33 am
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I have a similar impression of what I have read of the first chapter, although I didn't think of Montaigne as I should have.

The parallels to Montaigne's writing are present. Montaigne usually intends to write about a certain topic. He communicates his opinions and beliefs in a conversational tone without real structure - personality shining through all the while. The difference being that Thoreau has purpose, wants to inspire, and has a far more earnest personality.

Thoreau also shows some depth of his education by name/quote dropping, much like Montaigne does.

I think T has an exact audience he wishes his message to reach. "As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them." He wants to touch a very specific person in his mind and acknowledges that portions of his writing made for 'his' person may apply to other people, although not wholly.

What I don't really understand is, "I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits." What I think this means is that the aim of his message is so precise that it will safely miss those who it does not apply to... I'm probably misinterpreting here.

Page 6 where he talks about new deeds for new people - I can agree with, though he goes a little too far in believing that his elders have not attempted the great experiment of life. As if everyone is following a life manual. Great, you're a vegetarian. That makes you Mr. Life experimenter because you don't eat meat.
Then he ends the paragraph by poking fun at some farmer's intelligence.

I do like how his writing about the necessity of creativity. The following paragraph, which includes this quote, really got me. "The whole ground of human life seems to have been gone over..." Don't you feel like that sometimes, too? I know that there is so much left to discover and I feel like I'll probably never discover anything new because someone probably has already done it for me and the next frontier is out of my reach. He advocates trying new things, exploring, and being creative.

I remember reading about the bay horse. I tried skimming back through to find it but I can't seem to. If you can, let me know what page it was on. I remember reading it twice because I didn't quite understand how it fit. I think he asked several people about the animals and someone saw the duck and someone else heard a pig squeal and then rode a cow over the moon - or something. It was super confusing.



Sat Jul 05, 2008 8:00 am
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President Camacho wrote:
The parallels to Montaigne's writing are present. Montaigne usually intends to write about a certain topic. He communicates his opinions and beliefs in a conversational tone without real structure - personality shining through all the while. The difference being that Thoreau has purpose, wants to inspire, and has a far more earnest personality.

Agreed. I don't think Thoreau ever truly strays off the point. Not so with Montaigne. And the earnestness is central in him. He seems to periodically realize that it might be too strong and pulls back. Fortunately, T has a humorous side, in a laconic Yankee way. (I'd like to see a thread on his humor.)
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I think T has an exact audience he wishes his message to reach. "As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them." He wants to touch a very specific person in his mind and acknowledges that portions of his writing made for 'his' person may apply to other people, although not wholly.

I had the impression that T''s audience is rather a problem for him, and that he's really not sure of it. He must know that his fellow townsmen whose futile lives he remarks on won't even read the book! He guesses that "poor students" may be its best audience. When you think about it, that T even brought out the book took some chutzpah. His reputation in Concord wasn't exactly sterling. He was always a bit of an oddity, slow to gain any respect. (I remember reading of an incident where he caused a large area of woods to burn down.) He writes a book saying that the rest have got it wrong. Good for him. That takes some confidence. But he was also bound to be a little uncertain of his approach to his readers.
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What I don't really understand is, "I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits." What I think this means is that the aim of his message is so precise that it will safely miss those who it does not apply to... I'm probably misinterpreting here.

This is an example of what I prize in his writing, the concrete image that may have a flexible interpretation. What I get from it is this: if it doesn't suit you, put it down rather than trying to force it to fit; another may come along who finds it just to his liking.
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I remember reading about the bay horse. I tried skimming back through to find it but I can't seem to. If you can, let me know what page it was on. I remember reading it twice because I didn't quite understand how it fit. I think he asked several people about the animals and someone saw the duck and someone else heard a pig squeal and then rode a cow over the moon - or something. It was super confusing.

I'm not using the online text, so telling you the page wouldn't help you. It's 14 pages into the "Economy" section in my text. It's tempting to see the passage as an example of the "obscurities" he mentions a few sentences earlier. I'm sure someone else has a good idea about the passage. I don't push a lot into that paragraph, just find it an interesting mystery.
By the way, my edition includes Emerson's "Biographical Sketch," actually a eulogy of Thoreau. It's a great summary of the man.
DWill



Sat Jul 05, 2008 8:09 pm
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Dude, I thought the same exact thing!!! If he is writing this for the dejected masses of working folk - they're never going to read it!!! In the 1800's did they even have the education to read it? Man, I've had the benefit of public education and I'm having a hard time getting through it. Hahaha, that is really funny! I'm glad you brought that up. Who is he really writing to then?



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President Camacho wrote:
I remember reading about the bay horse. I tried skimming back through to find it but I can't seem to. If you can, let me know what page it was on. I remember reading it twice because I didn't quite understand how it fit. I think he asked several people about the animals and someone saw the duck and someone else heard a pig squeal and then rode a cow over the moon - or something. It was super confusing.


Quote:
1.24 I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.


My idea is that the three lost animals represent persons that Thoreau had lost: The hound is his deceased brother John Thoreau; the bay horse, his deceased friend and college roommate Charles Stearns Wheeler; the turtle dove, his girl friend Ellen Sewall, who married someone else.

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Sat Jul 05, 2008 10:35 pm
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Step up and be discussion leader Tom.

I was close. I figured the dog was a friend, the horse a close working companion, and the dove was a lost love.



Sun Jul 06, 2008 3:55 pm
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President Camacho wrote:
If he is writing this for the dejected masses of working folk - they're never going to read it!!!


I've picked up a surprising detail this time, don't know why I didn't see it before. HDT seems especially to have [b]farmers[b] in mind when he talks about lives of quiet desperation. This is a bit remarkable--no praise for the segment that Jefferson thought of as the foundation of the country. There is, in Walden, and in HDT's other published book, A Week, etc., a preference for the hunter/gatherer way of life as practiced still by a few people in Concord and of course by the Indians. HDT himself of course raised some crops during his first summer. But this was far different, in his mind, from the way of life that farmers saddle themselves with. Today, of course, the independent farmer is just about the most sympathized-with person in society, and my guess is that the case would not have been much different in HDT's time. But HDT is his own man in this regard, as always.

DW



Mon Jul 07, 2008 9:35 am
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Yup. That same sympathy allows billions of dollars of tax payer money to get funneled into large agricultural companies. People hear Farm Bill and they think of mom and pop instead of wealthy corporations.

It's one of those subsidies that will never end. It'll get larger and larger. One excuse after another to tap into people's emotions. Soil degradation, saving small farms, national security - they'll use anything to justify lining the pockets of these huge companies; like they need the help.

Then the companies start growing foods that don't get subsidies at all. Finally, they move from marginalizing small farms to completely ending them. Brilliant.

Anyway, yes, I've noticed that T has cited farms as the yoke that the people he's referring to inherit. He seems to think of them as slaves and he even pokes fun at a farmer when he tells Thoreau to eat meat.

I've heard that not eating meat possibly contributed to T's condition. I guess the farmer got the last laugh.

From my continued reading, I've noticed that he concentrates on the approval of other people and how he's failed to achieve that. He was a reporter of a journal (page 13 or thereabouts) with no very wide circulation that didn't print the bulk of his work. Then he takes menial, self appointed jobs and embellishes their importance.

His sentence "In short, I went on thus for a long time, I may say it without boasting, faithfully minding my business, till it became more and more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance."

It should read" In short, I was unemployed for a long time, playing in the forest and exaggerating the importance of little deeds I've done, all the while being ignored by everyone in the town, until I finally figured out that picking my nose and watching the flowers grow wasn't going to earn me a spot on easy street."

All this and he's perplexed/troubled over an Indian who is doing something seemingly productive but just hasn't found his market yet. The Indian is closer to finding his market than Thoreau was. Surveyor of forest paths? Come on dude.... Honestly...

So Thoreau knows he's an outcast. Why? Because he probably isn't respected very much for his (even now) weird behavior.

OK so 15 goes into 16 where Thoreau imagines himself the CEO of the forest. hehehe... I can play along here, I guess. Let me get my spiderman outfit so I can pretend I'm mayor of Charlotte's Web. weeeeeeee!!!! To make a serious venture out of this is bananas. T, in my eyes for now, is a total fruitcake.

16 brings him back. The discussion about clothing is a good one and I'll be curious to know what you think about it D. This is more of Montaigne's territory. It is no longer fanciful imaginings like the discussion about starting a forest business; it's T's opinion about an interesting, everyday topic that provides insight into the author. For one, his inability to conform or accept change - such as when he refuses his tailor's advice about new styles. The conversation he relays is pretty funny, though. He has a dark and sometimes cruel sense of humor. ..definitely not a class act.

That's where I'm at. I'll try reading more tonight. I wanted to jot down some feelings about what I've read before I forgot.



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What happened to Ophelia? She get a boyfriend or something?



Mon Jul 07, 2008 6:23 pm
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I can't answer your question about Ophelia. I haven't been around that much myself, lately. To me, the section on T's resume is humorous. He did submit stuff to the Dial, but the parts about getting a post with the town are tongue-in-cheek, and I think pretty clever. He does get serious again when discussing clothing, and I couldn't argue with the truth of it all. He didn't like fashion in any area of life, to put it mildly.
DW



Fri Jul 11, 2008 7:42 pm
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Hi Comacho,
One other thing I meant to say about Thoreau. Sometimes he gives us the impression of being a guy who knocks about Concord, somebody good at loafing and most interested in avoiding work. I'm pretty sure this guy is a literary creation of Thoreau. In fact, I don't think HDT was capable of spending a day as I am able to, just goofing off and having nothing to show for it afterwards. He had enormous self-discipline and self-direction. Most of us need to have jobs just because otherwise we'd be at loose ends (and often are when we retire). Not Henry. All you have to do is notice his voluminous notebooks, with amazingly detailed data of every sort that he collected, to realize that he was extremely focused and dedicated to his craft of writing.
DW



Fri Jul 11, 2008 9:36 pm
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