Thoreau’s “Walden” and “The Young Man’s Guide”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Henrik Otterberg | © Henrik Otterberg 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Work-in-progress, oral version without full references. Please feel free to comment or criticize the contents; write the author at henrik.otterberg@lit.gu.se. All contributions will be acknowledged!

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I’d like to venture some remarks on a critically neglected but consistently popular genre, the so-called self-help book – especially as directed toward young men, and how one may relate it to Thoreau’s Walden. To my knowledge, there has been no treatment of this specific topic to date, at least of a systematic nature, which in turn invites caution; there is no scholarly fray to jump into. The following should thus be taken as a preliminary foray, with less of contention, while – hopefully – more of suggestion.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To stride at once toward firmer ground, the go-to 101 text on Walden‘s formal modalities surely remains Linck C. Johnson’s 1988 article “Revolution and Renewal: The Genres of Walden.” Here Johnson points out how Thoreau’s book, while primarily an autobiography as he defines it, encompasses all three styles identified in classic poetics as typical of the works of Virgil. Yet whereas the Roman poet wrote The Aeneid, the Georgica and the Eclogues in separate idioms, in Walden we see the heroic, georgic and pastoral modes merged within the confines of a single work. This in the attitudes and actions of its self-made, protean narrator, and in the variegated portrayals of his natural-cum-cultural environment. Johnson goes on to mention a number of works of life writing, among them those of Franklin, Goethe and Carlyle, as well as various travel-, reform- and seasonal books, as germane to Walden; these influences being either self-evident or convincingly unearthed by previous scholarship. As an interesting aside, however, Johnson also ventures that Thoreau’s book was inspired and provoked by what he calls “familiar and imposing writings on social and domestic life,” including Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal American Housewife of 1832, Eliza Farrar’s 1836 book on etiquette, The Young Lady’s Friend By A Lady; and Catherine Beecher’s 1841 Treastise on Domestic Economy. Thoreau would then be presumed to have reacted against the imagined necessities of etiquette – “what demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (10) – as against the misguided notion that household maintenance, as depicted in these works, must be mastered in detail – Thoreau in Walden instead wishing to dispense with as much as possible in this regard. No paperweight on the desk!

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Johnson’s essay has valuably opened the field for a more sustained consideration of the myriad genre echoes one may find in Walden, so long in gestation and fussy maturation as it was. He is also correct in noting that Thoreau did not shun utilitarian or didactic modes and genre elements in his work, while adding more lyrical and spiritual ones to his mix, especially toward the book’s latter half. What is a little surprising, however, is that Johnson chooses to highlight contemporary guidebooks directed first and foremost toward young women as prompting Thoreau toward riposte. While it is of course conceivable that a female member of the Thoreau family (or one of its regular boarders) had access to one or more of the works in question, there are no records to corroborate this. Nor indeed does Robert Sattelmeyer’s standard work Thoreau’s Reading indicate that Thoreau owned or borrowed any of the ones proposed. To this one should of course add, as Sattelmeyer sagely does, that “[w]e are not always eager to reveal to the world the forces that have most shaped us, and Thoreau, whose trade had more secrets than most, as he said, was especially guarded” (xiii).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The perhaps surprising fact is that Thoreau did own a handful of self-help books, but they were generally (if not exclusively) geared toward young men. Thoreau makes almost no mention of them in his writings, but they remained on the shelves of his personal library. What proves interesting, at least to my mind, is to compare the concerns of these respective books – and their influential corollaries – to some of Thoreau’s writings, and specifically to the more pedagogical portions of Walden. It seems to me that Thoreau recycles and refashions a number of common nodes and tropes of these young man’s guides, variably in order to emulate, question, or critique what they profess and promote.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The most familiar of the group today is undoubtedly The Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Written by Himself, in a Salem edition of 1796. Thoreau’s personal copy lacks his signature, but it may well be that he inherited this book from his father John (born 1787), whose own signature adorns the title-page of another, more explicitly instructional work on Thoreau’s shelves, namely James Fordyce’s Addresses to Young Men, as published in Boston in 1795. Beyond these somewhat older works, however, Thoreau also retained a trio of young-man’s-guides published or re-published with his own generation in mind: the pastor Joel Hawes’ Lectures Addressed to Young Men of Hartford and New Haven, and Published at Their United Request, issued in Hartford in 1828; furthermore an anthology of Lord Chesterfield’s famous letters of advice to his son, the somewhat florally titled The Beauties of Chesterfield, as brought out in an 1828 Boston edition; and finally the French baron and pedagogical reformer Joseph-Marie de Gérando’s Self-Education; or, The Means and Art of Moral Progress, significantly translated by Elizabeth Peabody, and published in Boston in 1830. Thoreau is also known to have borrowed from his local Concord Town Library John Aikin’s exhaustively titled The Arts of Life, Described in a Series of Letters: 1) Providing Food. -2) Providing Clothing. -3. Providing Shelter. For the Instruction of Young Persons, By the Author of Evenings at Home – this work also published in Boston in 1830. Furthermore, during his college years Thoreau evidently consulted the Harvard Library’s copy of the colorful British politician and adventurer James Burgh’s The Dignity of Human Nature. Or, a Brief Account of the Certain and Established Means for Attaining the True End of Our Existence, published in London in 1767.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Before touching on some of these works and their possible bearing on Walden, I’d just like to hint at the long history of the self-help book. Most frequently in its older guises, such as in medieval conduct manuals and later princely mirrors, the genre as commonly defined employs a personal, direct address to its reader, in offering instruction on how properly to navigate various social, political and religious contexts, all via individual agency. The expansiveness of content is a very important aspect from the start, almost wherever one places the genre’s tentative origin, as its affiliated works tend – perhaps inevitably – toward eclecticism: professing to relate how one may live one’s life successfully and worthily, according to pertaining standards. Self-help books, then, initially function as stand-in tutors or instructors for a literate and presumably ambitious student: showing by example; telling by authority.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Over time, however, the genre becomes less formal and stern, rendering advice not only by way of infallible example but also by its authors’ self-professed shortcomings. Admonishments on niceties of courtesy and religious observance gradually wane, especially in the 19th century, while a guiding concept remains the formation of a useful individual; i.e. of becoming of value to others beyond oneself. In the words of the most prominent self-help author in America during the 1830’s through 1850’s, William Andrus Alcott (saliently the second cousin and life-long confidant of Thoreau’s close friend, Bronson Alcott), one should strive, in equal measure, to be useful to spouse, to family, to neighborhood, to nation, and ultimately to god. This, notably, beyond gaining one’s economic independence, which goal is stated as underlying all others.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I have chosen to cite Franklin’s posthumously issued autobiography as a self-help book pertaining to Thoreau, but it is necessarily so at a remove: presenting a Bildungsroman narrative of how Franklin helped himself, while ostensibly addressed to his son. And there are undeniably aspects of Franklin’s depicted character that Thoreau would take issue with: his unquestioning focus on financial success; his readiness to disguise or obfuscate his opinions in the interest of diplomacy; his espousing of piecemeal rather than comprehensive reform; and perhaps above all his temporary engagements – openly confessed to as they are – with ladies of ill repute. Yet the plain and straightforward style of Franklin’s narrative, focusing on his youthful years in the edition Thoreau owned, also held on to tenets that Walden‘s narrator later on would adopt: the importance of self-elevation by reading good books; of keeping strict business habits; of optimistically trusting and sticking to one’s core ideas, the doubts of seniors regardless; of frugality of dress and abode; of avoiding (at least largely, in Franklin’s case) meat, coffee, tea and all stronger liquors. Part of Franklin’s charm is his readiness to confess his errors and what Thoreau would see as his lack of purity, and this saves his rather pedestrian prose from becoming boring. Thoreau was, of course, aware of other works of Franklin’s, above all Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732 ff) and took the opportunity in Walden and elsewhere to lampoon some of Franklin’s camp maxims; how to stay “healthy, wealthy and wise” among them.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In the register of older self-help books at a remove, one might also mention Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719, which Thoreau cites several times in his writings, Walden among them. Crusoe does not address its reader as one seeking personal aid or guidance, but the work is generally understood – beyond its adventure-tale and travel narrative aspects – as a parable of the power of the enlightenment project. Its protagonist in time, by unflinching Lutheran industry, achieves a refashioning of his physical and social environs to reflect his at once puritanical and rational frame of mind. Interestingly, where Franklin’s depicted youth proves to have a tin eye for nature overall, Defoe’s Crusoe has a keen, if blinkered one for it: a utilitarian gaze, always on the lookout for improvement. Both characters are thus in obvious contrast to Thoreau’s transcendentalist hero of Walden, who values nature largely for its own sake – or at the very least for its profound effects upon its narrator.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Of the two older guides besides that of Franklin in Thoreau’s possession, a few cursory remarks first on the Scottish minister and poet James Fordyce’s Addresses to Young Men. This work most clearly hearkens back to sermonizing, rhetorically ornate guides of the past. Insofar as Fordyce recognizes change, he sees risks above all in burgeoning urban life, where young men may lose themselves to temptation. His chapter topics, on honour, praise, love, friendship, and what he calls “a Manly Spirit” as opposed to effeminacy and cowardice, are stuffed with classical and biblical allusions, and catalogue a number of potential pitfalls of character and reputation. From Fordyce one may also glean that guides such as his were often presented to male youths upon departing their homes for study or work, frequently at a distance from their origins: “The bosoms of your parents, kindred, and friends, are at this moment throbbing with anxiety on your account,” Fordyce writes: “[y]ou have the power of communicating blessings or woes innumerable” (13).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 More likely to have piqued Thoreau’s interest, at least incidentally, were the epistolary reflections of Lord Chesterfield, originally conceived in the mid-18th century. With a frank and unworried tone, Chesterfield’s letters, while at times narrowly aristocratic and eccentric, are also peppered with more everyday concerns than Fordyce allows. Chapter topics include: “Inattention”, “Indolence”, “Humour”, “Hurry”, “Lying” and “Pedantry”. Akin to Franklin, Chesterfield proves broadly conventional in outlook, neither overly rigid nor loose in his moral exhortations, but most often pleading for a version of moderate pragmatism. While he doesn’t give much for fashion as such, for instance, Chesterfield stresses the significance of not sticking out, either by overdressing or by obvious negligence of one’s garments. In instances like these, Thoreau is the more acerbic, especially in Walden, where, as we recall, his narrator expresses sarcastic disdain at the anonymous “they” who are said to dictate fashion.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 More important is perhaps to note Thoreau’s knack of distilling sentiments and arguments expressed prosaically or at dulling length in the self-help sources, while refashioning them into pithy, memorable maxims. We may quote Chesterfield on the employment of time, for instance: “The value of moments, when cast up, is immense, if well employed; if thrown away, their loss is irrecoverable” (245). While we may share the sentiment, we will not remember the phrasing. Compare Thoreau’s line in “Economy”: “As if you could kill time[,] without injuring eternity” (8).

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Furthermore, consider Joel Hawes’ ploddingly familiar argument in his Lectures, mentioned earlier as one of the more contemporary guides in Thoreau’s possession. “It is an old proverb,” Hawes writes,” that he who aims at the sun, to be sure will not reach it, but his arrow will fly higher than if he aimed at an object on a level with himself. Just so in the formation of character. Set your standard high; and, though you may not reach it, you can hardly fail to rise higher than if you aimed at some inferior excellence” (100f). Witness by way of comparison Thoreau’s sly repackaging, likewise in “Economy”: “In the long run[,] men hit only what they aim at” (27).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Finally, we could mention a running Platonic trope in the reverend John Todd’s Student’s Manual, subtitled: Designed, By Specific Directions, To Aid in Forming and Strengthening the Intellectual and Moral Character and Habits of the Student, a work issued simultaneously in Boston, New York and Philadelphia in 1835, which was very influential as a college guide for Thoreau’s generation (though with the due caveat that we have no documentation of Thoreau himself consulting it). Todd here warns repeatedly against what he calls a common faiblesse for “castle-building”: “the mischiefs of it are immense,” he writes, “We are not satisfied with what we now are; we have no patience to dig, and wait, and grow to eminence; and so we go off on the wings of imagination, and range through all desirable conditions, and select one, and at once sit down on empire or greatness” (88; cf 321 & 350). This while Thoreau, having his narrator dedicate Walden among others to “poor students” (4), remodels the same trope into an aspirational one: not without need of reinforcement, to be sure, but positive in outlook nonetheless: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” (324).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 With the constraints of time in mind, I will sum up with a brief coda. The self-help book in the form of the 19th-century young man’s guide was exceedingly popular in Thoreau’s day, some of its authors reaching sales volumes in the tens of thousands: none more so in the segment than William Andrus Alcott’s with his Young Man’s Guide, originally published in 1834 in Boston, and by 1858 reaching its 21:st edition. The genre was synthetic in nature, with liberal borrowings and outright plagiarizations being common. Alcott, for instance, put a successful spin on a concoction of Burgh, Hawes, and Chesterfield, adding sizeable portions of an influential 1829 work by William Cobbett, which book in turn put a distinct class aspect of its intended audience to the forefront, as its title made clear: Advice to Young Men, and (Incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life. This forthright aim, beyond well-educated sophisticates, at what we might call the middlebrow Johns and Jonathans of Thoreau’s age (cf. Walden, 333) may explain his reluctance to openly engage with this largely un-literary and rudimentary genre. Yet its concerns were sufficiently legitimate for him to engage in shadow-boxing them. The guides in sum reflect a sweeping optimism for the opportunities offered young men in antebellum America, while also firmly impressing that there were many risks to propriety and fortune, its authors well aware that few of their readers had any sturdier economic and/or social safety nets to fall back upon. Thoreau’s own immediate family was in such a predicament, and had afforded his education only via donations from his aunts. While each man’s fortune may have been seen to lie in his own capacity for growth, pace the guides, some recognition ought perhaps to have been given the soil from which his plant sprang up.

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Source: http://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/thursday-july-7-2/thoreaus-walden-and-the-young-mans-guide/

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