Monday, July 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 90: Henry David Thoreau, A Winter Walk (#103)

Henry David Thoreau, "A Winter Walk" (1843) from Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems:

Reading Thoreau's "A Winter Walk," much of which is told in first person plural--we did x and we see y--I can't help think of dialogue from Mad Magazine:
The Lone Ranger: “Looks like we’re in trouble, Tonto.”
Tonto: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
I have friends who like Thoreau; and there are even parts of his writing that I like. For one, there's a real environmental/observational bent to his writing, the sort of attempt that is carried forward by the John Muirs and the Mary Austins. When he notes that winter is a good time for observation because everything is frozen where it is--as opposed to being chopped up and brought into the lab or study--we can see the environmental thread that runs through the Transcendentalists.

And yet, this long long long long long long piece does not rehabilitate Thoreau in my eyes. Sure, there's the environmental observation. But then so much of the piece isn't ecological, but romantic. We hear that "Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds" and that "There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill." Some of that Romance moves me if we think about it as metaphor: living things may slow or die in winter but life goes on.

But most of the time, that Thoreau bend towards romance merely obscures the real material issues. No matter how much he says "we" and "us" and "our," I keep thinking about his "winter is great" next to Richard Adams's note from Watership Down that people like winter because they are separated from the cold and hunger that the animals go through--and, Adams adds, that the poor go through. This is the huge material issue that Thoreau almost always fails to account for. Walking through the winter woods may be fine and good if you don't have a family that depends on you; and it can be even easier if you've got some older women in your family who cook and clean for you.

Finally, I laughed out loud when Thoreau idiotically notes
The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow. Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zones?
I don't know, I guess Thoreau is so busy worshipping the trees that he can't bother to learn about German and Scandinavian and British Isle mythologies, most of which would not really match up with Thoreau's idea of winter as a calm and equalizing force. For the rest of the world, winter is about starvation and cold, but if your aunt is coming out to your cabin to cook for you, I guess you might not realize that.

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