John J. Miller is joined by Kelly Scott Franklin to discuss Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

United States


00:00:10welcome to the Grateful podcast they will talk about Walden by Henry David Thoreau your host Jon J. Miller of National Review and you're listening to a production of national review our guest is Kelly Scott Franklin professor of English at Hillsdale college he's podcast with us previously our Walt
00:00:27Whitman's poem song of myself and Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel uncle Tom's cabin he joins us in the studio of Hillsdale college's campus radio station W. R. F. H. Kelly welcome back to the great books podcast think sounds great to be here why is Walden by Henry David Thoreau
00:00:44a great book first it's a great book because it's beautiful writing I think if you read it %HESITATION that you if if if the listeners read or have read at the level I don't know what I mean throw is quite a talented writer he writes beautifully about the
00:00:59world %HESITATION second though it it's that this book in particular offers a really %HESITATION amazing challenge to us to reconsider reevaluate how we live %HESITATION do we live as he says deliberately are we living the way that's in accordance with what we believe we're talk about the schemes
00:01:20of Walden the politics of Walden the story behind the story in a sense when asked Kelly what to transcend dental is because I've never quite understood that myself but let's start with just the opening words of Walden Kelly would you read them to us sure the the book
00:01:36begins with a chapter called economy coming from the Greek for the law the law of the house so how how you run your house throw rights when I wrote the following pages or rather the bulk of them I lived alone in the woods a mile from any neighbor
00:01:56in a house which I had built myself on the shore of Walden pond in Concord Massachusetts and earn my living by the labor of my hands only I lived there two years and two months at present I am a Sojourner in civilized life again so that's how Walden
00:02:15begins the books published in eighteen fifty four this seems like a nineteenth century version of going off the grid %HESITATION absolutely this %HESITATION this is exactly that thorough wants to build his own house he wants to grow his own food %HESITATION so in in a lot of ways
00:02:33it resonates with %HESITATION many of the contemporary movements we see today people seeking to as the rose said simplify now thorough has a reputation wasn't he just some tree hugging proto hit be weird al well I think %HESITATION usually the the the best and most interesting people in
00:02:54history are usually a little bit eccentric and throw was quite eccentric but he was %HESITATION he was about the business of living deliberately as he says and I think that makes him that makes him stand out to us there's always something about people who live %HESITATION deliberately that
00:03:17that strikes us as odd or strange I think he loves nature and I don't think that makes him %HESITATION necessarily a hippie I think he wants not to destroy all of our institutions or or break completely with them but re evaluate them try to decide which ones are
00:03:37working try to decide how ought we to live as human beings and in Walden pond is a real place that's right yeah you can still go you can still visit the the site %HESITATION it's on my bucket list I'd love to go there %HESITATION and the land was
00:03:52owned by %HESITATION Ralph Waldo Emerson %HESITATION friend and can mentor of of the row and he he let the row as as as they put it squad thorough calls itself a squatter on that on that land for for a couple of years the lands in Massachusetts the owner
00:04:07is as Ralph Waldo Emerson this this famous transcendental list from nineteenth century America %HESITATION I don't I don't want to go on on on too much attention here but but who was Ralph Waldo Emerson and want to transcend dental Emerson really %HESITATION found the American transcendental S. movement
00:04:27in like in the thirties and forties she's writing essays and he's he's gathering intellectuals together the transcendental us and not shell reject materialism and empiricism they say I don't know as as these things these things were rising these philosophies were arising and and and taking a greater hold
00:04:44on the American mind they follow the the German %HESITATION romantics and in saying we think there's a spiritual round we think that the world in fact suggests the present of transcendent truth and beauty and and a realm of the spirit so for this reason they look to to
00:05:05nature to encounter that that force of the divine in which they would refer to as the sole or they would refer to as god it's not a personal god but it is a kind of you know cosmic %HESITATION mind or soul that that exists and and that informs
00:05:23the universe the row moved into his house on July fourth eighteen forty five why this date was that is there is is that a deliberate choice or is it just a coincidence that he moved in on July fourth I don't think it's a coincidence I think it's true
00:05:39I don't I don't think he's lying there but American authors are always attentive to %HESITATION the the dates in American history that that are most significant so the fact is that he he creates his own movement of independence he says we've we have declared our independence from the
00:05:57Old World but now America's been a country long enough we had civilization and and societal norms and manners and these different things long enough to where we're starting to grow dependent and we need to move west up spiritually and in a way and and Cree are %HESITATION and
00:06:17and once again each individual needs to declare his independence and and that's Withrow wants to do when you and moved to Walden in the opening paragraph of Walden which you just read to us he refers to having lived at Walden pond for two years and two months and
00:06:33then when we read the book it feels like the story of a single year so this is a memoir is a work of fiction help us sort out %HESITATION da da da fact and fiction here yeah it's it's a memoir but anytime we write a memoir %HESITATION the
00:06:48best memories are always shaped and so you know I tell my students when we're reading %HESITATION pros like this the the author has to choose which things to include in in in his book and so that shaping of the narrative we could look all the way back to
00:07:02Augustine's confessions my students always ask you know does he really is the first time he sends really stealing fruit in a garden just like genesis and and does he really have is conversion in a garden %HESITATION in this kind of weeping moment that's very can to the garden
00:07:17to seventy and I say yes I don't have a reason to believe that customs lying but Gustin is selecting he's choosing those events in his life and and interpreting them to create the meaning that he thinks best expresses its life and so throws doing the same thing I
00:07:33think he doesn't want to bore us with a kind of repetitive two years chooses the events from the two years and complete some into is a kind of single year that opening paragraph is is well known but the most famous line in the whole book comes just a
00:07:47few paragraphs later so it's in that opening chapter and is this the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation Romine at that's a great line and yeah very very famous line throw things that we are not as happy as we think we are that we've made these
00:08:07choices that we think are are irrevocable we've chosen careers that we think we're stuck and we've we've invested in mortgages for our houses that we think we're stuck and he talks about families in slave to to the farm that they own sort of prep forever in debt perennially
00:08:25in debt and he says human beings are not living fully they're not living deliberately they're not living %HESITATION truly not living the good life but they may not know it or they may not know how to get out of it and so he proposes a way for himself
00:08:43and he he doesn't he doesn't propose that this particular experiment is the model for everyone he's he's explicit about that but he says what if we reconsidered what if we re evaluated the that the place we find ourselves in and made some changes to live better I've always
00:09:00found that line incredibly bleak and that's that's not to say that that we can't all look at our own lives and improve it in certain ways but the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation that just sounds so so pessimistic I think he's looking out at that
00:09:18his his contemporaries and seeing that they are unhappy and he wants to know is there a way to live happily I mean we we are attracted to we're attracted to survival stories and we're attracted to %HESITATION stories like Robinson Crusoe or or cast to wear these different films
00:09:41these were attracted to post apocalyptic kind of nuclear post nuclear disaster fiction and films because what it does is it strips away the things that are not essential it forces us to just to let go of those things like credit card payments and what people are thinking of
00:09:59me and have like to updated my Twitter account recently enough for my followers to get it get it get an update on me he he he and we as human beings we and instinctively want that stuff to be stripped away so that we become utterly focused on family
00:10:14on on the divine on the good life and and on how to how to live a fully human life and I think that's I think that he sees that the mass of men are not doing that is he in fact focused on family this is one of the
00:10:28this is one of the the the conundrums of the book I think is that is that he he as you say he doesn't see everybody needs to run off for the woods and live on themselves the way I do but that is in fact what he does and
00:10:39if lots of people decide to do that there be no such thing as community anymore with a lot of people when they read Walden they have that impression but he's he's pretty clear that in fact his life in the woods is very sociable he has visitors all the
00:10:56time %HESITATION constant infects at times constant visitors I I suppose is an introvert wrote what was occasionally overwhelmed but he would also go back into Concord to %HESITATION %HESITATION to visit with his family he had Sunday dinners with them so he manages to do both he manages to
00:11:12have human community and friendship and %HESITATION %HESITATION while still living deliberately while still living %HESITATION you know it in a way in Emerson and a draft of Emerson's eulogy at when thorough died that I think your person and numbers did not say this at the funeral but he
00:11:29refers to him as a as a monk or as a kind of this monastic life throw manages to have a monastic life which is also a family and community life you're listening to the great books podcast a production of national review remember subscribe to the great books podcast
00:11:44on iTunes Google place to turn tune in each episode automatically delivered your phone tablet or computer you can also check out our previous episodes on Shakespeare's Henry the fifth and mark Twain's huckleberry Finn Kelly you mentioned that the row would like people to focus on the divine is
00:12:02a Christian book was he a Christian no it's not a Christian book but it is a book that espouses the existence of some transcendent reality right as I said the transcendental us they reject kind of hard materialism empiricism and they have they said just it doesn't line up
00:12:20with their experience when I go out into the natural world I experienced that there but there's a beautiful plan that there's a transcendent presence there %HESITATION and so throw is is very educated he's very %HESITATION he knows the Bible very well he's in his language in his images
00:12:40are saturated in in biblical language and imagery of but he is he's not a Christian %HESITATION he he would say that Christianity has something to offer for him as as do all religions that the that the religions in all of them are for to throw approaching some truth
00:13:00how did you make a living in for somebody %HESITATION if he doesn't live in the woods for two years basically sounds great would love to do that how does he manage to to survive well he says he lives by the labor of his own hands he provides as
00:13:14he progresses on food %HESITATION and he actually does he actually grows a cash crop he %HESITATION he he makes enough he grows enough beans to sell on to sell them in town %HESITATION so that's that's part of the way and he gives it it's sort of funny he
00:13:27even gives a little account of in Walden he gives a little like he gets a little excerpt from his accounting books and how much I made and how much it cost me just to show that look this is feasible %HESITATION at least for a single man he also
00:13:40eats wood chucks now he's he's mostly a vegetarian right but %HESITATION hill lead just about anything it sounds like he I think he says he regrets eating a wood Chuck which under which is understandable I I don't know that I want it would check but yeah he fishes
00:13:54he %HESITATION he grows its own food he ate sort of a vegetarian eats fish but what he he he experiments with and he writes about %HESITATION about vegetarianism and and and living on on the things we can grow from the earth his line in the book simplicity simplicity
00:14:13simplicity in any right simplify simplify instead of three meals a day if it be necessary eat but one instead of a hundred dishes five and reduce other things in proportion I got to say I don't know how tracked it I would be to that I like my three
00:14:29meals a day I I I I prefer my five meals a day actually %HESITATION but yeah I I think the role wants to reevaluate do we really need to eat as much as we do and we really need to eat as luxurious %HESITATION a menu as we do
00:14:47could we instead devote that time and energy to living well to %HESITATION to writing to philosophy to cultivating the virtues in ourselves he's he's not proposing we should all live on one meal a day he's he's more asking the question in a kind of provocative way and throws
00:15:05quite a provocateur he he wants to he wants to ask do we have to live the way that we do as as luxuriously %HESITATION and even at times decadent Lee as we do and I don't I think this strikes a chord with with %HESITATION contemporary readers today I
00:15:21think we all know we live a little more comfortably than we're comfortable with I think if we were if we step back there there's there's some comfort in our lives that in fact make us a little uncomfortable and what if there's another this is why people like camping
00:15:36this is why people like extreme crossfit training this is why P. we lose we we yearn for a challenge and something that tests us something that pushes us to to live well and to live in a kind of extreme %HESITATION and and and %HESITATION you know virtuous way
00:15:55in in the kind of old sense of virtue %HESITATION so I I I think he wants us to he once asked that question even about eating three meals a day you mentioned earlier the the quality of the writing the beauty of the writing this book has some really
00:16:09long descriptions of nature that's words may be best known for really really extensive and you could read thorough simply as a nature writer and and and the the great tradition of nature writing Nate nature writers have looked to throw as a model %HESITATION my students %HESITATION struggle with
00:16:28that when they read when I when I teach Walden which we get to the pond in winter and he gives this is long such long descriptions of the the ice melting right and what I said to them as I said when I got kind of got this from
00:16:40a professor of mine I said name twenty trees so the twenty one students and they put their heads together and they came up with twenty trees twenty one students could could name twenty trees okay that's my name name twenty kinds of birds so they they milled around they
00:16:57thought about it okay there's a twenty one students could come up with at the end twenty birds well there are thousands of species of birds there are thousands of species of trees in fact there are thousands of species of pine tree and I said you don't know anything
00:17:14about the world and throw wants you to know the world he wants you to know the reality in which you live and I I'm as guilty of that as they are I I I don't think I could name twenty trees without their help but thorough wants us to
00:17:28know the world because the world was made by and put it in scare quotes god or the soul and that's how we will know the transcendent throws always inspired strong reactions particularly from from from young people why why is that do you think a couple reasons so when
00:17:50when you look at something like %HESITATION like civil disobedience he %HESITATION when I when I teach that text especially my students %HESITATION struggle with that because they themselves believe in getting involved in politics and in in in changing the political landscape and and making a difference through action
00:18:09thorough %HESITATION posits a kind of withdrawal from that he thinks is a broken system and he thinks actually the most active thing we could do is to withdraw so my students object to that %HESITATION that's that's just up almost a pragmatic disagreement but I think the main reason
00:18:26for the role makes us uncomfortable is that she calls into question the value of the things that we spend most of our lives trying to get that makes us uncomfortable because we're we're we're we're a you know ninety five we're trying to get money we're trying to get
00:18:44fame we're trying to get comfort and throw says what if those three things are not in fact the good life that's pretty you know it's an uncomfortable experience to have someone question the three things that really if we're honest we spend most of our time trying to get
00:19:00I want to ask you about the essay civil disobedience in in a moment but sticking with Walden what are the politics of this book of Walden itself is is is it an anarchist book a libertarian book an anti status book %HESITATION in sort of a but in %HESITATION
00:19:17to to to environmentalism how would you how would you characterize the politics of this book it's %HESITATION it's it's individualistic and yet I think for thorough if it's all it's almost so maybe this is an over simplification but it's almost pre political in that throw things if we
00:19:41all live as individuals according to the dictates of our conscience and according to the dictates of nature according dictates of reason then the political process will flow from that will follow from that that good life so individuals it's a in that sense I I would I would probably
00:20:01just call it pre political it is about living virtuous Lee from which I just political system will follow and that's in that way his individual action in %HESITATION in something like civil disobedience is a political act his his individual life of virtue and and his decision of his
00:20:23career private decision to take a stand is a political action your listeners the great books podcaster production of National Review check out my new book reading around journalism on authors artists and ideas with short essays and everything from the th annual Hawthorne short story the birth mark to
00:20:38the problem of writer's block reading around is on sale now at Amazon dot com Kelly won all the row was living at Walden pond in the eighteen forties he had an encounter with a tax collector what happened well he as he tells it he goes into the Concorde
00:20:59to %HESITATION to get up to pick up a shoe that he'd had repaired any meets the tax collector and %HESITATION and he's he's due for %HESITATION I believe the poll tax and %HESITATION he refuses to pay it and I think I think had been refusing to pay it
00:21:15for some time and so %HESITATION the poll tax collector %HESITATION and that the authorities are sort of I mean they know him it's a small town everybody knows everybody active sort of forced to put him in jail he spent a night in jail and he does so because
00:21:30he objects to two things he objects to slavery which is still very much alive in the eighteen forties and and was not a problem that was going away and %HESITATION and he objects to the Mexican American war in which he considers to be unjust war to those two
00:21:44things for thorough mean that he has to do something %HESITATION is she calls in civil disobedience to be friction in the machine he has to resist peacefully up but he has to he has to make his vote his vote his voice heard so we spent the night in
00:22:00jail %HESITATION fortunately or unfortunately as one of his relatives or friends paste poll tax form and he %HESITATION any gets out of jail and that's that's the end of it and he writes this essay civil disobedience at us is published in eighteen forty nine what's the connection to
00:22:16walls and other than other than the the the fact that this incident occurred during the period in which she was was was living at Walden pond in my opinion you really cannot get you really don't get civil disobedience without wall that he publishes Walden the book a lot
00:22:32later but you can't have this civil disobedience without something that the role sort of practices and the teams and in in a way preaches in Walden and that is we have to be detached from those three things fame money and comfort if we are going to be able
00:22:51to suffer for the just cause okay SO four attached to money and reputation and comfort we're gonna fear the power of the state and and in fact the state he says is going to use it the state's going to sort of attack us on those on those points
00:23:09what is what are the what what's the weapon of the state imprisonment finding us right taking away our if in so our comforts and so when we're detach from those things it doesn't matter what the state does to us when we're suffering for just costs Walden is maybe
00:23:24the best known work by Henry David Thoreau but but civil disobedience is pretty well known to a may be the most influential %HESITATION wh what why is it had such a power over us even now into the twenty first century well %HESITATION as I think you were saying
00:23:41earlier when we were talking that it's it's an S. A. it's easier to read shorter read than than something like Walden %HESITATION it's a little more practical in the sense that it proposes a very like this this is how we will change government %HESITATION a Ghandi Martin Luther
00:23:57king junior %HESITATION were influenced by this work really it's it's an extremely powerful proposition to offer yourself as a witness for justice and to allow your suffering as minors it wasn't in and throws cases a minor suffering but an inconvenience and %HESITATION and %HESITATION in some ways for
00:24:23some of his friends like Emerson it was an embarrassment that throw was in jail up to offer that as a witness and to offer that as a challenge to your contemporaries I think it's it it breeds justice and freedom in a way that violence often doesn't violence for
00:24:41throw and and and others %HESITATION I've argued persuasively that violence often breed simply more violence the passive resistance peaceful %HESITATION civil disobedience %HESITATION it doesn't breed violence in that same way anybody wants to protest a government action vertically in a dump in a democracy %HESITATION no matter what
00:25:00your politics %HESITATION %HESITATION for guns are against them pro life pro choice whatever you probably should re civil disobedience absolutely now %HESITATION from he publishes that essay in eighteen forty nine %HESITATION the book Walden comes out in eighteen fifty four so some years later she publishing this almost
00:25:21not quite a decade after living on Walden pond of it was not the huge commercial success in his own lifetime but almost nothing that Thoreau wrote was %HESITATION by any stretch a commercial success %HESITATION as often happens with these writers their beloved and and kind of discovered rediscovered
00:25:40after their %HESITATION after their lives was is that what happened to him as we did did he died obscurity how I don't know if I would say obscurity %HESITATION but he he did not have publishing success really in his lifetime he published in you know some periodicals in
00:25:54the road he published a couple books but %HESITATION I think Emerson summed it up best I think it's in Emerson's journal he really regarded the role this is sort of sad cats Everson was the rose mentor you're gonna throw is something of a failure because he was Harvard
00:26:12educated he was a brilliant writer and a brilliant naturalist and a brilliant mind and he in earthly terms never really amounted to much he stayed mostly in Concord he %HESITATION he he never got richer famous he never %HESITATION he never attained even the reputation of somebody like Emerson
00:26:31Turing's life and so there was a there was an air of disappointment about but but I don't think the row himself had that air of discipline he didn't care and yet today price surpasses Amerson right were much more likely to read Thoreau than we are to read Emerson
00:26:45I think so I I I myself as a scholar of the nineteenth century I'd rather read the role %HESITATION than ever since essays so what happened after his death he died in eighteen sixty two during the civil war what happened after his death that allowed Walton to become
00:27:02so popular I just think generations of readers ever sense have gone to Walden they've gone imaginatively to the ponder they've gone right actually you can you can still go to to Walden pond and have discovered the truth that that throw has to offer us these challenging truths of
00:27:20of %HESITATION of what how human beings perhaps are supposed to live as we're preparing for this podcast you mention there's a a Walden or throat video game yes came out a couple years ago how do you play that game it's amazing you %HESITATION so right now I am
00:27:38in jail for not paying my taxes you're playing the game I'm playing the game and I I am current might might throw guy is is in jail for having not paid my taxes you spend an afternoon in jail there's pretty much nothing you can do in jail the
00:27:53day before that I was weeding my being patch if you go fishing you state your clothing together when it gets run down mostly you walk around Walden pond should it's incredibly beautiful %HESITATION animation and so you just sort of wander around it's it's sort of a Zen experience
00:28:11together little tasks you gotta do you gotta go you go visit with them or saying you go %HESITATION you go looking for arrowheads out one night I had to smuggle some food to a a runaway slave that was on his way north %HESITATION which it's it seems like
00:28:24the row %HESITATION was involved in some some stops along the way %HESITATION it's really sort of a it's really sort of as an experience %HESITATION but not really nothing happens is it fun it's fun it's fun if you're me it's fun if you are a nerd of the
00:28:41nineteenth century and you want to eat you love everything about Thoreau and Emerson and you you kind of want to immerse yourself in that world %HESITATION but really you know me maybe I should just go outside when the weather changes it what last question then what what he
00:28:55thinks the row would make of a video game about about his life at Walden pond up he would probably like that people are you know engaging his project in his ideas but I have a hard time imagining him wanting us to sit inside at at a consular computer
00:29:14%HESITATION pretending to be in the outdoors it's not exactly sucking out all the Meryl of light is not not not not the famous from from from that's right I Kelly got Franklin we are out of time thanks so much for joining us thanks for having me you just
00:29:28listen to the great books podcast a production of national review please subscribe to the great books podcasts to leave reviews of the show that helps us keep this podcast going and please send me your ideas for future episodes on Twitter my handle is at he Miller thanks so
00:29:42much for listening will be back next week with a new episode of the great books podcast

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