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· Dirty-Hand Style: Henry David Thoreau ·

Although I was educated in a library, I was raised — or more properly reared — in a garage. Written for students, that sentence is a particular favorite, and I thought to share it. It catches something of my "summer style" here.

Like Thoreau who recommends manual labor as a way of knocking palaver out of writing, I've been at that work recently, knocking out enough to have been silent or just invisible lately. Since submitting grades (I won't bore you with details), I've been "garaging" myself, and also garaging old pickups, too. Last night I drove to Snoqualmie Pass to trailer home my son's 3/4-ton Ford. Literally pulling an all-nighter from summit to sea — with eyes fixed on a heat guage — does concentrate the mind. I'm happy to say the rescue went well, with my son with a new part to find, his younger brother with a radiator to fix, and me with a good story to tell. Obviously, others will emerge in time.

Today I thought to share Henry Thoreau's take on a theme that has, since September, been alluded to much. In Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points and Metaphors \ Methods \ Models, I'm afraid I left Thoreau's words mostly unattributed. So for those still awake I thought to cite them fully:

 · Henry David Thoreau · Men have a respect for scholarship and learning [Thoreau claims] greatly out of proportion to the use they commonly serve. We are amused to read how Ben Jonson engaged that the dull masks with which the royal family and nobility were to be entertained should be "grounded upon antiquity and solid learning." Can there be any greater reproach than an idle learning? Learn to split wood, at least. The necessity of labor and conversation with many men and things, to the scholar is rarely well remembered; steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one's style, both of speaking and writing. If he has worked hard from morning till night, though he may have grieved that he could not be watching the train of his thoughts during that time, yet the few hasty lines which at evening record his day's experience will be more musical and true than his freest but idle fancy could have furnished. Surely the writer is to address a world of laborers, and such therefore must be his own discipline. He will not idly dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before nightfall in the short days of winter; but every stroke will be husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will the strokes of that scholar's pen, which at evening record the story of the day, ring soberly, yet cheerily, on the ear of the reader, long after the echoes of his axe have died away. The scholar may be sure that he writes the tougher truth for the calluses on his palms. Henry David Thoreau, 'On Style,' Modern English Reader, Robert M. Gorrell, Charlton Laird, and Ronald Freeman, eds., New York: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 247.

If you recall, it was my chore to split wood last December, but it's my task now to get down and dirtier with compost and concrete, grease and sawdust, and, yes, words and phrases, too. But I'm tired, I'm afraid. For in alluding at 4:30 a.m. to Homer's "rosy fingers of dawn," I fell into the sort of "palaver" Henry David Thoreau warned me against. Then again, being "grounded in antiquity and solid learning" may just be my way to style, pace Thoreau.


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