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« This — By Accident — July 4th | Main | Engendering the Science of Style »

· "This" Again — Thoreau "Revised" ·

Recently I've been dirtying my hands, though my style has hardly been improved. Not that I'm apologizing for lack of posts. "When there's work to do, there's work. First things first," as my wife says. "Writing can wait."

Which comment explains why I just thought — considering Thoreau didn't have such a wife — to return to his words today. But I fear recent references, This — By Accident — July 4th and Dirty-Hand Style: Henry David Thoreau, left the mistaken impression that Thoreau's style was but a product of simple dirty-handedness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Thoreau tried to leave that literary impression, readers inquiring into his real work know otherwise. As an artist, he was an inveterate reviser.

Thoreau's impressive "Reading" chapter from Walden; or, Life in the Woods best makes my point. Although Thoreau lived life "in the Woods," he wrote, quite naturally, in the house. But "naturally" here is the wrong word. For Thoreau was committed himself as an artist to the "transcendence" of nature, and nowhere is his nature-to-art move better made than in his chapter Reading, in which he expressly drafts a comparison of ordinary speech to artful writing. For him, the comparison is significantly figured as a kind of heroism:

The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits . . . To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. [Emphasis mine.]

I have emphasized one sentence and one word to stress my point, namely, that Thoreau's own writing is object of such high, heroic attention. Lest we think Thoreau's writing itself exempt from any necessary revision, I would solicit reading of the very original of the passage I cited two weeks ago in Dirty-Hand Style. It's Thoreau's early journal style you should notice.

I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted. If I saw wood from morning to night, though I grieve that I could not observe the train of my thoughts during that time, yet, in the evening, the few scrannel lines which describe my day's occupations will make the creaking of the saw more musical than my freest fancies could have been. I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one's style. One will not dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before the night falls in the short days of winter; but every stroke will be husbanded, and ring soberly through the wood; and so will his lines ring and tell on the ear, when at evening he settles the accounts of the day. Henry David Thoreau, H. D. Thoreau: A Writer's Journal, Laurence Stapleton, ed., New York: Dover, 1960, 10.

Of course, I'll let you decide which passage is better. I just wanted to "settle accounts," as Thoreau himself suggests, on his laborious work however so "husbanded."

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