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Comments on Thoreau from Class Cards

These observations were selected from the questions that students in the American literature survey course (1997) submitted before discussing Thoreau in class.
1. Thoreau says we need only shelter and food to survive, but I have to disagree. I think having relationships with other people is also vital to our health.

2. We seem to be seeking the same things to this day. What is better than a democracy? Can it be improved upon? If the state recognized and embraced the power of individualism - perhaps that is where the improvements lie.

3. I really wonder how Emerson can see Thoreau as lacking ambition. A man who spent his life completely self-reliant, living with and studying nature. Perhaps "it is still only beans" but Thoreau has gained more from living with those beans than Emerson could ever understand. Perhaps Emerson reflects his own quote - "to be great is to be misunderstood" in his misunderstanding of the life of Thoreau.

4. What did Thoreau do after Walden Pond? He says he entered into "civilized" society again.

5. The ideal of simplicity is an important theme in this work - from Thoreau's respect of the savage, to his command to "live deliberately," and "simplify, simplify, simplify."

6. It is interesting that Thoreau speaks of joining "civilized" life again, when he considers man's highest potential to be in existence in the woods.

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."


7. Thoreau says that the purpose of Walden is to "brag...if only to wake my neighbors up." And while describing his superior system of existence he reveals several characteristics about himself that demonstrate he has developed some sort of complex. Perhaps he should be identified as the transcendentally "selfish" one.

8. Does Thoreau's statements that the old have nothing to teach the young, who must try their own experiments, contradict the entire purpose of the advice and opinions he offers in this work?

9. I am anxious to read further into Walden, and also wonder as to why Thoreau left his abode after two years of life there. I was confused as to what business Thoreau referred to in his living at Walden.

10. Thoreau, "Walden, or Life in the Woods"

Thoreau states that the only thing worse than Negro Slavery is a man's slavery to himself. I wonder if you could go into more depth on this thought to clarify it. (I believe what he is saying that man's overwhelming desire for the material things that drive him to work thereby reducing time he has to reflect, etc.) Is this correct? If so, where does it (or how is this worse) than slavery when it is by man's own will that they work and against the slave to be so.

11. If Thoreau is so shocked by college costs during his time, what would he make of those costs today, at Harvard, for example? I agree when Thoreau discusses the fact that often the most valuable lessons are learned outside the classroom. His seeming admonishment of the theoretical knowledge of the college student in comparison to the practical knowledge of one who truly experiences the "art of life" (1745) holds merit, but in today's society it would seem that one would have to possess some measure of wealth to be able to make a study or an excursion like Thoreau's.

12. I like his introspection more than his stereotypes of the "mass of men."

13. How many languages could Thoreau read? And, do you think he would actually believe we had a perfect knowledge of history just because the classics have been translated into English today?

14. Thoreau has a very scientific and methodical approach. In fact, Walden's methodical and laborious approach is somewhat fitting of the content. You have to go deep into the woods, REALLY deep, before finding any marrow worth sucking out. But, once found, it is fairly rejuvenating, or at the least, interesting.

15. In "The Ponds" Thoreau particularly seems the "child scientist" as he speaks of inverting his head to look at the lake (1915) as the while cataloguing the surroundings - albeit in an emotional way.

16. You know, I was thinking about this all day - what is the point to writing all this and making Walden so long?!

And while there are many technical reasons to give - I've come to the conclusion that:

Thoreau means nothing with all this writing - only reason he's doing it, is 'cause he's nothing else to do! (Just kidding - I wish it were that easy!)

17. Thoreau's image of the village as a University is a very inspiring one. He says however, that people are too busy raising cattle and "tending the store" thereby neglecting the importance of education.

18. The first thing I want to say is that I have done about 5 or 6 notecards so far, and I am just wondering if I am doing them right. As far as the reading goes, I didn't like the later chapters as much because they were more redundant.

19. Are the benefits of cultural knowledge and experiences in nature equal, or is one always preferable?

20. Once again, Thoreau returns back to the university student. In his chapter on reading, Thoreau positions himself as in a more favorable position to reading than at a university. How would Thoreau feel about his statement today upon examining the massive collection at his "Cambridge College"? Also, he develops at length the importance of the classics as a discipline of study. How would he receive the information that GU, a Jesuit school, may be eliminating its Classics department?

21. One of the most impressive images Thoreau uses in Walden is that of the eye. This demonstrates the deep connection between man and nature. When we take the time to look into her eyes, nature shows us who we are (those things we cannot see).

"[A lake] is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature" (1814).

"It is a mirror which no stone can crack..." (1816)

-It reminds me also of Emerson's relationship with nature; he was a "transparent eye-ball."

22. "The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat in us" 1725

Q: Parable or simple piece of common knowledge?

A: Parable on the inner religion of self; reached through natural experiences. Ex. Go on a walk and try to tell your neighbor that you didn't enjoy it!

23. Thoreau's ideas of the solitary self are wonderful, and so true. Solitude is one's best and most true companion - Much is to be learned from solitude when the relationship is established.

Society is commonly too cheap. Strange how that doesn't seem to change.

24. Thoreau starts out "Walden" with Economy - he then proceeds to tell us that our work is not satisfying and we really hate it. Even our entertainment devices are not really fun. Is he claiming that we are living in/living an illusion? What is his idea of fun? or work? Is it idleness? It is obvious that Thoreau detested institutions, but isn't he creating his own institution for his readers to follow in "Walden" and "Resistance to Civil Government". His institution is just as bad as the others, maybe worse because it creates turmoil ie., militia groups.

I feel that Thoreau is caught up in the quest for truth. He seeks only what is true, as Emerson states. Yet, I believe that truth comes from experience. Interactions with others, cause and effect, etc. With Thoreau "hating" everything except himself and nature, how did he truly know what is true? I think that he was just as bad as the society that he condemned. He had his own personal truth that he thought was a universal truth.

I asked this question on the net.

25. Thoreau is very naturalistic and ingenious in his analogies of nature to man. I especially found myself captivated in the "ant war." Though Thoreau seems much more adept at socialization with people than I believed from Emerson's description of him.