Ask Jimmy: Chat Board Q & A

This page is a collection of questions about Walden, posted by students, with answers from "Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the Group."  The pseudonym refers to the original drummer of the Mothers of Invention, who "was indeed a different drummer." 

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Walden

Introduction: The primary message of this book
Some advice from Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify!"


Question: I have an exam tomorrow on Walden and I was browsing the net to review. I was just curious on what you thought the tone of Walden was. How did Thoreau feel about the subject, and actually what do you think was the subject was. I know the theme is one must live life without luxuries to fully experience it and to be "alive" as Thoreau said. I would appreciate if you could help. Thanks!

Answer: I think the tone is very conversational. Robert Frost did too. Frost said he got the conversational tone of his poems from Walden

The subject? Take him at his word. At the beginning of the book he says that he wouldn't write about himself if he knew more about something else. At the end he says what he learned by going into the woods, and that there is more day to dawn (the morning is Thoreau's metaphor and symbol of the opening of possibilities, and the afternoon, evening or night represents the closing of them). He says he wants to brag like chanticleer (crow like a rooster) "if only to wake my neighbors up," and when does that happen, bob? 

One of the themes has to do with living without luxuries, but its not that they are luxuries but that they are distractions. He said he went into the woods in order to cut life to the bone and suck out the marrow, to get down to the bare essentials, and to make sure he wasn't missing what is important. So you are more onto it with the latter part of that sentence: "to fully experience [life] and be alive." 


Question: Why does he say not to take advice from people over 30?  I have a short answer but it doesn't take up 3 to 6 pages. Help.

Answer: He never specified 30 as the cut-off age. That was Jerry Rubin, one of the Yippies of the 1960's, an associate of Abby Hoffman, may he rest in peace. 

Here's the quotation from Walden you may be thinking of: "Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors." 

Thoreau usually works on several levels. It is always a good idea to take him at his word, because he always means exactly what he says, but there often is an underlying figurative meaning there as well, and this is one of those instances. He is a wonderful writer I can't think of a work of prose literature that is more densely packed with figurative meaning than Walden

When you read Walden you notice a few techniques and motifs that run through the book. One is the juxtoposition of opposites and another is the metaphorical or symbolic use of time references. Often he uses these two together. Juxtoposing opposites is a rhetorical device for drawing attention to an idea. It is common for poets to use it, and while there are other prose writers that do, too, Thoreau uses it with particular effectiveness. His use of time references is his way of saying that he wants to live life as if everything is possible in the future. "It is never too late to give up our prejudices," for example. Look at the last paragraph of Walden and you'll see what I mean. See how he uses the imagery of the day ... there is more day to dawn. The dawn and the morning is the time when all the possibilities of the day lay before you. 

What he's doing in the quotation above about age is to say that the outlook of youth, looking forward into the future with everything possible, is preferable to looking back from the vantage of age at a life not lived. It is a Transcendentalist idea, too, because the Transcendentalists felt that it is possible to learn the truth by intuition through experience. 


Question: I'm doing a research paper for my AP English class and I have to describe the character development Thoreau experiences and shares with his readers, and how the symbolism depicted and the elements of the setting contribute to his belief that humans can commune directly with the Divine in nature - I am having a difficult time with examples - any ideas, comments or help?

Answer: I'm not sure what you mean by Thoreau's character development, but symbolism is aplenty in Walden. The Pond is a symbol of Thoreau's soul and the house is symbolic of his body. You'll notice how he leaves the house unfinished until fall comes on, then completes it. Over the winter, he completes his spiritual connection with the pond. He has to get his body ready first. 

You've noticed the cycle of the year that forms his narrative structure of the book. Less easily discerned is his metaphor of the day and the morning. The morning is the time when all things are possible for the rest of the day. 

There's also the sky that comes up a few times. The sky is the seat of the sun, another symbol. These represent the possibilities that are available to each of us. At one point, he sees the sky reflected in the pond. Well what do you know about that? 

Then there is all that symbolism of nature. The log in the pond, the loon, the owl, the hunting dogs, etc. What has to be remembered is that for Thoreau, nature is both nature as a symbol of the revealed truth as it is for all good transcendentalists, and also nature is nature on its own terms, something he pioneered. This is what made him accessible to later naturalists and nature writers.


Question: I seem to recall reading that much of Walden is fictionalized, but I can't seem to remember my source. The reason I ask is that I encounter a great many people who deify Thoreau as a result of reading some quotes from Walden or Civil Disobedience. My impression is that contrary to popular belief, Thoreau was not nearly as self-reliant as many people make him out to be (for instance, the land he lived on was owned by Emerson). I have also read that he ate many meals with Emerson, and in addition, lived with his mother for much of his life. Now, before you blow a gasket, I'm not criticizing the man or his work I'm criticizing the misinterpretation of it (if I am correct). Can someone tell me if I'm way off base here, or if my memory is still serving me faithfully?

Answer: "Fictionalized" is a misnomer in this case. Thoreau's book is presented as a year at Walden Pond. Near the end he says that that was the end of his first year and the second year was much like the first. But the episode of his arrest, recounted in Walden, occurred in the second year. Ah ha! 

In fact, the two years and two months Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, minus the brief excursion he made to Maine in 1846, were compressed into a single year for archetypal narrative purposes. Undoubtedly there were other occurances that Thoreau recast in different ways or combined with others for literary or narrative purposes, and that's OK. 

Annie Dillard revealed that she did the same thing when writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and it caused something of a minor scandal. This is ridiculous, as it detracts from the book to put the truth standards of journalistic reporting on to a literary essay. 


Question: I have a comparison contrast paper due before Christmas break. I have to compare and contrast 3 or 4 aspects of Thoreau's life, or writings with that of another authors. Who could compare with dub old Thoreau??? I hate this stupid assignment??? I mean, when am I ever gonna use this in the real world?

Answer: Answering your last question first, yes, you may use this in the real world. Will you? That's up to you, but why not? The assignment requires you to determine what those aspects of Thoreau's life or writings are, analyze them, and then view them against their similarities and differences with another author. You might never have an opportunity to do this with authors again in your life, but you surely will with political candidates, and possibly with investments, to name two. 

Who can you compare with Thoreau? You want a real winner on this? Go with Annie Dillard. Make sure you read Walden, and then read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. You'll like Dillard, and if you don't like Thoreau you should. Dillard's book is structured like Thoreau's, it has a cabin and a creek while his has a cabin and a pond but you get the idea, it has encounters with animals as Walden did, and it has Dillard's philosophy as opposed to Thoreau's philosophy. Both books use nature to get at truth, each in its own way. 

You have about a week and a half to pull this off. It's not easy, but it is do-able. 


Question: I'm working on something (4000 words on Walden) for an M. Phil in American Lit.  My argument at the moment is that Walden represents, not so much an attempt to establish an original relationship with Nature, as an attempt to establish a boundary between the narrator and society, through which society can be re-envisioned.

What I'd like to ask is: are Thoreau's tendencies to taxonomy indicative of an idealistic, rather than a scientific, frame of mind? In other words, is his recording of the 'facts' of nature an attempt to concretize his own perception of the world, or is it supposed to aid in the construction of a more 'objective' communal experience of the world? I know it sounds muddled, but I am very confused over this whole business. Any help would be more than appreciated.

Answer: Yours is an interesting idea, though debatable. I take Thoreau at his word, that he went to live in the woods to live deliberately, etc. 

As for your question about his taxonomic references, here is a paragraph from the essay "Thoreau's later natural history writings" by Ronald Wesley Hoag that appears in the Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau: 

"Although Thoreau in the 1850's was concerned with sociopolitical issues such as slavery and American materialism, he devoted the majority of his attention to nature study with an increasingly scientific slant. For much of this century, prevailing critical opinion held that his science and Transcendentalism muddled each other and vitiated his later writings. In recent years, however, his work has been reappraised in light of new information and closer study. One result of this revision is that the later Thoreau emerges as a much more significant naturalist than was previously thought, albeit one whose humanistic science went a different way from the increasing objectivity of the scientific community at large. He still called himself a Transcendentalist, although just what he meant by that term is subject to debate. It should be noted, however, that his shift in emphasis to the physical side of the correspondence between facts and spirit does not of itself compromise his Transcendental standing. To be sure, as he said in Walden, one should put "foundations" under "castles in the air." His later career may be viewed as an attempt to follow his own advice." 

Question: I've been pondering whether Thoreau's beliefs are idealistic, realistic, or a combination of both. I am curious what some fellow Thoreau readers think about this idea.

Answer: I think Thoreau's ideas (beliefs is the wrong term) are idealistic, and that's the way he wanted them. I'm also sure that he knew the difference. 

One thing you ought to know ... generations of high school students and college freshmen have debated this exact topic, and many of them have scorned Thoreau for hypocrisy, hopeless romanticism, and other such BS. I think this is wrongheaded, like a lot of the ideas that come out of the heads of high school students and college freshmen, but hey, if the young don't state their ideas and challenge their elders the young probably won't ever amount to nuttin. 


Question: Got to answer this question: was Thoreau a romantic or a scientist?

Answer: Thoreau clearly started off as an Emersonian romantic, as Emerson's protege. But he gradually departed from the Emerson model in that while Emerson and other Transcendentalists saw nature as a reflection of God, but Thoreau was also able to see nature as itself. When he died in 1862 at the age of 44 he had been occupied for several years compiling a detailed natural history of the Concord area. The cold that eventually killed him as a complication of tuberculosis and pneumonia he acquired while counting tree rings. He had also recently embraced Darwin's theory of evolution. 

I wouldn't call him either a romantic or a scientist. Instead I'd call him a naturalist. 


Question: we have been assigned a paper relating thoreau's writing and our AP class as a microcosm for our school. Now my problem is that my class is made up of the most intelligent students, mainly rich, and mainly female, and mostly white. My school is 60 percent black, equally male and female, and mostly stupid. Does anyone out there have any insight?  thanks.

Answer: Yeah. Read Thoreau's story about the French Canadian woodchopper, and stop acting so superior yourself. Frankly, I think your solution may be found in the Village chapter, creatively. Don't expect it to jump out and bite you, but then if you're as smart as you think you are you'll get it. 


Question: I am an international student taking Freshman Composition, and I have been asked to write a 1,000-1,250 words essay on what Thoreau's response would be to the events that have been happening since 1990 between the three main groups trying to control the future of Walden Pond and its surroundings - Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, Don Henley's "Walden Woods Project" and environmentalist groups such as "Walden Forever Wild" - and more specifically which one of the three groups he would support. I am using as one of my sources an article published in "The Humanist" (v.57, Jan/Feb. 1997, p.30-3) by Joseph L. Andrews titled "The struggle for Walden." I have also read an article by Steve Knopper, "The Battle for Walden Woods", published by the magazine "Rolling Stone" (Apr. 18 1996: 22+), which I am also using as a source. After reading Walden and the articles that I just mentioned, I can still not picture Thoreau supporting any of the parts involved in this feud.

My "game plan" for the essay is to write a total of three introductory paragraphs: one to set the historical background for Walden Woods during Thoreau's time, the next introductory paragraph would deal with developments during the 80's, and the third introductory paragraph would give some general information about what each of the three groups involved in the fight for the control of Walden Woods is about and state the main idea, which in my particular case would be that Thoreau would not support any of the three groups. Then, I am going to write three developmental paragraphs, stating in each one of them the reasons why Thoreau would not support every particular group. Finally, a paragraph summarizing all the discussion to conclude the essay. : I would like get some feedback from all of you that might have an opinion on both the topic and my approach to the essay.

Answer: No way, kiddo. You got it bass-ackwards. You intend to write 1,000-1,250 words in seven paragraphs? No good. If the average sentence has 15 words, and the average paragraph has 7 sentences, you'll need 10 or 12 paragraphs at least. 

I also think your structural solution is poor. It backs into the topic. I think you need one introductory paragraph that states (very generally) what the dispute is between the groups, what you think Thoreau might have thought about it, and then which group you think Thoreau might have favored. One paragraph, amigo. 

Then, what I would do is have a short paragraph describing Thoreau's stay at Walden Pond. Keep it short. Your next paragraph draws in the book that came out of it, Walden, and what it says that is related (if anything) to the dispute between the three groups. This is important because later you will refer to this to support your idea about what Thoreau would have thought and which group he would support, so you need something from Walden that address these things. If you're not satisfied with what you have, don't let that stop you. Keep writing and worry about it after you finish your first draft. 

Now, you need to describe each of the groups and what the dispute is about. You might need more than one paragraph to do this, but you need to nail the main idea in the first paragraph of this section of your paper. Since you have done your research and you have plenty of stuff on this, write this long. Presumably you will end up with a first draft that is longer than you need, and in your rewriting and editing you can trim out the extraneous fat. 

After that, you go back to Thoreau and explain what you think (as you stated in your introduction) Thoreau would have thought about the dispute and which group he would have favored. The emphasis here is on "explain." Make sure you remember to link it to what you noted he said in Walden, because that is your justification for your explanation. You know you are right because Thoreau said hummina hummina in Walden, you dig? (Don't ask me what to quote, because I don't have the slightest idea what those three organizations are doing at the pond.) 

Your conclusion might say what you think ought to happen at Walden Pond between these three groups. Usually, you want to link your conclusion with your introduction, but that doesn't mean it has to parrot the introduction. The conclusion only needs to address the same subject matter as the introduction did. 


Question: Do you think that following the ideas of Thoreau and Emerson are grounds for nonconformity in school, referring to policy. Do you think Thoreau would like the Beatles or be an Elvis man? it can only be one.

Answer: Isn't there something of a contradiction in your first question? You seem to be asking if some form of conformity justifies nonconformity. 

As for your second question, the answer depends on whether we imagine Thoreau in your context or mine. You are a high school student (right?) and your perspective on Elvis and the Beatles is one of looking back on them. But I vaguely remember the fuss over Elvis and remember the Beatles' popularity very well. There is nothing today that is even remotely similar. If Thoreau were to be brought back to life and heard these performers' music and watched their films, I'd like to think he would prefer the Beatles, but if he were to be brought back to life when Elvis and the Beatles were in their heydays, I think he would wonder what had gotten into the drinking water. 


Question: I'm writing my final term paper on Thoreau's anxiety of new technology. The one example that's prominent in the book is the railroad. Any other ideas of new technology brought up that I missed? thanks so much!

Answer: I don't think he was all that anxious about new technology, as much as he felt it was folly. He obviously was a bit leary of the railroad trains (by the way, you might make a very good case for saying that the railroad was the most invention with the greatest impact on the world in the 1800's; consider that in 1840 it took 6 months to go from New York to San Francisco and cost a year's pay, but in 1870 the trip took a week and cost a month's pay). However, remember what he said about the telegraph: that the new telegraph made communication almost instantaneous between Massachusetts and Texas, though it didn't ensure that the people in Mass. and Tex. necessarily had anything to say to each other. 

If you're sticking to Walden, I don't know what else you might say, but if you are going further afield, you might look at the later entries in Thoreau's Journal. It is my understanding that he embraced Darwinism as soon as he first heard of it. Strictly speaking it's not technology, but... 


Question: I have to write a paper on the language devices of the chapter, "Solitude," in Walden. Language devices would include examples of allusions, metaphors, similes, etc.. I'll take any help I can get. Thanks!

Answer: The Solitude chapter starts off with Thoreau's characteristic conversational tone on display. He's conversing with the reader, relating rather than exposing. Immediately, he launches into a communing with nature, which is where he explores his soul and spirit. And that is one more typical device of Thoreau: his use of juxtaposing opposites. You find him placing opposites next to each other all through Walden

As for allusions, he claims a passing storm to sound to him like an Æolian harp; Æolus was the Greek god of the winds. But I don't have to tell you that. Elsewhere he alludes to Acheron, one of the five rivers surrounding the land of the dead in Greek mythology, and to Aurora, Hygeia, and Hebe (get thee to Hamilton's Mythology; if you don't have a copy in your private library you need one). 

It is clear that solitude heightens Thoreau's senses and perks his experience of nature, and remember what nature is for him. It is essential for his spiritual quest. The simplicity of his pleasures in nature, listening to the rain and the wind and befriending pine needles, are things you might consider cataloging as part of your writing project. You'll get some wonderful paragraphs that are easy to write. 

"Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?" he asks. "What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another." Get it? 

Soon, we find him quoting Confucius about how these simple pleasures of his are so easy to overlook. Next, he launches into an exploration of what makes us human. Life, he says, is a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, which he implies he is eager to avoid himself. 

Then back to being alone, and you may list the ways that we may be solitary. Then, he says, "Society is commonly too cheap." Read on here, and list what he says point by point, which gives you more powder and balls for your gun. 

"I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning when nobody calls." The juxtaposition of opposites again. What's that called, doing that for effect? I forget, but it is a standard rhetorical device, and if you add that to your composition it will be a big winner with your teacher, I promise. Then he says, "Let me suggest a few comparisons ..." and that is that conversational tone of his. You'll find plenty of examples of it if you look. It's not so much like you are reading his prose, as that you are sitting with him and he is speaking it. Your, and my, part of the conversation goes on in our minds while we read. It's a neat trick in a time of formality in nonfiction prose. Compare his tone to Emerson's and you'll see what I mean. 

"The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature," he says, and goes on about Nature. "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?" Nature is what gives him life, both physically and spiritually, and he really makes that point elegantly, don't you think. And then comes one of my favorite Thoreau utterances: "Morning air!" For him, morning is symbolically the opening up of possibilities in life, not just a time of day, and all through Walden he advises us to live our whole day as if it were all morningtime. He's no worshipper of Hygeia, the goddess of health, but of Hebe, the goddess of youth. Get it? (Hint: when I say "get it?" I want you to think about it. Don't get worried about getting or not getting.) Read deeply the whole passage. "Wherever she came it was spring," the time of renewal, and that's what that "morning air" thing was all about. 

That's a fitting place for him to end. So what do we get out of the Solitude chapter? If you are really going to do a good job on your project, you will connect the early part about solitude to the latter parts about renewal and Nature. 


Question:  I need to figure out my thesis statement. I would like to compare Emerson and Thoreau by way of nature and the somewhat romantic side of their writing. I am not quite sure if I have a point with the above mentioned but if someone could help me out I would be truly greatful. I have read both writers works and find that they are both looking at nature as beauty in a rather romantic way. I don't know if I could write a 2000 word essay on this topic.

Answer: I have bad news for you. Nobody knows squat about your topic. I can help you write your paper, but I can't tell you what your ideas are. Those have to come out of your own head, and I don't live there. When I was teaching (and I've given it up as one of the most ridiculous professions ever devised by humanity), I told students to make it easy for themselves by figuring out what they want to say and then write it out. You have to make sure you have a topic that lends itself to a 2,000 word essay. Do you? 

You want to compare Emerson and Thoreau by way of nature and Romanticism? That's not impossible, though I can't help you with specifics ... sorry. Didn't Emerson write an essay entitled "Nature"? How do his ideas square with Thoreau's? We know that Emerson was one of the chief champions in America of Wordsworth, England's Romantic poet-in-chief. And at that time, Thoreau first encountered Emerson and made his acquaintance (late 1830's). But to make the case you have to determine exactly what were the ideas of the English Romantic poets, which of these ideas were embraced by Emerson, and which of those ideas were accepted by Thoreau, and then get some examples. I hate to say this, but it doesn't seem to me that you have done that kind of thing. 

Okay, so where do we go from here? You can: (1) keep pushing through to your conclusion based on your proposed thesis, or (2) change your thesis based on the information you have in order to write the assigned paper. I suggest you do #2, but it's your decision. 

If you choose #2, then you have it easy. Find a new thesis, perhaps not as riotous and clever as you thought you were going to, but still something that can be supported by some fact and reading, and frame it in a sentence or two, you know? Now find three or four rock-solid examples of what you are talking about from the texts, of Emerson and Thoreau, so you can illustrate your conclusions with something with literary conexion (spelling as they say). Lastly, find a way to make your case so you can write a conclusion. 

Now figure out how many words you write per paragraph. It is probably about 75-100 words. If so, lets say 80 words. Divided into 2,000 = something more than 20 paragraphs. 

Okay, start off with an annecdote, and make that at least 2 paragraphs. Then make your main thesis statement. That will run at least three paragrpahs, so now we're at 5 paragraphs. Now you want to go into three topics, and you will do this with about four paragrpahs each, subtotaling 12 paragraphs and making a total, including your intro, of 17 paragraphs. Now all you need is three paragrpahs for conclusions and you got the dismount nailed. 


Thoreau Reader:  Home - Walden