Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

House-Building and House-Holding at Walden

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

House-Building and House-Holding at Walden

Article excerpt

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Like many people who have done their own carpentry, Henry David Thoreau was ready to say that he had built his own house at Walden. Just after he gave up his Walden life and returned to town, he told a Harvard classmate, "I have lived in Concord woods alone ... in a house built entirely by myself" (Correspondence 186). The title page of the first edition of Walden introduced readers not to the author, or the lake, but to the house, through his sister Sophia's sketch. In the opening sentence of Walden, he says again "I lived alone, in the woods ... in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond" His phrasing gives precedence to the built house, forming with the pond not a magic circle at Walden, but an ellipse, doublecentered. Though he devotes comparatively little direct attention to it in his book, that house remains one of the most vital images of Thoreau's sojourn at Walden. It is the human center without which the lake cannot be imagined.

Walden demands its physical reference points. In chapters 10 and 11 of The Environmental Imagination, Lawrence Buell shows how visiting Walden Pond has become essential to anyone who takes Walden seriously. In 1872 visitors began placing stones on a cairn at what was thought to be the house's site, as tokens of commemoration and communion. W. B. Yeats's Waldeninspired poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree;' imagines first his cottage, "of clay and wattles made" (139) (and a bean field), before turning to the lapping waters of the lake. At the pond today granite' pillars mark where the house stood. Not far away is a furnished replica, whose manufacturer, Bensonwood, offers for sale a "Thoreau Cabin Kit." The more self-reliant can get plans from the Thoreau Society's shop nearby. Writers seeking artistic solitude crave such a house; and, if they build one, they too write it up, with references to Walden. (1) The Walden house is indeed what Gaston Bachelard termed a dream image: in reading of it, we leave off reading, and begin to imagine building it ourselves. But it must be understood as dream interfused with lumber.

To Thoreau the spiritual was no less real than the physical. This made him a figure of fun to some of his neighbors. Likewise the physical was no less real than the spiritual: this made him a figure of awe to less manually adept Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott. Even to call him a Transcendentalist is to underplay the carefully observed and circumstantial style of much of his writing and the sense of physical participation on which the style is based. The words have grown out of things and his handling of them. If you front a fact, he said, you will see the sunlight glimmer on both its surfaces, the material and the spiritual. (2) In Walden especially, his descriptions of an outward and sensible world convey an inward and spiritual life, not imposed upon things and actions but discovered within them. The divine energy that expresses itself in nature has also endowed our language with a power to show forth that spiritual dimension (306-07). It is not nature only that is holy; human action, when grounded in nature, may be holy as well.

Protestant that he was (a protestant d outrance, said Emerson), Thoreau sometimes resorted to the Christian idea of "sacrament" to describe those double-sided facts when they arose not from nature but from human practice. Whenever humans shape their actions in response not to mere necessity but in concert with that divine, expressive energy, the deed and its outcomes are "sacraments" As with almost all his references to the Christian scripture or the Westminster Catechism, Thoreau must disempower the term in order to empower it. (3) Puckishly he cites not the Catechism but "the dictionary" to define a sacrament: "'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace'" (68). (4) For Thoreau baptism perdured as bathing, while the Supper became wild berries gathered and eaten in the fields, or, inverted, became fasting. …

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