Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"And What Became of Your Philosophy Then?" Women Reading Walden

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"And What Became of Your Philosophy Then?" Women Reading Walden

Article excerpt

Examining the inclusion of Thoreau's words in three very different texts, this essay explores the distance Walden provides its readers. In the case of the virtually unknown Katharine Whited, her selections from Walden open a conversational space within a quotation book that was part and parcel of her Adirondack cabin in the woods. Elizabeth von Arnim, situated an ocean away on a German estate, uses Thoreau's words to shape her own unconventional experiment in soul growth. Reading Walden every morning, she consolidates the intellectual space that separates her from the "Man of Wrath" who critiques her world. As Virginia Woolf noted in her centennial tribute to Thoreau, the distance between writer and reader is a fundamental element within Thoreau's writings, an element Woolf herself incorporated in her novels. Walden's advocacy of distance is perhaps Thoreau's best gift to marginalized readers, opening the revolutionary prospect that a markedly different perspective can successfully challenge the dominant one.

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It grieves me to be obliged to interrupt him in the middle of some quaint sentence or beautiful thought just because the sun is touching a certain bush down by the water's edge, which is a sign that it is lunch-time and that I must be off. Back we go together through the rye, he carefully tucked under one arm, while with the other I brandish a bunch of grass to keep off the flies that appear directly we emerge into the sunshine. "Oh, my dear Thoreau," I murmur sometimes, overcome by the fierce heat of the little path at noonday and the persistence of the flies, "did you have flies at Walden to exasperate you? And what became of your philosophy then?"

Elizabeth von Amim, The Solitary Summer (1)

We are not yet unpacked. There is a chaos of suitcases in the bedroom and a labyrinth of boxes in the hall. A semester with Colgate's New Mexico study group has ended, and we return to upstate New York with scant time before the semester begins. That is a textbook definition of disorientation. "What--how--when--where?" I wake on this winter rooming as did Thoreau wondering over questions that I am not yet certain how to ask. The only thing I can say for sure is that the mice who moved in with my daughter's stuffed animals during our absence are no longer evident. The essay on Walden that I would like to be writing cannot for the moment compete with the stashes of seed in sweaters and the compact black reminders of digestion on shelves and in drawers. Those mice clearly enjoyed an extended stay in my daughter's room. I have cleaned that room in a mad housewife's frenzy. It is what some might now call clean, but I am as foul as they come. I have been laboring in quiet desperation. There is nothing akin to beautiful housekeeping in my thoughts. Thoreau's words sit on the shelf, undoubtedly accompanied by the ubiquitous mouse turds. I smile grimly at this house on the edge of the woods where I don't even have the common courtesy to welcome the mice in from the cold.

Two days later, I have not awakened to an answered question though I am certain of the woods and the grey daylight and the burning desire to unpack the thoughts in my mind rather than the boxes that still line the hall. Those boxes no longer communicate urgency. The study group report remains unwritten, and the small black calling cards left behind by the mice now draw only a slight flicker of attention. I settle at the counter that serves as my desk, books and papers companionably strewn from one end to the other. I stare out the window, not so much to steady the ideas careening wildly through my head but to place myself. Companionship with sheet metal gray skies, strangely green grass from unseasonably warm temperatures and plentiful rain. I see what is there, but I am not there. I am still in New Mexico, desert dry, craving the colors of sunset written daily into sandstone.

At first I think the disorientation is pure homesickness. …

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