Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Forging in the Smithy of the Mind
Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” and the
Problematic of Transcendence

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is
where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of
experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race.

—Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce

LYDIA FAKUNDINY IS RIGHT, AS USUAL: “Walking, rambling, sauntering, strolling, wandering are more than recurrent topics of essay writing; they’re images by which essayists like to figure their particular mode of discoursing, tropes of essaying itself” (15). The titles of early “essay periodicals” (as Fakundiny calls them) affirms the point: if not already Addison and Steele’s Spectator very early in the eighteenth century, certainly by the time Dr. Johnson called his The Rambler, then The Adventurer, and finally The Idler. Understandably essayists are fond of walking and of walking as subject; see, to name only those who spring immediately to mind, Hazlitt, Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, Edward Hoagland, Alfred Kazin. Surely the most famous of these sojourners, these “Sainte-Terrers” as he himself labels his ilk, these saunterers, is Henry David Thoreau, the so-called hermit of Walden Pond, who left town—and the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation—and headed out, alone, to forge a new life, a new way of living, one built on ultimate simplicity.

-93-

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