Friday, March 13, 2009

I to Myself

I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau
© 2007 editor Jeffrey Cramer
429 pages

I've known the name Henry David Thoreau since high school, when I gazed up at Walden. I did not read from him, however, until this past summer when I read On Civil Disobedience, which I found to be thought-provoking. I decided to read a little more of Thoreau this week and went with annotated selections from his journal. The actual collection of journals spans fourteen volumes, according to the editor of this book, which is quite impressive. Although Thoreau begins the book as a twenty year old, his thoughts are much different from the thoughts I wrote in my own journals at that age. His thoughts and how he expresses them are deeper and more eloquent than any others I have read or can imagine reading. I imagine this is a result of a more literary society.

The selections from his journal are organized by year, and comments by the editor on every page explain allusions Thoreau is making or add more detail. The editor was thorough enough to include reproductions of drawings Thoreau made in his journals. The character who rises from these pages is interesting: the editor comments that he is a man of contradictions. He writes to himself that the value of our thought-life is more valuable than the value of our emotional life, as emotional states are transitory -- yet he exults reason and scoffs at science. His distaste for science especially emerges in his forties. Thoreau is often a man alone: he seems to spend the majority of his time outside in the woods, walking and contemplating life. He cares little for company on this walks, although he does seem to admit it in small amounts once he returns. Money seems to be of secondary importance: every so often he will reference doing building work for someone, or surveying land, but the Thoreau in this book is a man of the wilderness. I can see him in my mind's eye, his hands clasped behind his back, strolling through the woods with a funny gait and a curious expression on his face. Here is a man who spends a lot of time in thought, but who doesn't hesitate to fold his arms into a shape resembling that of a chicken's so that he may more properly imitate a bird call when he is vocalizing.

Through Thoreau's life, we can see life changing. Railroads intrude into the woodlands: men wielding axes approach Walden Pond, his sanctuary. The great tide of immigration from Europe will sweep through Concord: he often mentions Irish immigrants. Although these things trouble him, he seems to rise above them, taking heart in thoughts of greater truths. "There is nowhere any apology for despondency," he comments, "[As] always there is life which rightfully lived implies a divine satisfaction." Religion, like society, is of little concern to him. Although he seems to see religious philosophy of all kinds as divinely inspired, he heaps contempt among preachers and organized religion. At a younger point than that, he comments that "I do not prefer one religion or philosophy to another. I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance with make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man's faith or form of faith and another's. [...] I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. To the philosopher, all sects, all nations, are alike."

The book was quite a read. Thoreau is an interesting character to contemplate, and I do believe this annotated selection helped me to get a better feel for who he was -- as well as providing me with a few quotations. I will end this entry with a prayer Thoreau wrote down.

"May I go to my slumbers as if expecting to arise to a new and more perfect day. May I so live and refine my life as fitting myself for a society ever higher than I actually enjoy. May I treat myself as tenderly as I would treat the most innocent child whom I love; may I treat children and my friends as my newly-discovered self. Let me never go in search of myself; never for a moment think I have found myself; be a stranger to myself; never a familiar, seeking acquaintance still."

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