Closely Reading Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is fittingly famous, both for its philosophical insight and for its crystalline prose. We are with a thoughtful mind when we sit down with it. In this very famous sentence, Thoreau explains why he chose to live for a time alone in the woods:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

The passage is both interesting compositionally and challenging philosophically. The philosophical—what it means and how that accords with your own assumptions about solitude and life and purpose—I will leave to you, but whether and how you will consider what Thoreau says about those ideas depends in measure on the way in which he conveys them—how he has connected those ideas and the diction in which he presents them.

We know that parallelism is an effective way to organize ideas (Parallelism), and we can identify it by looking for the repeated use of a particular grammatical structure. There can be degrees of parallelism, and the tighter it is, the more formal the diction, that is, the manner or tone in which something is said. Look, for example, at the three infinitives in the first subordinate clause, the clause beginning with because: to live, to front, see; each works to complete the meaning of wished, but only the first two include the word to, the explicit mark of an infinitive. Why? Perhaps because an overstrict parallelism would have created too formal a structure: to live, to front, to see if I could not learn. Such a style would begin to take on the tone of a young martinet and work against the combination of easy manner and high independent thought that Thoreau is urging on us.

And this philosophical familiarity, so to speak, continues with his use of the simple conjunction and in the subsequent phrase and not. We know that conjunctions are important because they relate the ideas expressed in each clause; they can be classified according to their logical function, and we can see an argument unfold in a writer’s hand by watching the conjunctions that appear one after the next. But the word and is the most nearly neutral of all the conjunctions, simply connecting words and phrases and clauses without denoting any specific logical connection. It seems to be the most good-natured of the bunch, welcoming any next-arriving idea without asking how it’s related to the others present.

And so here, the and in the phrase and not is allowing a fairly sophisticated (not to say uncomfortable or even affronting) idea to pass in common dress: to say and not discover means in its full logical regalia so that I do not discover; the conjunction so that is the way we overtly express a result, and by avoiding that explicit phrase, and only implying it with the neutral conjunction and, Thoreau has let enter a troublemaker to the discussion, for being told outright that the way we live will have consequences—and consequences, moreover, that will become apparent only in our later years—is not often an appropriate thing to say in polite company.

Thoreau may have lived in the woods for a time, but most of us, his readers, have not gotten there yet, and so the style he chose for his challenging statements meets us where and how we are. His more informal diction allows him to present difficult ideas pleasingly and pleasantly long enough, he must hope, to be considered in a serious way. To do otherwise, to strike a tone more formal, earlier with a strict parallelism and later with the technically correct conjunction, would be to risk appearing above and apart from his audience, neither of which would have been true to the man nor effective to his speech.

To read closely, then, means to account for both the facts and effects of a passage, to understand what an author is saying and to be aware of the manner in which he is saying it. The what cannot be separated from the how, the meaning from its portrayal; and if that is true, we can work from the outside in, from style to substance, not only for a greater appreciation of what we’re reading, but for our own command of language as well.


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  1. As I sit here in the Maine woods grilling, and I read about Thoreau in his woods, I am fascinated by your analysis. How I wish you could have sat beside Thoreau, at his doorstep on a sunny morning, and talked philosophy and grammar. Fascinating analysis, well done and points well made.

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