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Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Thoreau? Kids Love the Guy! And Other News

October 22, 2015 | by

Lanjee Chee’s Thoreau stamp, designed ca. 1967.

  • Kathryn Schulz’s Thoreau-bashing New Yorker piece last week was only the latest in a long tradition of broadsides against Walden—people love to hate Thoreau. James Russell Lowell, Garrison Keillor, Jill Lepore, and Bill Bryson have all taken swipes at him in print. But all of them, and especially Schulz, are dearly misreading him, especially when they accuse him of misanthropy: “He was active in circulating petitions for neighbors in need. He was attentive to what was going on in the community. He was involved in the Underground Railroad. He quit his first teaching job, in protest, because he was expected to administer corporal punishment, and struggled to find a new one. He loved watermelons, and threw an annual watermelon party for his friends, of whom he had plenty. Children were especially fond of him … He was very handy. He could dance, and play music. He wrote lovingly about his father, mother, and siblings in his journals, and they wrote lovingly about him, and he was so devastated by his brother’s death that he developed symptoms of tetanus in sympathy.”
  • Notes from the annals of traffic planning: one of the greatest innovations in Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs for Central Park was his way of guiding people and horses—and, later, cars—gently away from one another: “In 1900 there were some two hundred horse-related deaths in New York City. Thus Olmsted and Vaux’s strict division of circulation in the park acknowledged the ever-present danger of such accidents by consigning heavy east–west vehicular traffic to crosstown transverses sunk well below surface level, while above-grade pedestrian footpaths dipped beneath north–south roadways through small bridges and short tunnels … This concept of dual circulation soon became an article of faith among progressive planners in the United States and Europe. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s much-praised 1929 design for Radburn, New Jersey—touted as the ‘New Town for the Motor Age’—so effectively segregates cars and people that children can walk to local schools and playgrounds without crossing a street. Stein, whose Central Park West apartment overlooked the 65th Street Transverse, said that he discovered what became known as ‘the Radburn idea’ simply by peering out his front window.”
  • The Polish writer Agnieszka Taborska is gazing seaward, as writers are wont to do. In the ocean she’s found a suitable home for surrealism: “The sea calms and alarms. Its swoosh is compared to a hundred sounds at once and yet there’s no way to convey the whole complexity. Screams, wails, thunderclaps, whistles, moans, rumbles, shrieks of exhortation, the boom of waves breaking on rocks, seagulls’ cries, sirens’ chants, the weeping of sailors tickled to death, half-audible words coming from no one knows where, transfused with their own echo. Ghost ships on the horizon, spirits of castaways floating on waves nearer the shore, shadowed by the amused look of a mermaid combing her wet locks for eternity … And then there are the beaches! Dunes torn asunder by secret life.”
  • “Do you remember Novokuznetskaya Station? … My mother threw up at each of the throne-like benches and felt sick at the sight of the lamps that look like a dentist’s spittoons…” Each chapter of Hamid Ismailov’s newly translated The Underground is named after a Moscow metro station, which is fun and all, but how is a bewildered, provincial American reader to make heads or tails of these places? You can use Google, for starters—it brings those sick-making spittoon-lamps right to life.
  • Isn’t it high time that we give Ursula K. Le Guin the anarchist cred she deserves? “Le Guin has received her due as a master crafter, as the lyrical chronicler of worlds of the imagination, spaces apart from the world, where children and lingering adults can find an oasis. But the political implications of her anarchist aesthetics go much further than that … Stalin said that the poet should be the engineer of human souls. Le Guin is the anti-engineer.”

The Age of Innocence, and Other News

October 14, 2015 | by

Edith Wharton’s baby rattle.

  • Today in profligacy: for a cool $16,500, you could own Edith Wharton’s one-of-a-kind sterling-silver baby rattle, which she gave to the only child of Leon and Germaine Belugou on her christening in 1920. It’s got a whistle at one end with EDITH engraved on the lip. Oh, and it’s decorated with three bells. Oh, and it has a piece of coral at the end, which was apparently used for teething. Oh, and it’s housed in a custom-made black-cloth clamshell box lined with purple velvet with a black leather gilt-stamped label on the spine.
  • You know that famous photograph of Eve Babitz, the one Julian Wasser took of her playing chess in the nude against Marcel Duchamp? If you’re wondering, it was taken on October 7, 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, and she’s finally willing to talk about it: “I’m sitting there, smoking like crazy, pretending to be bolder than I am, and then Marcel shows up. He’s wearing this beautiful suit, and he has this gay little straw hat on that he must’ve bought in Las Vegas, and he has these charming eyes that were very detached. Julian says he’s ready and I drop the smock, and Julian must’ve been afraid that I was going to have second thoughts, because he kicked the smock way across to the other side of the room. Marcel and I sat down in front of the chess board, and he says, ‘Et alors,’ which means, ‘You go.’ And so I did, and he checkmated me in a single move. It’s called fool’s mate. And I was upset because I thought I had a chance because of my tits, but I didn’t.”
  • In last week’s staff picks I mentioned Mark Davis, who collected years and years of prerecorded in-store “Kmart Radio” tapes and then put them all on the Internet. Someone got the full story from him: “I was sixteen years old and Kmart was my first job, which lasted for ten years … When working in a retail store with a looping program, you hear the same songs over and over. And then you hear the same songs when you stop in to get your paycheck. And you hear them when you go to the store to visit friends when off the clock. Whether you initially like a song, artist, or genre or not, it really grows on you after hearing it over and over. That’s what happened to me at the store, and I started liking the songs as they were predictable and helped the day along. I loved Kmart as a company … I decided to go behind the service desk and look at the store’s sound system. I saw the October 1989 tape sitting next to the cassette deck and a reel-to-reel deck, which was decommissioned but still present. I thought to myself—why not take this tape as a keepsake for the first month at my first job?”
  • Why is it that the same people who drone on and on about the future of “digital storytelling” are the ones who pay no attention to video games as a vehicle for said storytelling? Don’t these people have eyes? “The forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on ‘digital literature’ [are] run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age … without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age. Your experimental technological literature is already here … Games often manage to be both great art and an economic powerhouse; we’re doing ourselves and the next generation a disservice if we don’t take that seriously.”
  • It’s never too late for a takedown. Here’s a broadside against Henry David Thoreau, 153 years after his death—because what was with that guy, anyway? “The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats … The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization … Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish Walden?”

Strange Sights Much Sought, Strange Things Much Bought

December 9, 2014 | by

December through the eyes of an Elizabethan poet.


Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, ca. 1608.

It is now definitely December. Another November survived, and a grim November it was, too, the month Thoreau used to call November Eat-heart—days “as will almost oblige a man to eat his own heart,” in which “you must hold on to life by your teeth.” “You can hardly screw up your courage to take a walk … If you do feel any fire at this season out of doors, you may depend upon it, it is your own.” Even the life-affirming Nicholas Breton goes dark: “Now begins the Goshawk to weed the wood of the Pheasant, and the Mallard loves not to hear the bells of the Falcon. The winds now are cold, and the Air chill, and the poor die through want of Charity.”

Breton, ca. 1554–1626, was a prolific Elizabethan poet, friend to Edmund Spenser, with a penchant for powerfully balanced rhythms (“Sing a dirge on Spenser’s death, / Till your souls be out of breath”), but he’s justly forgotten today. Justly except for his fantastic Fantasticks: Serving for A Perpetuall Prognostication (1626). Along with lesser vignettes on the elements, seasons, hours, and major holidays, Fantasticks contains twelve little descriptions of the months that deserve to be immortal.

Starting in January, when “Time begins to turn the wheel of his Revolution,” Breton’s vivid natural and social descriptions march steadily through the year: “the Squirrel now surveyeth the Nut and the Maple, and the Hedgehog rolls up himself like a football”; in June, “the little Lads make Pipes of the straw, and they that cannot dance, will yet be hopping”; in September, “the winds begin to knock the Apples’ heads together on the trees, and the fallings are gathered to fill the Pies for the Household.” Each month ends with a kicker as balanced as a brace of oxen: May “is from the Heavens a Grace, & to the Earth a Gladness. Farewell.”

Here is December: Read More »


Thoreau and the iPad

December 17, 2013 | by


Recently I took my iPad to a park across a lake, sat under a tree facing the water, and started reading the e-book version of Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic avowal of the possibility of, as well as the necessity for, simplicity amid modern life’s profusion and superfluity. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t get much more dissonant than this.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys … improved means to an unimproved end,” wrote the handyman sage in the book’s first chapter, titled “Economy.” Few toys are prettier than the iPad, and its prettiness is by no means a feat of economy. Its minimalism, for one, belies the complexity of thought that went into its design, while its ease of use obscures the intricacy of the industry behind its manufacture. That there’s nothing new and improved about its ends should be evident from the resemblance between the categories of apps in the App Store and those of stores listed on the touchscreen directory at the entrance of shopping malls—that harried shopper’s guide to the nonvirtual versions of apps for games, books, sports, lifestyle, and even social networking. Or especially social networking, come to think of it, when you consider that the din from the food court or the theater lobby is nothing more than the noise from so many short messages being broadcast on an unmetered network with unlimited bandwidth.

But what does it matter if my iPad is merely a prettier means to pedestrian ends that are, in Thoreau’s words, “already but too easy to arrive at”? Does that make it one more toy to be transcended or tucked out of sight when meditating on sufficiency? I also own a paperback edition of Walden, its pages worn yellow with age and marred with the fervent notes of my much younger self. It has none of the iPad’s high-precision electronics; the letter m is smudged in several places, and yet it’s lost none of its functionality. And apart from enlightenment, it has only one other app, as a paperweight. Is this nonmultitasking relic the authentic medium for the all-in-one manifesto and proof-of-concept of the uncluttered life? Read More »


Happy Election Day

November 5, 2013 | by


“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” —Henry David Thoreau



Reading the Viaduct

December 4, 2012 | by

Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.

The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year. Read More »