Dude, Where’s my ‘Walden’?

A recently announced project on Kickstarter aims to fund the publication of a revised edition of Walden with “modernized vocabulary” and the aim of allowing “modern readers” to be enriched by the famous book. The project is the brain child of writer and designer Matt Steel, a devotee of Thoreau.

Written in 1854 during the heyday of the American transcendentalist movement, Walden is now in the public domain. Not only is there likely to be at least one copy in most libraries, it is also available online via Project Gutenberg and elsewhere for free to anyone with a smart phone or Internet connection. Yet despite this easy access, the book is a little like Gore Vidal’s books—not too widely read today.

Steel thinks the dated language of Walden is to blame for this popular indifference, so he wants to raise $104,000 to develop a new, revised, hardback edition of the work on Munken Lynx archival paper with a cloth wrapped case and foil-stamped cover that will allow readers (read: Millennials) to sidestep all that complex 19th-century lingo. For now, let’s skip the economic question of why anyone wants to manufacture more expensive print copies of a book no one seems willing to read for free. So far the campaign has raised $19,952. What about Steel’s desire to bowdlerize Thoreau?

Steel says he wants to “shorten the distance between 1854 and today so that the lyrical beauty of this excellent text can shine.” Because, according to Steel, “there’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s the 19th-century language that’s problematic.” Shakespeare, Emily Dickenson, and Charles Dickens would seem to face a similar problem.

Thoreau is a lyrical writer—he is, after all, the person who wrote that to live deeply one must “suck out all the marrow of life.” Had he told us to “get meaning out of life” the line wouldn’t have been read in a cave during a meeting of a secret society of would-be poets in the film, Dead Poets Society.

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When Thoreau writes about the labors of his neighbors he doesn’t say, “My neighbors were burdened with endless physical tasks.” He says:

The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison to those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.

A contemporary student uneducated in mythology might have to Google a few things after reading that paragraph, but they’d be better off for having done so.

The problem as Steel sees it, however, isn’t the book per se; it’s the “evolution of language” that leaves books of earlier eras too challenging for the modern reader. “Typically, the original text grows old and inaccessible before anyone does anything about it,” Steel said. “Books are timeless, only the evolution of language leaves them behind.”

But here, perhaps, is the greatest irony of Steel’s project: Thoreau, himself—in Walden—argues for the reading of the great works, even in their original language if you can muster the courage. He called them “heroic literary labors of the ancients” that would allow us to “scale heaven.”

While Thoreau didn’t take many books with him to Walden (he did keep Homer’s Iliad on his table), he thought extensively about what we read and how we read it:

The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. . . . It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language.

Thoreau called the classics “the noblest recorded thoughts of man,” the “only oracles which are not decayed” by successive generations—one might say dumbed down by later generations. Thoreau wanted people to grapple with the most difficult and rewarding texts, instead what he saw were “feeble” efforts and a lack of desire to read higher:

[H]aving learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives.

I’m not sure if Steel skipped the chapter in Walden on reading or if he just decided that Thoreau got it all wrong, but I’m pretty sure Thoreau would be far more satisfied if each new mind and set of eyes that opens a copy of the original Walden took up the challenge to soar a “little higher” by reading the work in its original form. To do otherwise is to become, as Thoreau warned, “pygmies and manikins.”

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  • valjean

    “… we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line,
    conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom
    and valor and generosity we have.”

    Irony, indeed. I can’t help but wonder how that translates into “21st century language”.

    I heartily disagree that Mr. Steel is a “devotee” of Thoreau. He might be devoted to what he thinks Thoreau means divorced from his language — but as I suspect Mr. Thoreau himself would note, that’s not him at all. Rather, I suggest Mr. Steel is a devotee of his own ideas — as indeed, are all those who want to somehow modernize classic works — and should therefore write his own book … though I doubt whether originality will be its strong suit.

  • roastytoasty

    Steel thinks the dated language of Walden is to blame for this popular indifference???

    Heh. That’s a laff. How long would one search thru the reading lists of literature in modern university English depts before discovering “Walden” as required reading? Or “Light In August” by William Faulkner? Or anything by Saul Bellow?

    Young people are indifferent to things like “Walden” because they are being taught that it’s a old dead white guy that wrote it in defense of & service to the overlord patriarchy.

    • Mo86

      “Young people are indifferent to things like “Walden” because they are being taught that it’s a old dead white guy that wrote it in defense of & service to the overlord patriarchy.”

      Exactly!

  • Jan Brady

    Beautifully written. Amen all the way.