Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chack-a Chack-a Thoreau!

Hanging out with my 10-month old daughter Sofia and other little kids lately in play-rich environments like parks, I have been struck by the prevalence of trains as an object of deep fascination for them. Noticing that primed me to attend even more to the trains and railroads of the select chapters of Walden that I've been re-reading and reviewing for this week's American Lit to 1860 classes. What keeps Thoreau so fresh for me is the polycoding of his machines, including trains, and the difficulty in reading whether this is part of his sprawling metaphoricity and openness to diversity of thought or whether it is the mechanical unconscious that no one escapes since the 19th century.

For example, the railroad runs in most of Chapter 2 "Where I Lived and What I Lived For" as an object signifying a culture of haste and complexity in compounding the things and duties of our lives. "If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."

But, hold on, Thoreau, because as you wrap up the chapter, your most pointed prescription of living deliberately gets articulated in railroad metaphor: "Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails."

Is Thoreau at play in this last bit? Is he exemplifying how we might take his own prescription, but only in the form of railroad-style efficiency-think? I'm not sure, and I always read his ledger pages in Chapter 1 this way too: do we take them at surface value, after all he uses them as evidence to warrant his claim of being the most economically successful farmer in Concord; or, do we read this as a sly indictment of those who would read him and still desire this sort of statistical no-waste ideology?

This is why I am buying a copy of The Brave Little Toaster for Sofia!

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