Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thoreau and Humor

When I was a newly married teaching assistant long ago at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University), one of my fellow TA's, a good friend of my husband's, hung over and desperate to procure a copy of Walden from which to make illicit copies for his freshman composition class which was to begin in fifteen minutes, borrowed my well-thumbed little paperback edition and promptly lost it, although not before having successfully used it to prep materials for his class.  I regretted its loss, although not so much, perhaps, as Mark regretted the borrowing of it in the long run, for his students gave him a very hard time about the effusive marginalia which which I'd worshipfully inscribed its pages.  I badgered him so mercilessly about the book's return and was so heartbroken at his confession of its loss, that a year later he presented me with a hardback edition in a Victorian replica binding.  On the title page, he'd written, "Walden deserves your love almost as much as a certain lanky redhead does--and like Scott, Walden is not something so live with as to live for.  & now you've an edition that will age no quicker than you will...Forgiven?"

Mark may have been a too often high, irresponsible if well-meaning sot who taught his lesson on Thoreau in a lime green jester suit he'd passed out in the night before, but here's the thing about Mark: he was brilliant, utterly and undeniably brilliant.  And he was right.  Scott, that lanky redhead whom I've now been living with and for during the last twenty-four years?  He has some things in common with Thoreau, including something I've not often heard brought up in relation to dear old Henry David--the propensity to employ a fine, often irreverent bit of humor when making an earnest point. 

One way Thoreau shows off his clever self is through word play.  Writing about a piece of land, he says, "I think I shall not buy greedily, but go round and round it as long as I live and be buried in it first, that it may please me the more at last" (1998).  The word play in this sentence hinges on the word buried, which can mean placed in a grave or to be immersed in some activity.  I can't help but believe that Thoreau here means instead of buying the property, he intends to simply spend a great deal of time there, walking around it and enjoying it--burying himself in it, so to speak.  Using the word immediately after the phrase "as long as I live," however, causes the reader to associate it with the end of life and the burial that occurs as a result. 

Another humor tactic Thoreau uses is through juxtaposition of subject matter that is heady with that which is very down-to-earth, often introducing the latter unexpectedly: "One value even of the smallest well is, that when you look into it you see that earth is not continent but insular.  This is as important as that it keeps butter cool" (1999).  The reader has to grin at herself by the end of that sentence, when she finds herself  surprised to be staring not into the secrets of the earth, but at a tub of butter.  Thoreau sets her up via her own expectations of some deep intellectual insight, and then delivers butter instead.  To be sure, the insight is there, but so is the giggle at the end of it, instead of an opportunity to rub one's forehead, nod sagely and look knowing.

Thoreau isn't above using a bit of snark, either, sassy bits of commentary with a bit of an edge to them.  Of Britain he writes, "The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine" (2033).  Dinner parties also seem to draw his ire, for after reporting that his neighbors enjoy meeting famous people at such gatherings, he says, "The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, still, dress it as you will." (2031). Ouch.

Let's not forget exaggeration, either.  One of my favorite lines is (again!) in reference to dinner time, when evidently one was expected to dine in company.  Thoreau's advice for surviving its horrors is nothing short of comic genius: "Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner... Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill" (2005).  (I need to remember that in order to survive the next multi-generational family holiday get-together at which my presence is required.)  Thoreau was not above using absurdity (exaggeration's close cousin), either.  A passage that made me laugh aloud was one addressing the need to strive to fulfill one's potential, regardless of whatever limit that potential might have.  "Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies," asks Thoreau, "and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?" (2029).  Today, I'm sure this qualifies as politically incorrect.  Nevertheless, it is funny simply for the extreme absurdity of the image.  Here we are, tootling along in conversation with one of America's best respected Transcendentalist writers, and he throws pygmies (not a common nineteenth century American subject of conversation for most of his readers, I would assume) into the mix. 

He uses humor for a purpose, of course, does Thoreau.  He knows that most people can only sustain serious mind-bending thought for so long, that we need concrete images to connect to abstract thought in order to process them and remember them best.  And of course, his own Transcendental belief in the need to put foundations beneath our castles in the clouds, to ground our philosophies in earthy reality, taught him to do just that in his writing as well.  The result is that he is not only a more enjoyable read than Emerson, but a more easily understood (and appreciated) writer, as least in my book.

As for that lanky red-head, he's still making me laugh, too, and he does it with all Thoreau's techniques, from the absurdity of pouring salt on my arm during a romantic dinner date ("Well, at least now we know you're not a slug.") to puns and definite snark, he keeps life interesting and lightens the load that responsibility and deep thought too often press upon us.  I'm keeping them both--Great Scott and Thoreau; they give me hope.

Note:  I love Thoreau.  I really do.  That fact does not mean, however, that he is above having a bit of fun poked in his general direction.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walden". The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed.  Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. B. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 1996-2034. Print.

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