Earliest Memory: A Wagon Load

Early memories that stay with us throughout our lives must do so because they have some deep meaning to us. Else why would such a memory be so persistent?

My earliest memory is very vivid. After living with it for decades, I decided to address it in a poem.

 
Pulling My Wagon

My earliest memory, the one I remember remembering,
the one in which I was conclusively aware, “I am me,
I am pulling my wagon,” finds me somewhere between

two and three years old, wearing a white cotton
shirt, red corduroy overalls, and Mary Jane shoes.
I am playing in the basement, whose silver-gray concrete

floor slopes strongly away from the center. As I walk
around and around the imposing coal-burning furnace
which heats our house, and from whose raised eminence

the floor tilts way, I hold a black cord in my right hand.
On the other end of that cord is a toy, a flatbed wooden
wagon perhaps six inches long, varnished, with four red

wheels. In the middle of the oblong platform is a round
groove, and in that groove nestles a red wooden sphere
with a small knob-like projection. I consider the sphere

a rider in the wagon and the knob the rider’s head.
Pulling my toy around the furnace is no easy feat.
Although I am too young to understand this,

cords are insufficiently stiff links between puller
and pullee, so despite my determined path, my wagon
does not follow, but veers off toward the cellar walls,

where it crashes, this in turn causing the little red sphere,
which I wish to remain upright, to slip and slide within
its groove like bathtub soap and, sometimes, to fall

out of the groove and off the wagon. I am aware,
as I continue my journey, that things are not going
my way —that what I want to happen is not happening:

the toy does not follow me but wheels off in unpredictable
directions; the rider does not sit upright in his groove
and sometimes does not sit in the groove at all. In the midst

of this, perhaps because of this, I am aware that I am me,
a somebody doing something. . . . I do not have the thought, then,
that doing something in this world is neither easy nor predictable.

Unknown

Unlike my wagon, this one has three “riders,” each of which could  topple during a revolution around the furnace.

______________

“Pulling my Wagon” appears in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Presenting to the Public: The Golden Rule

Like many writers I supplement my income and increase the sale of my books by presenting programs to the public. Usually, but not not always, my programs are related to one or more of my books. Experience has taught me that an audience loves to see photos of what I’m talking about, so ever since Apple introduced Keynote (Powerpoint’s superior cousin), I’ve taken the time to build Keynote presentations.

Today most speakers/presenters take advantage of modern technology and use graphics, movement, and sound to enhance the content of their programs. Yet despite the age we live in, many presenters fail to meet the grade. As one who goes to talks given by others, I find myself more often disappointed than not, and the reason I’m most often disappointed is that the presenter reads his or her talk.

I find this totally boring and incredibly annoying. If you’re an author (or a teacher, historian, musician, scientist, whatnot) and you intend to present to the public, think thrice about reading out loud.

Did the person who hired you ask, “Would you be willing to read a speech to our patrons?” Or: “Can you come to our event and read out loud the notes you’ve typed into your Powerpoint/Keynote program?”

I’ll bet not one Outreach Director or Program Coordinator in history has ever made this request.

So: Don’t. Read. Speeches. to. the. Audience!

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fast reader and a good comprehender of what I read. If you intend to take 60 minutes to read a talk to me, I much prefer you give me a copy of the talk so that I can go sit in a corner, read it in 15 minutes, and then use the other 45 minutes to do something exciting.

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

At the Bloomingdale Public Library, Illinois, with my favorite roadie, Phil Passen

In giving presentations, I feel it’s my obligation to give the kind of talk I myself would love to see and hear. See. And hear. Thus I put together visuals, I add transitions and movement, and I use the logic of events or the logic of story to carry my visuals forward, so that I can simply glance at the screen and see what’s coming next.

I speak directly to the audience. I move around. I make eye contact. I use humor.

Do people actually want this?

You know what the answer is.

I recently gave one of my most popular presentations, When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose, at the Warren-Newport Public Library in Gurnee, Illinois. Several weeks later, the Adult Programming Specialist kindly shared with me the remarks that patrons made on their evaluation sheets. Here are some of their comments.

• interesting, good presenter, good graphics
• excellent research, brought Nellie, Rose and Margaret to life, fun facts
• very interesting, fun
• informative, told stories, knowledgeable, loved her topic
• speaker was super, kept my attention
• entertaining, informative
• the historical slides and the humor
• very impressive, Barbara’s knowledge and facts; the flow she talks with, not just ‘notes;
• enthusiasm; knowledgeable
• excellent; very knowledgeable in the subject, enthusiastic; great slides
• informed, enthused; engaged with audience; humorous; lively; much expression
• very prepared and great pace
• entertaining; funny
• knows her stuff and enjoys sharing it
• loved her knowledge and enthusiasm; but also her physical presentation; very cute “slides” and use of quotations; excellent
• enthusiastic about her subject

This is a long list. I print it not to brag about my presentation, but to help you, if you intend to speak or present in public. Look over the list and notice what stands out:

Knowledge
Enthusiasm
Humor
Visuals
Pacing
Story

These are what I want to see and hear when I attend somebody’s talk. And so they are what I give to others when I’m the speaker. Give unto others as you would have them give unto you.

If you’re going to present to the public, work on your presentation until it’s rich and full. Until it shimmers like a gem. Until it wows the audience. You will please people, and you will be invited to give more presentations — at which, being a writer, you can sell more of your books.

_______________

Barbara Gregorich enjoys sharing what she knows about writing mysteries in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. And, she gives a related 60-minute presentation titled Thinking Like a Mystery Writer.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.

____________________

Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

Finding a Found Poem

Many months ago I explored both web sites and books in order to learn more about different types of poems. I’ve already posted about the fib. The day I learned about the fib I must have been in the F section of information sites, because I also learned about the found poem.

Found poem? I muttered to myself. Is that the opposite of a lost poem?

No. It isn’t.

According to Wikipedia, which in this case provides a good definition, found poetry is “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry (a literary equivalent of a collage) by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning.” (Emphasis in original.)

Okay, I thought. That’s great. I now know what a found poem is. On to another subject.

Because, you see, I never thought I’d write a found poem. Nothing about found poetry really “called” to me, you know. Perhaps the found poems were out of hearing range.

But life loves to watch us strolling happily along, thinking we’re in charge of our own decisions — and then throw something in our path that makes us do the opposite of what we said we would do.

So it was with me and the found poem.

My husband, Phil Passen, is a musician, and I am his roadie. One day Phil had a three-hour gig at O’Hare Airport, somewhere in the United terminal. I brought along a novel I had almost finished reading.

Sixty minutes later, I did finish.

Two more hours to go on this gig. And I had forgotten to bring a second novel. What could I do? Besides listen to the wonderful music, of course.

I sat there, looking all around.

Words.

Words everywhere. On posters, flashing in neon, in windows, on plastic signs, on free-standing sandwich boards, on cardboard boxes, on luggage, on trams creeping by, on suitcases . . everywhere.

So I wrote down maybe half of the words I could see.

Found Poem

And then, even though the Wiki definition does not say that a found poem makes changes in the order of words, my found poem does. I rearranged the words (okay, okay, the spacing and the lines, too, and maybe I even deleted some words) and produced my first (and so far, only) found poem. You could say I found it at O’Hare.

United We Wait

Duty Free Liberty
United Club
Wi-Fi Available
Concourse C Baggage Claim
Currency Exchange
Animal Relief Area
Welcome US Customs Require That
Life-goes-on Insurance
From the International Best-Selling Trilogy
Let Us Serve You
Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago
You’re going to need a bigger map
Please Ask for Assistance
Not just leg-room . . . laptop room
Restrooms
Prudent
Earn Miles and Rewards
Priority Boarding
Trains to City
Ticketing/Check-In
Terminals

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s not-lost poetry can be found in Crossing the Skyway.

Writing My First Novel: Part 2

So after I overcame the grief of killing off a character and once again tackled the writing of She’s on First, I had four chapters to go. And I was still working full time. I finished the four chapters in five months. Voila! A completed manuscript!

Finishing a manuscript is quite an accomplishment, but as any writer who wants to be published knows, that first step, difficult as it is, is often easier than getting published.

I set out to find an agent. Using Literary Market Place, I found the names of reputable agents and wrote short (less than a full page) query letters to three at a time, describing my novel and asking if they would like to see the manuscript. I also wrote to agents who weren’t listed in LMP but who were listed in other sources, specifically in writer’s magazines. This, as it turned out, was a beginner’s mistake.

Few agents responded. One who did respond asked to see my manuscript. He was not listed in Literary Market Place. This was a warning I should have heeded. I was so thrilled that an editor wanted to read my story that I paid no attention to warning  signs. After I mailed him my manuscript, the agent then failed to communicate. When I asked him to return my manuscript, he said he lost it. Never in my life have I been so grateful for backup: I had a carbon copy. Not long after I learned the agent had lost my manuscript, I purchased my first computer, a Macintosh. I re-typed the manuscript on the computer, backed it up on a floppy disk, and once again started out to find a reputable and responsible agent.

A Chicago writers organization sponsored a talk and interview with agent Jane Jordan Browne. I went to hear her and was impressed with what she had to say. So I sent her a query letter, and she asked to see my manuscript.

After Jane read She’s on First, she said she would represent it if I rewrote it, cutting 100 pages out of the total. The manuscript was 406 pages long, which meant I had to cut it to 306 pages. “Cut the deadwood,” she advised.

sc00d32959

It was up to me, of course, to determine what was deadwood. And that in itself was an interesting lesson. I sat down with a red pen and began to cross out sentences and paragraphs that didn’t advance the story. That took several days. Then I  began rewriting. When I finished, my manuscript was 304 pages long. I had managed to cut 102 pages.

I sent the rewritten manuscript back to Jane and she accepted it. But Jane did not have an especially easy time trying to sell She’s on First. Mostly she received rejects saying that the story was enjoyable — but that “the public” did not want to read about a female baseball player.

I, meanwhile, attended the American Bookseller Association’s Conferences each year (the ABA annual event is now called Book Expo) to look at the new crop of fiction, to study publishers, and to meet editors. One year I was thrilled to see that a novel about a woman hockey player was being prominently displayed. This made me feel that a novel about a woman baseball player might be looked at with interest by editors.

sc00160a8fThe novel about the woman hockey player apparently didn’t do well, which caused even more editors to turn down She’s on First. Finally, though, more than two years after Jane had accepted my story, she sold hardcover rights to Contemporary Books, a Chicago nonfiction publisher which was branching out into fiction.

She’s on First was published in hardcover in 1987, and I was super-excited when my first novel came out. I had an autographing at Kroch’s and Brentano’s the very first day, and other autographings in different states the entire year.

The following year She’s on First came out in mass market paperback. Paperjacks, the Canadian publisher which bought paperback rights, made She’s on First their lead novel of the month, and as I was driving across the Midwest and Southwest on an extended trip, I saw my first novel in paperback racks everywhere, including tiny little drugstores in tiny little towns. That was exciting.

One year later, She’s on First was published in Japan.

sc00161e3eIn the US, the hardcover edition sold out within a year. There was no second printing, probably because the mass market paperback was available. After my novel was out of print, my agent made sure the rights reverted to me. She did this by writing to the publisher and having them send a formal reversion-of-rights letter. This was around the year 1990.

After that, She’s on First was out of print for twenty years. During those twenty years, there were three movie options on the book, but none came to fruition. Two publishers expressed interest in reprint rights, but nothing came of that.

During the twenty years that She’s on First was out of print, I wrote many other books. I thought my first novel would remain out of print forever, available only in used bookstores and on eBay. Then came the revolution in the publishing world: digital publishing and Print on Demand, making it possible for any individual to self-publish a book. In 2010, I self-published my very first CreateSpace book, and, fittingly, that book was my first novel, She’s on First.

With self-publishing, the writer is in control. So, as writer, I restored a small scene about a female umpire — this had been cut from the hardcover version in 1986. It gave me great pleasure to restore this scene — to show that there’s more than one way for a woman to be on the baseball field, and to show that those who are discriminated against usually feel solidarity with one another.

The second thing I did once I was in charge of republishing my own novel was to put a different cover on it. By 2010 both previous covers looked dated. So I searched for photos of women playing baseball and found the one I wanted. I paid for one-time use of the photo and asked writer-illustrator friend Robin Koontz to design the cover.

The result is my favorite version of my first novel.

KindleCover-SOFI’m not sure that I expected book reviews with the reprint of She’s on First, but as it turned out, the book was reviewed, as a reprint of course.

Another big surprise to me was that on the 25th anniversary of the publication of She’s on First, Patrick Reardon wrote a review of it on his blog, The Pump Don’t Work. Twenty. Five. Years. I wasn’t paying any attention to this anniversary, but certainly should have been. I’m very grateful that Patrick Reardon was paying attention.

Writing a first novel is a daunting proposition. It’s a long road across uncharted (by you) country. You’ve never driven a vehicle before, you’ve never crossed this land before. Unknowns everywhere.

But both the newness of the experience and the blank landscape of the country can be conquered. If you were driving a journey of 10,000 miles, you would of necessity break it up into individual days. Say your goal is to drive 500 miles a day. That’s a twenty day trip. You take it one day at a time, confronting that day’s obstacles as they come up.

Writing a novel is similar. You have a journey of, say, 300 pages. You can make the trip in 300 days or, if you’re very lucky, 150 days. Even 75 days, though most first novels aren’t written that quickly. With a rough outline before you, you know where to go each day. You sit down at the computer and write.

Sort of like a batter steps up to the plate and hits.

______________________________

You can read reviews of She’s on First here.

Writing My First Novel: Part 1

KindleCover-SOFBefore I wrote She’s on First, I had only two college courses on writing: nothing like the richness of fiction writing courses offered today. I had no fiction-writing workshops, either. As I tell students when I teach novel-writing workshops, it’s possible to write a novel without having taken courses in novel-writing.

But I was guided by two factors, the first of which is that by the time I was in my early 30s I had read approximately 3,000 novels of all kinds, from the greatest literature (Virgil, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Faulkner, etc.) to the lowliest pulp (mystery and adventure novels that are better left unnamed). For at least two decades I usually read three novels a week.

If you want to write fiction, then reading fiction is paramount to your training. By the time you’ve read 500 or more novels, you will have absorbed patterns, even though you may not be able to name these patterns. This knowledge will help guide you through the construction of your own novel.

The other factor that guided me through the writing of my first novel was that after I knew I was ready to write a novel, but before I actually started to write it, I walked to the local library and began taking out books on how to write the novel. This was in the early 1980s, and even back then the library had close to 40 books on the single topic of writing a novel. I spent days in the stacks, taking notes. I probably spent three or four months reading and studying the how-to-write-a-novel books.

calendar 2013One of the how-to books I read back then explained how to write a book in 365 days, so that became my goal (though I didn’t make it — more about that later). Today I’m amused at how much “more” is expected of beginning writers: several recent how-to books promise to show you how to write a novel in 30 days!

In addition to reading 40 or so books on how to write a novel, I also read at least that number of baseball books and baseball instruction manuals (how to play each position, where the cutoff man goes on a particular play, and so on). I paid particular attention to how baseball players think and talk: the way they see the world, as evidenced by what they say when they (or ghostwriters) write a book.

Another thing I did was research women in sports. I was interested in a woman playing on what is perceived of as a “men’s team,” but there was no literature relating to this situation. I do remember reading everything I could about Billie Jean King and her match with Bobby Riggs, even though tennis is not a team sport like baseball is. And I also read whatever I could about female sports reporters: what situations they faced in simply trying to do their jobs. What these reporters faced seemed most like what Linda Sunshine (my story’s hero) would face, and I got many of my ideas from reading about the reporters.

One of the pieces of advice many how-to-write-a-novel books give is that you should have both the beginning and the ending firmly in mind before you begin writing. The “middle” (usually 80-90% of the book) is something you can outline before you begin to write, or something you can invent as you go along.

In grade school I learned how to outline using Roman numerals as well as capital- and lower-case letters. But I was not thrilled with the idea of outlining my novel in this manner. This process seemed so t-e-d-i-o-u-s. But I did understand the need for “an outline,” as opposed to “outlining,” and so I created a quick, scrawled outline for She’s on First. Taking three sheets of blank paper, I divided each into thirds horizontally. This gave me nine horizontal sections, and I numbered them 1-9, for the nine chapters.

Then, in the horizontal spaces, I jotted thoughts for each chapter. Basically, these scrawled notes were about the events and conflicts in each chapter, the POV character in each chapter, and the forward movement of the baseball season. I felt comfortable with this non-outline and referred to it often while writing the book.

Because I was working a full-time job while attempting to write my first novel, I had to really discipline myself to work on the manuscript every single day. I hoped that if I could write a page a day, I would have a 365-page book within the space of a year.

On most work days I managed to write half a page to a full page after dinner each night. Then, while driving to work the next morning, I would think about what came next — either a continuation of the scene or summary I had been working on, or something new.

Unfortunately, when I reached the middle of She’s on First I encountered a major block: my plot required one of the characters to die. This upset me so much that I didn’t write anything for five full months — which meant that I did not finish my first novel within a year, as I had planned.

Dead Body

Illustration by Robin Koontz

You may be relieved (or perhaps frightened) to know that since that first experience I’ve become more callous, killing off characters left and right without regret.

During those five months when I was avoiding working on She’s on First, I attended novel-writing workshops. What stands out most vividly for me is that in every workshop I took, there were dozens of writers who had one, two, or three unfinished novels in their files.

I most decidedly did not want to be a writer who had an unfinished novel in her files — I wanted to be a writer who accomplished what she set out to do. And so, after three or four such workshops, I went back to work, armed less with knowledge of how to write a novel than with a burning desire to finish the novel I had started to write.

This experience, coupled with my love of baseball, is probably one of the reasons I autograph so many books with the phrase, “Bring the runner home.”

 

______________________________

You can read the first chapter of She’s on First here.

 

 

Walden: Living Deliberately

51aVzfJ60kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A while back, in Expectations and Awakenings, I posted about the first book that ignited my thinking. That book was Great Expectations, which I read when I was in the ninth grade. What the novel awakened me to was literature.

The second book which roused my thinking was Walden, which I read when I was eighteen, as part of a course in American Transcendentalism.

While Great Expectations awoke me to the beauty of language and the power of story, Walden awoke me to the necessity of resistance. It made me realize that one need not unthinkingly follow political, social, or cultural norms just because they have endured for hundreds of years.

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Henry David Thoreau

Walden is structured into eighteen chapters, most of them 8-10 pages long — except for “Economy,” the first chapter, which is 50 pages long. Clearly “Economy” was the most important topic in Thoreau’s mind: the economy of making a living. For Thoreau, providing for one’s clothes, food, and shelter was something that should not be a daily, life-long burden. Thus he decided to live simply, with minimum wants, so that he could spend his days doing what he chose to do in life — observing nature and writing.

Thoreau’s advocacy of individual self-reliance (espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” first published in 1841, but given in lecture form as early as 1836) was quite different from what was advocated by Marx, Engels, Fourier, Owen, and other European socialists. Marx and Engels analyzed that capitalism (the social system that creates wealth for the few, poverty for the many) was the cause of social and economic inequality (and catastrophe) and needed to be replaced with a system based on production for the needs of human kind, not production for the profit of a few. They put forward a social solution, Thoreau an individual solution.

Both Transcendentalists such as Thoreau and communists such as Marx agreed that the role of philosophers should be to create a better world. Thoreau phrased it this way in Walden: To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Marx-Engels-Forum01

Marx and Engels statue in Berlin-Mitte

While Thoreau advocated individual action instead of group action, he still understood that the purpose of capitalist enterprise was profit. In Walden he wrote: I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing . . . as far as I have heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.

His words on philosophy and on the factory system are not as often quoted as are his comments on individual action, perhaps the most famous of which is the quote on living deliberately.

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.

Thoreau studied nature intensively. He knew the names and behaviors of animals and plants, of the trees, the rivers, the ponds, and the seasons. “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,” he urged.

Notice how deliberately Thoreau used the word deliberately in the two quotes above. He meant consciously and intentionally, in a calm and unhurried manner. And his observation about people being thrown off track  by every new thing that comes along is even more true today than it was in 1848.

A life-long belief in self-reliance did not stop Thoreau from acting against injustices that didn’t personally affect him. He was an abolitionist and a participant in the Underground Railroad. After John Brown led a poorly supported raid on the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Thoreau defended his bearing arms against a government that permitted the buying, selling, exploitation, torture, and murder of men, women, and children whose ancestors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Neither Thoreau’s conscience nor his reason would allow him to support a government that supported slavery.

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes.

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Today Thoreau is considered one of America’s greatest writers, though he wasn’t considered that in his lifetime. Widely read in the Greek Classics, he often alluded to them in his writing. One of these allusions was to the myth of Antaeus, son of Gaea (goddess of Earth) and Poseidon (god of the Sea). Antaeus defeated all contenders in battle because each time his opponents tossed him to the ground, he gained more strength from contact with the earth. Talking about growing beans, Thoreau stated: “They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.”

Literary critics regard Walden as sui generis: unique. And I think that is true. No other nature writer I can think of, no other experimenter, has thought so deeply or written so well. Walden awakened me to truth, social justice, nonconformity, simplicity — and many other things. It is a rich, powerful work. Even though I do not believe that the ills of the world — ills such as war, poverty, racism, sexism, and child abuse,  — can be cured by individual action such as Thoreau’s, I nevertheless have the greatest respect for his argument of encouraging each person to live deliberately.