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Henry Thoreau’s Walden is often classified as a philosophical autobiography recounting his two-year experience living in a woodland outside Concord, Massachusetts. Residing in a tiny cabin overlooking Walden Pond, Thoreau spent his days observing nature, meeting travelers, baking bread and planting seeds. The importance of Walden lies in Thoreau’s unique philosophical perspective and connection to Nature . When Thoreau was not visiting, he was walking through the woods, dissecting what people called progress. At the time, the very young country was experiencing growing pains, expanding into a commercial empire that bothered Thoreau. He did not like seeing his fellow countrymen enslaving themselves through an illusive conquest of material gain. This type of industrial progress, Thoreau believed, led “a mass of men to lead lives of quiet desperation” (6). Thoreau wished to escape this scene and divest himself of material things and live a humble existence. For him, the acquisition of material objects acted as a corrupter, polluting humanity and acting as a barrier to the beauty of the natural world. He did not want to “live what was not life” (85). In his own words, Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods “to live deliberately, to front the only the essential facts of life and learn what it had to teach, so that upon death he would not discover that he had not lived” (85).
Such profound thoughts seem perfect for an autobiography. Of genre classification for Walden, Markus Poetzsch writes, “Indeed, insofar as Walden, at its textual center, is not merely the narrative of a pond but of Thoreau’s life by the pond, it is vitally and irreducibly autobiographical” (2). J. Lyndon Shanley argues that Walden is actually a combination of three genres—“a chronicle, a topical essay and a persuasive argument” (1). Also, the work might be placed in the philosophy genre, because, in certain sections, it has the same didactic tone as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” which went into great detail about the beliefs of Transcendentalism. Although Thoreau assumes a similar tone in his work, the whole experience at Walden Pond does not seem to fit the instructional, sermonizing effect Emerson went for in his essay. Even to call the work pure philosophy is an uncomfortable designation because of the intimate descriptions of Nature given by Thoreau as he strolls through the shadowy woods in Concord. Traditional philosophy, like those written by the Greeks, focuses on logic, argumentation and dialectics. Plato, when writing the dialogues of his former teacher, Socrates, is emotionally detached from the experience, offering little or no feeling for scenes rendered by the dialogue. Thoreau, on the other hand, romanticizes about what he sees and feels. Here, in Walden, the message is a personal one that attempts to converse with the reader.
If Thoreau’s Walden fails to be a true autobiography and has too much emotion to be just a work of internal philosophy, then what is it? Unknowingly, Thoreau’s work was a precursor to a new genre: creative nonfiction. The personal, creative connection Thoreau attributes to his stay in the woods is highly stylized in its prose and reads like fiction even though it is not. Thoreau’s masterwork is full of symbolism, poetry and general themes that transcend what might have been just a two-dimensional autobiography about life away from the shambling progress of humanity. Thoreau does not express himself in a detached, scientific way, describing the natural world as if it were a romantic landscape portrait full of vibrant color, showing him to be a poetic philosopher with a gift for creating a full-bodied narrative; however, even with these qualities there are some questions as to how true Thoreau’s experience was and whether the story is closer to a fictional memoir instead of a factual account. These are questions the reader might wonder about and can understand by looking at the conventions of this new genre. With that, it does seem Thoreau’s reliability and motive about his experience at Walden Pond are questionable: Why did he write Walden and what was his purpose? At different points of the narrative, Thoreau’s bashing of day-to-day life can be off-putting, affecting the reader sympathy for the narrator, which can be detrimental to success of a creative nonfiction work. In addressing these concerns, with respect to the genre, it is possible to see that the work has its faults, but is akin in spirit to the fourth genre.
The creative nonfiction genre is still relatively young when compared to the amounts of scholarship and analysis given to fiction or poetry; nevertheless, its infancy in the wide array of printed words does not mean there are few works to read. In actuality, the genre has been with readers for hundreds of years. Lee Gutkind, editor for the Creative Nonfiction Magazine does not know exactly who coined the name of the genre. His best recollection of when the genre became official was in 1983 at a meeting held by the National Endowment for the Arts. They tried to decide what to call the genre “as a category” for their fellowships (Creative Nonfiction). Until then, the genre has unofficially had gone without a distinguishing name to separate itself from regular nonfiction.
What, then, is the difference between nonfiction and creative nonfiction? The answer to that question is simply that the fourth genre shares elements of both fiction and nonfiction. That answer, would, in certain terms, suggest a fault in literary physics, how can one piece of work share conflicting elements without becoming one or the other in its creation? The truth is simply this: creative nonfiction, like nonfiction, shares the biographical aspect, but unlike its forefather, it is written using fictional techniques of storytelling. By that, creative nonfiction authors relate their narratives with the accuracy of an autobiographer, yet the revelation of the facts is not done in a formal, linear style. Instead, the author uses fictional devices, like symbolism, character development, plot manipulation, irony and dialogue to accentuate the events. The effect of crossing genres produces a new written entity with both the honesty of nonfiction and the informality of fiction, giving birth to a genre “depending less on airtight reasoning than on style and personality” (Lopate xxiv). This “style and personality” mentioned by Phillip Lopate (a practitioner of the genre himself), exists in many forms ranging from personal essay to new journalism and the memoir. Even travel or food writing can be considered as members of the same family.
The key conventions of the genre are the personality of the author and his or her honesty in accordance with the facts. The author of a creative nonfiction work is the subject looking upon the world. This means the author writes from the first-person perspective, using the “I” instead of the third-person limited or omniscient. Preferring the first person over the third raises the age-old debate about the reliability of the first-person narrator, and the loss of objectivity that is essential to nonfiction and journalism; however, those who argue against the “I” miss the whole point of its significance for the creative nonfiction writer—the narrative is meant to be personal, intimate (Lopate xxi). Experience is directly filtered through the author’s perception of the events. Thoreau makes a point about using the first person in the beginning of Walden: “In most books, the I, or the first person is omitted; in this it will be retained….I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience” (3).
The “narrowness of the experience” is the author’s ability to compress time into the most important scenes in the narrative. The feelings and thoughts about a person, time or place are of the most importance to the author because, in essence, those are the qualities that make his or her narrative personal. The cold, aloof nature of a newspaper article, or a biography in the third-person, is devoid of the colorful charm linked to first-hand experience. Utilizing the first-person allows the author to render scenes with general themes, leading to life-changing epiphanies brought on by the event, which can be quite challenging for the inexperienced writer. The development of these ideas sometimes requires a great deal of reflection, or personal growth. To write in this genre effectively, personal essayist and creative nonfiction author Vivian Gornick believes that the writer must “convince the reader that they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of the personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrative is reliable” (14).
Since Walden is a possible prototype of creative nonfiction, the reader might question the reliability of Thoreau’s perspective of life out in the woods. Since so much time has gone by, readers have historical background at their disposal to remove any doubt. According to an article in the Benét Reader’s Encyclopedia, “Thoreau built a cabin at Walden Pond, on land owned by Emerson. He lived there two years, two months, and two days” (1022). For the sake of idle curiosity, a replica of the original cabin sits in view of the famous blue pond. Not too far away from it stands a statue of Thoreau himself, gazing out into the distance. Other historical facts are that he was jailed for not paying a tax to support the Mexican War. He was an editor for a transcendental publication, The Dial, and was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1022). He graduated from Harvard and attempted to be a teacher, but found the occupation unsatisfying.
Considering all these historical facts may give the reader background on Thoreau’s actions as a transcendental pacifist unable to find an occupation or a society suitable enough to sustain his philosophies; yet these recollections of the past say very little about what the man thought and what he felt. Only Thoreau can actualize that inward reflection and give life to his thoughts. All of the outward actions of his character are supported by his musings on life, Nature and humanity. Thoreau invites readers to go into the woods with him, so they may also catch a glimpse of the experience he had at Walden Pond. If Thoreau can be considered a creative nonfiction writer, then his job as narrator is to write the experience well enough so the reader can trust him. His painstakingly intricate thoughts on the direction society was headed, along with his crafted descriptions of life by Walden Pond support the historical facts. Still, there might be a bit of uncertainty as to how much of his life in Walden actually happened. There is no way to account for every detail of Nature as described by his pen. All that is left is an undertaking of the certain conventions of the creative nonfiction genre to explore where exactly Walden falls.
The adventure starts out believable enough. The lens focuses in on a walking Thoreau, making plans about an experiment that will isolate him from the modernity of a burgeoning America. Meanwhile, he makes cold, but astute observations about essentials and inessentials of life. The first chapter is entitled “Economy.” Gornick’s analysis of the genre comes into play here. She writes that “every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has to say” (13). For Thoreau’s narrative, the situation is the need to get away, find refuge from the so-called progress shackling humanity to unfulfilling lives of hard work and shallow society; the story is the experience of living two years in a humble, material free existence and the spiritual relation humanity has to Nature. At the start of the piece, Thoreau is busy planning the particulars of his plan to go to Walden, itemizing certain expenditures. Along the way he reveals much to the reader about his disenchantment with the condition of his fellow men: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (6).
Thoreau believes his fellow countrymen have enslaved themselves with their occupational efforts. Industry is a vile and sick manmade mechanism, draining life away through fleeting gains equating to a meaningless existence of blind competition. The first chapter of Thoreau’s work is prophetic considering the evolution of the same issues in the 21st century. People become so obsessed with their careers, sacrificing all their time climbing the proverbial company ladder—hoping to reach the top and believing that there is no other choice. Either work or die. Buy the nice luxury home, have children and continue the same time-honored tradition of keeping up with the Joneses. To Thoreau, a great deal of this slavery comes from the possessions people own. The more a person has, the more he or she has to work in order to keep it. Thoreau proclaims “most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (13).
After taking leave of the economic plight of civilized society, Thoreau makes his venture to Walden Pond, which is where the story begins. Thoreau’s objective is clearly stated: “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some business with the fewest obstacles” (18). The situation of the “Economy” chapter acts like an extended thesis Thoreau wishes to try. By ridding himself of the luxuries that anchor people to a lifetime of toil and misery, Thoreau can turn his thesis into a reality. He believes that he has discovered a way to happiness and wishes to divulge the information to the reader. There were many places Thoreau might have chosen instead of Walden Pond to carry out his experiment – a desert, a cave, or even an island. But Walden Pond, from a creative standpoint, has a magical and almost poetic quality about it. It is not, in reality, the postcard pond destined to attract a multitude of visitors based on its appearance alone. Yet, it is apropos for Thoreau’s purposes. It has a charming, organic simplicity about it that beckons a creative representation.
Thoreau, obviously possessing an analytical mind, could have gone to Walden Pond and described exactly what he saw in a scientific way. After all, the opening chapter is indicative of a pragmatic narrator, who even calculates all his expenses down to nearest the half of a cent. On its own, “The Economy” chapter really is not a good representation of creative nonfiction because there is little action and much of it is judgmental. “Obviously, Thoreau holds himself—and his intellect in considerably higher esteem than he affords the majority of his fellows” (Brooker 2). Thoreau, meaning well in his thoughts, is condescending in his delivery. Particularly, his view on elderly people: “Practically, the old have no very important advice to give to the young, their own experience has been so impartial, and their lives such miserable failures” (8). The harsh, dismissive critique of the elderly is a purely one-sided generalization that does slight damage to the reader’s sympathy for Thoreau. His unsympathetic tone reveals itself immediately from the start, which might make it difficult for the common reader to invest the time to walk alongside Thoreau’s path. Thoreau does redeem himself when he goes to Walden Pond, but it takes a while to get used to his personality. In an essay entitled “Thoreau’s Development of in Walden,” Paul Schwaber suggests Thoreau’s demeanor can be off-putting, there is still much to like about him. “At the beginning of the book, Thoreau speaks as a man apart, though, as the act of writing itself and even his acerbic humor would suggest, he is never entirely cut off from some good feeling for his fellow man” (Schwaber 4). Breaking away from humanity, lightens the tone in Thoreau’s voice, as he is at last doing what he set out to do.
The altering of tone in the Walden Pond chapters might have had something to do with the many revisions Walden went through before publication. His first publication A Week was a dismal failure, prompting the publisher, Munroe & Co., to forget all about his latest manuscript even though there was an advertisement for it in the back page of the same work (Sayre 6). Thoreau’s pre-Walden Pond publication was a written tribute to his late brother, John. The story is an account of a boat trip Thoreau took with his brother from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back. Most likely, readers and publishers were put off by the digressions into religion and philosophy. After its completion, Thoreau had to raise his own money in order to have it published, leaving him in considerable debt. Thoreau did not want to repeat the same mistake he made with his previous publication, so Thoreau decided to keep revising his work. According to essayist Robert F. Sayre, Walden was written in seven different versions “not counting a final printer’s copy done in 1854, and most of the additions were made after 1851” (7). Early versions of the work were full of scathing criticism and a satire of progress; “based in his simple cabin, the author exposed the shams and delusions of the mass of men” (7). The majority of the philosophical lashings Thoreau gives to his fellow men are in the first two parts, “The Economy and Where I Lived and What I Lived For” (7). The constant revisions Thoreau made turned Walden into a much more enjoyable read.
American naturalist John Burroughs believes that the creative elements Thoreau uses for aesthetic purposes in his narrative are “a restrained extravagance of statement and a compressed exaggeration of metaphor. The hyperbole is big, but it is gritty and firmly held” (2). What Burroughs is implying here is that Thoreau’s prose is theatrical but refined; he has complete control over his thoughts and none of them, read silently or aloud, is out of place because he describes the scene as if he were painting it on a canvas. There is also a good bit of sentimentality in Thoreau’s prose which is evident when he describes the pond in winter: “Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot in a half….Like the marmots on the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more” (258).
As a creative stylist Thoreau does a number of things here to embellish the scene of a frozen pond in this brief little passage. The obvious one is the use of personification. Thoreau treats the pond as if it is a living entity that, “like the marmots,” goes into hibernation, closing its eyelids until the spring comes back to awaken it (258). The passage also has an abundance of romantic sentimentality about the whole winter process. Before starting his day, Thoreau remarks, “O Prince, our eyes contemplate with the admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of the universe” (258). Thoreau is attempting a balancing act: although, the opening lines of Nature’s spoken resolution in this chapter are an example of the hyperbole Burroughs mentions. Carefully constructing the lines about the freezing of the pond, Thoreau is able to soften the prosaic crescendo by returning to just as romantic a notion, but at a much gentler, largo style approach. Thoreau’s musical approach to the language is an example of the creative nonfiction element in Walden. For all practical purposes, Thoreau might have gone for just a technical observation of the freezing of the pond, foregoing any attempt to sensationalize the experience. Burroughs is thankful that Thoreau keeps the creative elements intact because without them “the record would have been much duller. Eliminate from him all his exaggerations, all his inflation of bubbles, etc., and you make sad havoc in his pages” (4). Sensationalism in prose can sometimes be detrimental to a written work, but sensationalism is partly what Walden is about. And at times that can be its fault.
Although a cursory inspection of Thoreau’s work gives the reader no reason to doubt his reliability as the narrator; since however one might question his motives. Thoreau wanted people to read his vision; it was more than just a personal outlook of life away from society or a sequel companion to Emerson’s work. And in order to pique interest in a product requires a bit of salesmanship. This can happen in a genre like creative nonfiction. The author feels the need to exploit a certain experience for his or her own satisfaction, whether it is for pecuniary or intellectual reasons. In an article entitled “Giving the Game Away: Thoreau’s Intellectual Imperialism and the Marketing of Walden Pond,” writer Ira Brooker accuses Thoreau of exploiting Walden Pond for his own “intellectual enrichment” (6). Taking Brooker’s idea into account would hurt the placement of Thoreau’s work as a piece of creative nonfiction because it suggests he might have strayed from the truth, hurting his sincerity as a narrator in order to gain a recognition that betrays the one indicated in his work. Brooker accuses Thoreau of writing a how-to book on surviving in the wilderness and “selling the idea of Walden to the masses” (6). Based on the number of times Thoreau rewrote Walden, the question of how much truth was sacrificed in order to make it more enjoyable is a valid one if the reader is to trust the nonfiction element of the work.
The question of authenticity and reliability is crucial to a work of creative nonfiction because without it, the writing becomes fictitious. The common saying about good fiction is that it has an element of truth to it, but it is a product of imagination; creative nonfiction, on the other hand, is supposed to be true. Genre writer Lee Gutkind believes much of the reliability of a narrative has to do with the writers’ “ethical and moral boundaries and their willingness to achieve accuracy and believability in their work” (xxii). His answer is for a person yet unaccustomed to the genre does seem unsatisfactory because it rests the credibility of a creative nonfiction work solely on the conscience of its creator. A storyteller weaves a tale, mixing truth and fiction for the purposes of entertainment. The biographer goes only for the facts, ignoring any sort of stylistic flair in fear that might obstruct the truth. As Gutkind acknowledges it is a blurry line between the genres of fiction and nonfiction, but there are ways to combat the uncertainty (xx-xi).
One way to guarantee if a piece is indeed real or fiction is to have a crack team of lawyers to inspect certain aspects of a submitted piece of work; Gutkind mentions that the journal called Creative Nonfiction has a group of attorneys policing the work before publication (xxiii). Gutkind says, “Our editorial board had to work with attorneys to determine what could be said between a doctor and patients, what names of places should be legitimately disguised and what places should be omitted” (4). Another way Gutkind describes is a historical overview of facts, documents and historical data to alleviate any doubt (xxiii). Unfortunately, despite all these methods, there can still be much doubt as to what actually occurred in any memoir because so much of written work is subjective. And because of the subjectivity, Gutkind’s argument that much of the truth of a narrative comes from the author’s ethical stance is not such an outlandish statement .
In contemporary times, with all the lawyers and factual investigations into details, it is much harder for creative nonfiction posers to get away with artificial narratives. Unfortunately for Thoreau, his publishers did not have a collection of in-house attorneys to investigate the Walden Pond odyssey from beginning to end. It would have cost way too much to do so, and there is nothing truly scandalous written in Walden. Thoreau wrote a few unkind observations about the daily work ritual of his fellow Americans and some of the visitors that wandered his way, but there is no malice in his tone about any of these people. If anything his tone is sympathetic; he feels sorry that these people do not take the time to see how empty their lives are. Of course, it might be possible that Thoreau, as Brooker suggests, wrote Walden to make himself look good, exploit the environment for his own gain and profit from a how-to-guide on living in the woods. Yet there are other interpretations of Thoreau’s efforts that blatantly contradict that claim. His work has touched many thoughtful people. Anne Labastille, an ecologist, wrote that she did not appreciate the writing in Walden until she was in her forties (53-57). She came to love to the book after hearing it on an audiotape while going on long drives to visit her dying mother. Later she wrote, “It was Thoreau who inspired me to build a second tiny cabin twenty years after my first” (58). She built a second cabin, even itemizing the cost as Thoreau did. Almost two centuries later, this work still inspires and causes debates among students, scholars, professors and ecologists. One interpretation does not ruin his credibility or what he set out to do. No document exists that proves Walden set out for a type of gain while living out in the woods. He could have achieved a gain over a period of six months instead of two years; however, judging from his writing, his aims were much loftier.
With all the revisions to his work, the priggish attitude toward society, and questionable reasons for writing Walden set aside, all that remains is the written words of Thoreau’s narrative. It’s true that Thoreau probably embellished the scenes he saw to make the reading experience more enjoyable to the reader, but this stylizing can be part of the creative nonfiction genre. Adding poetic, baroque-style descriptions does not obstruct the truth that a man took it upon himself to see what life could be like with just the essentials of life. Thoreau’s creative touches to Walden add a dimension to the reading experience that has captivated audiences for over a hundred years and continues to do so with each new generation. Although not a perfect example of the new creative nonfiction out on the market today, Walden is perfectly cast as one of the prototypes of a new and thriving genre.
Brooker, Ira. “Giving the Game Away: Thoreau’s Intellectual Imperialism and the Marketing of Walden Pond.” The Midwest Quarterly. 45.2 (Winter 2004): p137.
Burroughs, John. “Henry D. Thoreau.” The Century. 24.3 ( 1882, July ): 368-379. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. 368-379.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” 1836. Complete Essays and Other Writings. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library, 1950. 7.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. 13-14.
Gutkind, Lee. “Creative Nonfiction Police.” In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Lee Gutkind. New York: W. W. Norton and Company: 2004. xx-xiii.
—. “What is Creative Nonfiction?.” Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Lee Gutkind. 10 Dec. 2008. <http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/whatiscnf.htm>.
Labastille, Anne. “Fishing in the Sky.” New Essays on Walden. Ed. Robert F. Sayre. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1992. 53-58.
Lopate, Phillip, ed. Introduction. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. xxiv-xxxi.
Poetzsch, Markus. “Sounding Walden Pond: the Depths and Double Shadows of Thoreau’s Autobiographical Symbol.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly). 22.2 (June 2008): p387.
Sayre, Robert F, ed. Introduction. New Essays on Walden. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 6-7.
Schwaber, Paul. “Thoreau’s Development in Walden.” Criticism. 5.1 (Winter 1963): 64-70. Rpt. in Nonfiction Classics for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Nonfiction Works. Ed. David M. Galens, Jennifer Smith, and Elizabeth Thomason.
Shanley, J. Lyndon. “Developing the Structure.” The Making of Walden with the Text from the First Version. The University of Chicago Press, 1957. 74-91. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Gerald R. Barterian and Denise Evans. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. 74-91.
“Thoreau.” Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. Ed. Bruce Murphy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. 1022.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. 1854. Walden and Selected Essays. Ed. Walter Hendricks. Chicago: Packard and Company, 1947. 3-290.
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