- The Commonplace Walden
I. Walden and The History of Reading
Thoreau has proved one of America’s most eminently quotable writers. There is a long history of appropriating his most pithy and inspiring bits of prose for use in speeches and editorials and, in more recent years, of plastering them on posters—usually against backdrops of idyllic lakes or towering mountains—to hang in classrooms and offices. Books of decontextualized Thoreau quotations—centering on topics ranging from writing to mountains to dogs and cats—continue to be published, and on websites like Zazzle.com, you can purchase tote-bags, mugs, key-chains, and even shoes emblazoned with nuggets from “Walking,” “Civil Disobedience,” and especially Walden. The irony is obvious: the great champion of non-conformity, the lonely prophet in the woods railing against mankind’s slavery to markets and consumer goods, has become a means of selling T-shirts.1 However, if we avert our eyes every time we see “It is never too late to give up our prejudices” printed on a bumper-sticker or simply shake our heads when we hear a politician decontextualize one of Walden’s wonderful epigrammatic turns to provide a campaign with a little cultural polish, we risk missing what these appropriations reveal about Thoreau’s writing. The ease with which politicians and manufacturers mine Thoreau’s oeuvre—and [End Page 439]
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Walden in particular—for aphoristic phrases highlights a long-recognized but under-analyzed characteristic of his writing: its amenableness to quotation. Walden’s quotability, this essay contends, far from being an incidental or secondary feature of Thoreau’s prose style, is essential to how it appeals to a specific kind of readerly engagement: commonplacing.
Commonplacing is the practice of recording memorable or significant excerpts from printed materials into a commonplace book, which serves as a repository of important quotations from one’s reading. Thoreau’s reliance on his own commonplace book has been well-documented by critics, most notably Sharon Cameron, Robert Sattelmeyer, and Meredith McGill.2 All three, and McGill in particular, demonstrate how Thoreau’s commonplacing informs his writing practice and formal techniques. This essay, however, breaks with these critics by focusing on how Thoreau understood commonplacing to mediate his readers’ engagement with Walden, rather than how he drew on his own commonplace book in his writing. For if Thoreau recorded excerpts more vigorously than many of his contemporaries, he was also aware that commonplacing was a widespread mode of engaging with texts among them, one that could shape their encounter with Walden.3 I argue that Thoreau structures his text to facilitate its own fragmentation into the commonplace books of his readers: Walden aspires not only to circulate as a complete text, but to endure past the initial moment of reading through recopying and readerly appropriation into personal repositories of quotations. Enabling this reading practice constitutes a central aspect of Walden’s instructional project because it offers a means of navigating the tension at the center of Transcendentalist pedagogy concerning the relation of the autonomous, non-conformist individual to a textual instruction that is by its very nature normative.
Much like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Walden proposes to instruct readers in throwing off received wisdom and living, to borrow Emerson’s phrase, “wholly from within.”4 To do this, however, it depends on its own authority as an instructional text. Walden evidences a consistent anxiety about this potential contradiction in a Romantic didactic project: [End Page 441] for if Thoreau’s book aspires to train men in non-conformity and self-reliance, it must do so in such a way as not merely to create a new model to be conformed to, compromising the very instruction it seeks to offer.5 The challenge facing Thoreau, as Michael Gilmore puts it, is that he “has to find some way for the reader to… achieve independence in his own right.”6 To answer this challenge, Thoreau appeals to commonplacing, a way of relating to printed texts that was, in the nineteenth century...