In several posts between now and the end of the 2008 USA Presidential election on November 4, LitKicks is going to attempt a new meme, a new venture. How can we use the wisdom of classic literature to help illuminate the tough issues of the day? Many of us feel cowed by our surreal, hectic public dialogue, the never-ending “day’s news”, which we puzzle over and discuss with each other so often — but with so little satisfaction. The news has us in a defensive crouch all too often lately, and in our shock and disgust we quickly react but sometimes forget to pause and think. The purpose of this LitKicks series is to examine one hot topical issue at a time through the viewpoint of one particular great writer, and to get your comments and ideas at the end of each post.
We’ll start with undoubtedly the hottest issue of today: America’s financial crisis, brought on by the inflation of mortgage-backed securities, now destined to be “solved” with a $700 billion bailout by the U.S. government. For commentary on this, our special guest is Mr. Henry David Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts.
The economy, in the broadest sense of the word, is a major theme in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who taught himself how to survive by establishing a harmonious but minimalistic private relationship with nature. The first chapter of his Walden, a memoir regarded by some as the greatest American book of all time, is called “Economy”.
Here’s a rather amazing paragraph from this chapter that depicts Thoreau’s approach to business. It also includes one of the longest sentences I’ve ever read:
I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time — often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; — to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the tendencies of trade and civilization — taking advantage of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; — charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier — there is the untold fate of La Prouse; — universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man — such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.
It’s a funny thing that Thoreau advocates extreme economy in life, but luxuriates in words. Regardless, his constant argument throughout Walden is that an enlightened and happy person will remain highly attuned and responsive to his environment, and will avoid the traps of wealth, greed, competition and possession. Elsewhere in “Economy”, the book’s first chapter, Thoreau brags about how inexpensively he is able to live, and lists all the costs he incurred in building his cabin by Walden Pond (“Boards: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards … Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00 … Laths: $1.25 … Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43”). He prided himself on spending little, working little and earning little, and he considered his hardworking Massachusetts neighbors to be no more free than the African-American slaves of the South (Thoreau, like the other New England Transcendentalists, was also an ardent opponent of American slavery).
Thoreau was also a master of sarcasm, and it’s easy to imagine how he would respond to anyone who complained of losing a home during today’s housing crisis:
Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.
But Thoreau would reserve even harsher advice for the lenders, bankers and businessmen who turned money lending into a source of obscene profit while leading our nation’s finances over a cliff. He felt that popular American capitalism and materialism had humiliated and emasculated our society, and felt that working Americans lived as virtual slaves to their employers and debtors. For these reasons, I think it’s safe to say that if Henry David Thoreau were alive today he would strongly advocate a return to financial simplicity and away from the culture of debt, and would definitely not support the $700 billion Wall Street/Main Street bailout that our government is debating right now.
Nor, however, would he despair for our future. Some shrink at reading Walden, a thorny but deliriously happy book about nature and society, but it does seem like a good text for anyone who’d like to think more deeply about what it means to have an economy, and what economy means to each of us. The book counsels creativity, hope and courage in times of change:
I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.
What do you think?
(photo on top of page by Steven Arat, who has many great photos of Concord, Massachusetts)