Thoreau: not really into blueprints

Dear Henry David Thoreau,

You, sir, are a wonderful writer. At your best you are inspirational, though you tend sometimes to be a bit opinionated and in person you were probably kind of a bastard. If you were alive today, we would not be friends. But I admire you, I really do, and you have had a lot of influence on me.

At a certain period in my early, angsty teen years, I used to read this over and over while sobbing:

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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Yes, it’s ‘the famous part’ (or at least the first sentence is, I can never understand why most people cut the quote after the first sentence, the rest is so wonderful) but I felt the need to type it out anyway, because you saw into my soul and described everything that terrifies and also motivates me.

But, my dear sir, you were not very helpful to those who wished to follow in your footsteps. Yes, you described the birds you saw and heard during your years at Walden so exactly that biologists still use your writings to research the history of birds in New England. Yes, you sketched a lot of plants, and described them so fully that botanists today still use your notes. But as far as building houses goes, you are greatly lacking in detail. You don’t even mention your own king-post! How did you get into your garret, and what did you keep there besides your tent? Why did you put your woodshed so far away from your front door? That seems inconvenient in the winter.

And how on earth did you know how to build a house yourself? Was carpentry common-knowledge then? Did you sort of make it up as you went along? Were your walls perfectly square? Did you have books on housebuilding? Blueprints? Drawings?

The fact that you did it, without (as far as I can tell) any prior experience, gives me hope for my own project…

I went to your journals to look for more information on your house-building, thinking that perhaps you left the finer details out of Walden so as not to bore your readers or distract from your purpose in writing it. Your journals were massive, and contained tons of detail and sketches and observations on nature, so I thought surely you would have documented the process of building a house. I mean, it’s a pretty big project.

You moved in to your house at Walden in 1845. The two GIGANTIC books I have that contain your FOURTEEN VOLUMES of journals from 1837-1861 should cover the correct period. But all you say specifically about the subject (that isn’t reprinted in Walden) is this, on Christmas Eve 1841:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?

And then this, on July 5, 1845:

Walden. —Yesterday I came here to live. My house makes me think of some mountain houses I have seen, which seemed to have a fresher auroral atmosphere about them, as I fancy of the halls of Olympus.

Not so much with the blueprints. In fact, your journals skip from April 1842 to July 1845. What the hell? Were you too busy house-building to write? Were the missing journals lost? What happened?




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