Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The crank within - the crank after all - Henry David Thoreau and the usefulness of cranks

Yesterday I called Henry David Thoreau a crackpot, which is unfair.  He's not a crackpot.  He's a crank.

But there is a certain divine energy in every man, but sparingly employed as yet, which may be called the crank within, - the crank after all, - the prime mover in all machinery, - quite indispensable to all work.

That's from "Paradise (To Be) Regained" (1843), a review of a book by a genuine crackpot.  It summarizes Walden pretty well: one man's search for the indispensable crank within.  I may be taking the quotation out of context.  A bit.

We need cranks to keep us honest.  When Thoreau claims that he lived in a little house by Walden Pond rather than, say, a cave, because "[i]n such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, limes and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient qualities" ("Economy"), he does not really mean much of it.  He's goading the reader, perhaps goading himself.  He might have instead built a capacious tub in downtown Concord, if Diogenes had not already pinched the idea.

There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once - for the root is faith - I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails.  If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.  For my part, I am glad to bear of experiments of this kind being tried; as that a young man tried for a fortnight to live on hard, raw corn on the ear, using his teeth for all mortar.  The squirrel tribe tried the same and succeeded. ("Economy")

If squirrels could do it, why can't you, huh?  No, Thoreau knows that we're not squirrels.  I hope that last line, at least, reveals the laughter in Thoreau's eyes, or pen.  Whatever Thoreau might or might not have done in reality, Walden is writing, metaphor, and play.  He has a taste for the paradox, and a taste for the parable, like other well-known useful cranks.

I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity, but I should be proud if no more fatal fault were found with my pages on this score than was found with the Walden ice.  Southern customers objected to its blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.  The purity men love is like the mists which envelop the earth, and not like the azure ether beyond.

Part of my title is borrowed from a recent Jackson Lears review essay in The New Republic.  The part about John Muir is pretty good.


  1. Have you read his long essay--"On Civil Disobedience"?

  2. Yes, I have. I thought "Civil Disobedience" would make my point too easily. On the strength of that essay alone, Thoreau is among the most useful cranks of modern times.

  3. The author of "Civil Disobedience" is a crank?

    Why do you say that?

  4. Ah, perhaps there's an earlier question I should have asked.

    What do you mean by a "crank"?

  5. Is the author of "Civil Disobedience" Henry David Thoreau? Then the author of "Civil Disobedience" is a crank! The platonic ideal of a crank.

    Jackson Lears, in the TNR piece I mentioned, puts Thoreau at the head of the cranky American tradition:

    "He questioned the fundamental American faith, and became the first of many environmental writers to risk being labeled a tree-hugging wacko... This is the critique [of modernity], the philosophical standpoint, at the core of ecological thought; and part of its strength derives from its crankiness, its refusal to compromise with the common sense of the larger society. Indeed, 'crank' is a convenient label for any dissenter from received wisdom." (p. 36)

    Lears and Wuthering Expectations are both strongly pro-crank.

  6. Hmm, I admire your ability to appreciate Thoreau. I find both Walden and "Civil Disobedience" (and Emerson's "Self-Reliance"!) transcend my threshold of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and just the short passages you quoted are enough to start my blood boiling. But your point is well-taken - maybe I'm not approaching him with enough of a critical eye or sense of humor; maybe there's irony I'm missing. I don't know if I'll ever recover sufficiently from how ANNOYING he is to be able to benefit much from his message, though. He's almost aggravating enough that I'm inspired to destructive, anti-environmentalist acts or conspicuous consumption just out of spite.

  7. Where you see self-righteousness, I see confidence. That's exactly the rhetorical line both writers were working, so some readers - many readers - will see what you see.

    As for the hypocrisy, I should be such a hypocrite.

    Thoreau's humor is really there. He favors paradoxes and puns.

    Do you feel the same way about Thoreau's purer nature writing? I'm thinking of the battle of the ants in Walden, or the bit where he chases a loon around the pond?

    Would you believe that I checked your blog specifically last week in hopes of finding an explication of your Thoreau animus? I did!

    I'm not sure that being an inveterate Thoreau-hater does not itself reflect an admirable degree of confidence now. That was tangled. Another way: now that the crank is canonical, hating him is the useful protest against received opinion.

  8. That's funny! Well, if I get as far as Walden in the Great Ideas series, I'm sure I'll treat my readers to quite the jeremiad. ;-)

    Re: the hypocrisy, it's really all the "would you look at all these philistines, going about their blinkered little lives when they could be living like me" attitude he cops, when he's living on land owned by his wealthy friend Emerson. He has all these glib rejoinders to people who say (as you quoted) "I would live like you if I had the means," but he never acknowledges that he DOES have greater privilege than many of the people with whom he interacts, and that this greater privilege allows him to make his little experiment with living in the woods, which he views as so much bigger and important than everyone else's supposedly petty endeavors. He's benefiting from a history of the kind of behavior (on the part of Emerson's family) he regards with such contempt, and yet he sees no contradiction. Which wouldn't be so bad if he weren't so condescending towards people who choose to live differently. Emerson in "Self-Reliance" claims that "The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature," which is very apropos as they both remind me of spoiled high school brats - they disdain compromise (which personally, I think is often a thing of beauty), and yet don't see the ways in which they themselves are compromised.

    Basically, I have no problem with confidence, but it needs to be tempered with some degree of humility or at least honest respect for other humans for me to enjoy it.

    On the subject of his pure nature writing...I think my aversion to his self-aggrandizement and general philosophy distracted me enough that I couldn't really enjoy it. ALL THAT SAID, the last time I read Walden was quite a while ago now. I've pledged to give it another try every ten years or so; maybe on my next try I'll find him less aggravating.

  9. Emily - that's so good I want to leave it as is, mostly.

    Thoreau, though, may be more aware than you credit:

    "Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise."

    If you read the book again - and frankly, you've given it a more than fair shot already - it might be useful to think in terms of parody. The greatest influence of Thoreau's prose was not Emerson but Thomas Carlyle. Walden is kin to Sartor Resartus.

  10. Mrs.5000, an architect, was recently on a tour of a new and highly "Green" public building. The host opened a room that was, I'm told, a mad scientist's maze of gurgling pipes, and explained that this was the building's sewage pre-processing facility.

    "Wow," said Mrs.5000, "My husband would LOVE this!"

    "Why?" asked the host. "Is he a bioengineer?"

    "No!" she said, happily. "He's a CRANK!"

    I take it as a compliment.