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Toying with Death in Walden



Ce travail propose de questionner la lecture quasi-consensuelle d’un livre généralement vu comme un hymne à la vie, la santé et la jeunesse. Il s’appuie pour ce faire sur un réseau de métaphores clandestines qui introduisent dans le texte de Walden toute une série d’interférences troublantes, de l’assoupissement à la décrépitude et la mort en passant par l’étouffement ou la contagion, et qui sont délibérément masquées par l’humour ou le grotesque. Il tente également de montrer comment ces motifs gagnent peu à peu jusqu’à éclater dans les chapitres consacrés à l’hiver, et comment ils apparaissent même dans l’évocation de la reverdie printanière.

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“If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats
and feel cold in the extremities.” (Walden 66)

1Since its publication in 1854, Walden has inspired numerous readings, which offer diverging views of its nature (poetry? autobiography? nature-writing? essay-writing? pamphleteering?) but usually concur in seeing it as a hymn to life, to what Thoreau himself calls the “tonic of wildness.” (211) In so doing, critics have only echoed the well-known epigraph of the book: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” The present paper does not aim at denying the obvious, but tries to suggest that this very obviousness is open to question. The epigraph in a way epitomizes the issue I would like to raise. It expresses, in a forcible, provocative way, Thoreau’s desire to assert his Americanness, by dissociating himself from the morbid bent of European romanticism for melancholia and gloom. But the metaphor that concludes his profession of faith—that of waking up, which will recur in all the chapters of Walden—is somehow undermined by an admittedly small number of confessional passages.

Skirting the land of sleep

2Before coming to these passages, let me point out that Thoreau often alludes to sleep as a euphemism for death; first, through its antonym: “To be awake is to be alive” (61); but also more explicitly, for instance in this extended metaphor, or rather extended pun:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. (62)

3We find the same conflation of terms in a number of casual equivalences, whether the aim is to describe the “quiet desperation” of his compatriots: “Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places” (90; or to lament the destruction of nature by technology: “It was very exciting at that season to roam the then boundless chestnut woods of Lincoln,—they now sleep their long sleep under the railroad…” (159) Or again in his celebration of spring reverdie: “[…] The wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose.” (211)

4Let me now come to the more personal, confessional passages, which we must ferret out with truly Thoreauvian patience and persistency, for they are often concealed in innocuous anecdotes. Thus, in “House-Warming, a description of the moles’ attempts to nest in his cellar concludes with this:

Though, when I had been exposed to the rudest blasts a long time, my whole body began to grow torpid, when I reached the genial atmosphere of my house I soon recovered my faculties and prolonged my life. But the most luxuriously housed has little to boast of in this respect, nor need we trouble ourselves to speculate how the human race may be at last destroyed. It would be easy to cut their threads any time with a little sharper blast from the north. (169)

5What is intriguing here is not only the ingenuousness with which the theme of death is broached, but also the fact that for him, death comes not suddenly, but slyly, by degrees, through sleep, and that even after warding off this insidious assault, he only succeeds in “prolonging his life.” I would like to suggest that such passages undermine the brutal antithesis which is triumphantly offered in the epigraph, then hammered out throughout the first chapter, for instance in the following volley: “The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.” (103) Whatever the hermit-philosopher’s attempts to pose as an immortal being, protected from decay and death by his hyper-wakefulness, he is in fact unable to extricate himself from mortality, his life being reduced, like all life, to the thread that will be broken sooner or later by the Parcae.

6It would probably be a little excessive to view the above passage as Thoreau’s prefiguration of his own decease, although it does link the oncoming of “torpidness” with the awareness of oncoming death; but it is difficult to miss the personal tone of this account, which is further confirmed by the recurrence of the same theme in the next chapter (to which I shall come back later), “Former Inhabitants, and Winter Visitors.” Once more, the context of the passage seems pretty innocuous: he recalls the day on which (before the Walden experiment) he fell asleep over Davenant’s Gondibert,

[…] that winter that I labored with a lethargy,—which, by the way, I never knew whether to regard as a family complaint, having an uncle who goes to sleep shaving himself , and is obliged to sprout potatoes in a cellar Sundays, in order to keep awake and keep the Sabbath, or as the consequence of my attempt to read Chalmers’ collection of English poetry without skipping. (173)

  • 1 Thoreau adds: “He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence implied.” One may suppose that (...)

7One’s first response to this is of course to hail Thoreau’s gift for self-mockery; but then one remembers that in Walden, the most intimate, and consequently perilous confessions are often defused by outrageous humor. Come to think of it, what this anecdote amounts to is to describe the apostle of wakefulness as a man who is afflicted with congenital (and possibly genetic) lethargy. The carefully concealed seriousness of the event is confirmed when we read the account that follows: he is awakened from his slumber by the fire-engine’s bell, and runs to the blazing hut belonging to Breed, a poor drunkard whose life is described as “tragic,” and whom he meets on the next night, “moaning” and looking at “the still smouldering cinders beneath.”1

8A few pages later, Thoreau describes his encounter with a barred owl:

When I made most noise he would stretch out his neck, and erect his neck feathers, and open his eyes wide; but their lids soon fell again, and he began to nod. I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat. There was only a narrow slit left between their lids, by which he hooting preserved a peninsular relation to me; thus, with half-shut eyes, looking out from the land of dreams, and endeavoring to realize me, vague object or mote that interrupted his visions. (177)

9Thoreau’s ability to connect with a number of different animals is often rightfully praised; but it is seldom noted that this eery gift may also, as in the above passage, lead him to the brink of unconsciousness. The “peninsular relation” which is conjured up here obviously brings with it unease, perhaps even anxiety, as if the owl were a messenger of the infernal world and threatened to carry him to the realm of death.

10This passage should not be shrugged off as a momentary loss of self-control. The champion of wakefulness, who wants us to “reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep” (61) has a surprising fascination for night animals. Take for instance the chapter “Sounds”. One would expect to find him listening in broad day-light to a symphony of warblings, chirpings and twitterings; in fact, the time chosen is dusk, then night, and the sound that soon fills the air is the “dismal scream” of the screech-owls, which soon becomes “a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves.” (84) The nonplussed reader soon discovers that far being isolated, this surprising sentence is only a preamble to a truly Gothic purple-patch:

Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside; reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-r-n, sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then—that I never had been bor-r-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods. (84-85)

11Once more, the potentially explosive material which is handled here is defused by distancing and humor; but the “peninsular relation” is here, unmistakably: not only is the theme of haunting and expiation developed at length, but it is also a source of pleasure (“I love to”) and harmony (“trilled”, “music”, “hymns and threnodies”). Even more intriguing is the phrase: “the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung.” Death is not only associated with guilt. It is also dangerously attractive.

12This “ode to dejection” does not stop here. Thoreau goes on to conjure up the “serenade” of a hooting owl. It is, he believes, “the most melancholy sound in Nature,” which suggests to him

  • 2 The attempt to translate the owl’s song by gl words anticipates the famous account of the thawing o (...)

the dying moans of a human being,—some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness,—I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it,—expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. (85)2

13What in this extract, as in the preceding one, is familiar to the reader of Thoreau’s nature-writing is the attempt to translate into human speech the language of birds and other species; but what is very unfamiliar is the eery way in which the bird’s voice allows him to express deeply repressed emotions, anxieties and longings. Through the screech-owl’s hooting, the reader is invited to share an anticipation of human death, of dereliction, of despair, which is also, significantly, a loss of mental balance, a regression to chaos that reminds one of the famous ascent of Mount Katahdin in The Maine Woods. Wildness here is no longer a “tonic”, but a drug which pulls the mind downward into unspeakable distress, remindful of a heroin addict’s nightmare, or of the effects of dejection in Coleridge’s ode:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

  • 3 The passage is even closer to the opening lines of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:

In word, or sigh, or tear...3

Keeping Death at Bay

14Such passages as those quoted above obviously do not represent the dominant mood of Walden. But I will venture to suggest that they can help us to read the most vehement instances of Thoreauvian braggadocio—to use the metaphor of the epigraph—differently. The word “death” appears relatively often in Walden, and is almost always used as a concentrate of everything Thoreau hates or despises, especially in the first chapter, “Economy,” which as its title indicates is far more programmatic, and polemical, than the rest of the book. It is also generally associated with decay and disease: “The animal heat is the result of a slow combustion, and disease and death take place when this is too rapid.” (8); “The waste and decay of physical life, which so often needs repair, seemed miraculously retarded in such a case, and the vital vigor stood its ground.” (95) The opposition which recurs chapter after chapter is that of life, health, growth, energy, youth versus death, decay, disease, infirmity, age: “quiet desperation” versus “alert and healthy natures;” “old people” versus “the young.” (5) If however we remember the fascination for death which expressed itself so forcibly in the above passages, we can begin to see these antitheses less as signs of over-confidence than as defence mechanisms, attempts to project his own phobias onto groups of people who become catalysts of his most secret, least accepted fears.

15One of the (many) declarations of war which introduce Walden is aimed at age: “Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.” (5) This attack is sometimes echoed later, for instance when in “The Bean-Field” the unorthodox farmer asserts his right to break with traditions, resorting to one of the central metaphorical oppositions of the book—that of earth as the source of growth and as the seat of death: “I saw an old man the other day, to my astonishment, making the holes with a hoe for the seventieth time at least, and not for himself to lie down in!” (110) Yet when he looks for authorities to lend weight to his argument, he calls upon seasoned figures of the Walden area: in “The Ponds”, he introduces an “older man”, an “excellent fisher and skilled in all kinds of woodcraft” who “had grown deaf in his later years,” and whose silent presence is a source of “unbroken harmony” (117); then he mentions “an old man who used to frequent this pond nearly sixty years ago” who had heard from “an old man… who lived by the pond before the Revolution” that there was an iron chest at the bottom of the pond (128). Thus two aged figures allow him to bounce back in time and somehow bring back to life a long-forgotten object; then he calls upon a man who lives near White Pond to tell him about a tree which used to grow in the middle of the lake, and adds: “His father, eighty years old, could not remember when it was not there.” (134) In “Winter Animals,” “one old hunter who has a dry tongue” tells him how he met a pack of hounds at night, running after a fox (185); finally, “one old man, who has been a close observer of Nature… who has come to his growth, and can hardly acquire more of natural lore if he should live to the age of Methuselah” tells him of another hunting episode (202). What emerges from such references is a sense of meeting people who, like the artist of Kouroo, seem to have become timeless figures.

16Conversely, the few passages in which Thoreau suggests what may be his relation to aging convey an awareness of personal decay. Thus, when in “The Ponds” he tries to assert the invulnerability of Walden Pond, he writes: “Though the wood-choppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me.” (130) What is striking here, and interesting in its rarity, is the emphasis on a disjunction, a gap between a “perennially young” lake and an aging onlooker. Again, in “Higher Laws, we find a surprising confession, which follows a celebration of natural, wholesome living:

But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry. (145)

17For once, the hermit-philosopher finds himself not on the side of youth, but on that of age, which brings with it “coarsening” and “indifference.”

18Such “confessions” (a word which is very unusual under Thoreau’s pen) may allow us to read the beginning of the book a little differently. When the triumphant,“Lord Warden” of Walden speaks to his readers, in “Economy,” he starts by showing them that his privileged position allows him to see right through their hidden weaknesses: “It is evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, for my sight has been whetted by experience…” (4) True to his usual strategy, he resorts to a number of metaphors to express this “meanness.” Now metaphors in Walden are not only figures of speech: they are also ways of letting affects emerge. Hence their peculiar interest for the careful reader. In the present instance, we find two metaphors which convey peculiarly painful forms of death. First, loss of breath: “Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath.” Secondly, being buried alive: “[…] still living, and dying, and buried by this other’s brass.” (3-4) These metaphors would not be especially significant if they did not recur in the rest of the book. They do. When Thoreau tries to explain (echoing the epigraph) why he is able to “boast more than is becoming,” he writes : ‘I will breathe freely and stretch myself in this respect.” (33-34) Conversely, when he debunks the philanthropy of his contemporaries, he does so through an extended metaphor which seems to me extremely revealing:

There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me,—some of its virus mingled with my blood. (50)

  • 4 This passage echoes the rejection of the railroad in “Economy”: “I would rather ride on earth in an (...)
  • 5 Thoreau’s references to different forms of pathology are often quite telling, in their very violenc (...)

19What is fascinating in this apparently fanciful simile is first that it is prophetic—Thoreau was to die at age 44 of tuberculosis and pleuresy, after a trip to Minnesota which hastened his decline. His biographer Robert Richardson notes that during his last months he was constantly short of breath, and that “by early April his voice had been only a faint whisper for many weeks.” (288) Secondly, the simile is totally gratuitous, and its very elaborateness makes it more lyrical than humorous—all the more so as it describes a flight, an escape from his fellow-beings, who are described as virus-bearers (they certainly were, when they were tubercular…)4. Lastly, it is introduced by another metaphor, which is equally disturbing—that of carrion; thus death looms over the whole passage, and the putrefying corpse is somehow present before the experience of dying is conjured up.5

  • 6 Note also this comment on house-building: “Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are s (...)

20The second metaphor which is resorted to in the address to readers appears even more often, and is equally interesting for our analysis. First of all, it is used repeatedly as a weapon in his most violent charges against contemporary society, for instance when he suggests that any “superfluous property” should be kept aside “mainly for the defraying of funeral expenses,”, and adds: “But perhaps a man is not required to bury himself.” (21) Two pages later, he denounces the plight of “the myriads who built the pyramids to be the tombs of the Pharaohs,” who “were fed on garlic, and it may be were not decently buried themselves.” (23) He reverts to the same theme in a development on stone-building: “Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive.”6 And he adds, in one of the most uninhibited attacks of Walden: “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.” (39) Drowning and throwing to the dogs as an alternative to being buried alive… We are pretty far from the comforting and bracing images which Walden usually brings to mind.

21One of the most violent passages of Walden is the attack on Flint, at the end of the chapter entitled “The Ponds”; and the vehemence of its conclusion marks a new climax:

  • 7 The mixed metaphor which concludes this passage is present in the opening pages of the book: “The b (...)

A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in a muck-heap, chambers for men, horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A great grease-spot, redolent of manures and butter-milk! Under a high state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the church-yard! Such is a model farm. (132)7

22This passage conflates the two motifs which I have tried to trace. First, the house is once again associated with death; but instead of the usual image of the vault, tomb, or mausoleum, we find a closed space which is a cesspool. Note also the link which the text suggests between “contiguity” and corruption. The most harrowing image is that of a farm which is “manured with the hearts and brains of men.” The emphasis on smell (“redolent”) also echoes the reference to “carrion” in the denunciation of “goodness tainted” quoted above.

23The construction of the hut is explicitly presented as an alternative to the erection of the tomb/vault/mausoleum which is denounced at length in “Economy.” But as we shall see, the venture is full of pitfalls. First the materials used for the building are as unpromising as can be. The boards come from “the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad.” When Thoreau visits Collins, he notes that “the dirt [is] raised five feet all around as if it were a compost heap.” Inside, “it was dark, and had a dirt floor for the most part, clammy, and aguish…” (29) The building of the hut will be a metamorphosis of sorts: “The boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain.” (30) The furniture, he then insists, is reduced to a strict minimum. Thus the hermit tries to fend off the double threat of living in a clogged up space, and in an unwholesome environment.

24His experience is contrasted with his contemporaries’ need to accumulate furniture, which he sees as a trap the owner drags after him, as a harness which hampers him, as an excess of baggage, or as a spider’s web in which he is caught. Then, surprisingly, he selects as an embodiment of this process “an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all—looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck.” Significantly, the conclusion of the passage turns into a personal profession of faith: “If I have to drag my trap, I will take care that it be a light one and do not nip me in a vital part. But perchance it would be wisest never to put one’s paw into it.” (45) We have here an accumulation of phobic images which convey aggression or sickness, both leading to death (“in a vital part”). The over-determination seems to me to reveal a loss of control before the emergence of affects, which is also betrayed by the way man is gradually animalized (the spider’s web, the paw).

25The metaphorical network which underlies the first chapter is taken up and amplified in the next, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” Thus the threat of

  • 8 My emphasis.

26suffocation in a closed space is deftly parried through paradox. The only house he had owned until then, he recalls, was a tent. “With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder… I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.” (58) The hermit cannot avoid “settling”, i.e. imprisoning himself; but he does so in such a way that he turns a curse into a blessing. His hut pays the minimum tribute to the Lares (“Such was the part of creation where I had squatted”, 59)8, and this small investment carries unlimited benefits. Still, the danger is still present, even though it seems to recede during the summer months, which favor life in the open.

Winter and the Return of the Death-Wish

  • 9 Thoreau’s emphasis.

27Long before summer begins to wane, the denizen of Walden fails to maintain indefinitely the jubilation of “life in the woods”, although he tries hard to assert the opposite: “While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.” (88) First, “solitude” (which gives its title to chapter 5) has to be broken when he must entertain “visitors” (the title of the next chapter); “men of one idea,” “men of a thousand ideas,” “restless and committed men,” “ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject”—in a word, bores. Even more tellingly, the phobic images which by now sound familiar return when he introduces two groups who are especially obnoxious: first “guests who appeal, not to your hospitality, but to your hospitalality,”9, and secondly “the old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex,” who “thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death.” (103) Such passages strongly suggest that the viruses which have been left behind return with a vengeance. Even when a friend calls on the hermit (the word Thoreau applies to himself), they take care to avoid excessive closeness: “If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate.” (95)

28Secondly, the hermit cannot avoid visiting “the village” (ch. 8), i.e. exposing himself to an environment where everything is “so arranged” that “every traveller [has] to run the gantlet, and every man, woman, and child [may] get a lick at him.” (113) Significantly, he then alludes briefly to his night in jail, adding: “I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” (115) Is it not noteworthy that we should find here the very image (pawing) which concluded the indictment of accumulation? In both cases, life in a community becomes a trap, and excess of civilization paradoxically animalizes human behavior. Thoreau himself, when he justifies his return from “the village” to “the ponds,” invokes “a surfeit of human society and gossip.” (116)

  • 1 0 Thoreau’s emphasis.

29Worst of all, the opposition between the deadly structures of civilized life and the life-giving sojourn in the heart of nature does not always function. When Thoreau looks for the etymology of the noun Walden, he suggests, in what to me is more a Freudian slip than a pun, “Walled-in Pond,”10, applying to “God’s drop” the metaphor which earlier on was used to denounce the constriction of urban spaces. The same remark may apply to his quest for perennial youth. When he works in his bean-field, he “[disturbs] the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens… ” (106) This is all the more significant as it follows a paragraph which describes the child’s discovery of Walden, at age four, and the man’s joy to return to “that fabulous landscape of [his] infant dreams.” (104) In the same way, when digging for fish-worms, he unearths the ground-nut (Apios tuberosa), “the potato of the aborigines, a sort of fabulous fruit, which I had begun to doubt if I had ever dug and eaten in childhood, as I had told, and had not dreamed it… Cultivation has well nigh exterminated it.” (159) The rediscovery of childhood brings with it a renewal of strength and exhilaration; but it also brings to the surface long-buried traces of the Indian past—a remarkable instance of what Leslie Fiedler has called “the return of the vanishing American.” The strong identification which he felt all his life with the Indian (his last words before sinking into unconsciousness were “moose” and “Indian”) carries with it an anxiety which is often expressed as a death-wish.

30But all of this is more or less contained during the summer months. Things begin to change when the cold sets in, and he must “[withdraw] yet farther into [his] shell.” (166) Although he adds that he “endeavored to keep a bright fire both within [his] house and within [his] breast,” and celebrates the “merry snow storms” he weathered, or the “cheerful winter evenings” he spent by his fire-side (170), the two chapters which describe life during winter, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors” and “Winter Animals,” are fraught with a crushing sense of bereavement. The beginning of the first chapter contradicts the triumphant statements of “Solitude,” since it betrays a painful need for company: “For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods.” (171) The pages that follow do “conjure up” a number of “tragic” lives (the term occurs several times): Cato Ingraham, a slave whose “half-obliterated cellar-hole still remains”; Zilpha, another colored woman whose house was set on fire by English soldiers, and who used to mutter to herself “over her gurgling pot,—‘Ye are all bones, bones!’” (171); Brister Freeman, “a handy negro” whose life inspires the following comment: “It [the epitaph on his grave] also told me, with staring emphasis, when he died; which was but an indirect way of informing me that he ever lived.” (172) Thus, after identifying with the long-dead Indians who occupied Walden long ago, Thoreau hints at the “inhumane” lives of three slaves or former slaves (the word is applied to Zilpha), or rather conjures up the ghosts of three underdogs who lived in Walden, like him, who shirked the society of white men, like him too.

31I have already mentioned the fire which destroyed the small house that belonged to the member of another minority—Hugh Quoil, an Irishman who was afflicted with delirium tremens. Thoreau briefly narrates his visit to Quoil’s house before it was pulled down, “when his comrades avoided it as ‘an unlucky castle.’” “There lay his old clothes curled up by use, as if they were himself, upon his raised plank bed.” The account becomes even more Poesque when he adds: “One black chicken which the administrator could not catch, black as night and as silent, not even croaking, awaiting Reynard, still went to roost in the next apartment.” (175) Quoth the chicken, Nevermore….

32The sense of gloom which pervades these pages reaches a climax in the elegy that follows:

Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones… Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass… What a sorrowful act must that be,—the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life…. (175)

33But the real dirge comes later, and the identification which was implicit in the preceding pages becomes explicit:

But this small village, germ of something more, why did it fail while Concord keeps its ground? Were there no natural advantages,—no water privileges, forsooth?... Might not the basket, stable-broom, mat-making, corn-patching, linen-spinning, and pottery business have thrived here, making the wilderness to blossom like the rose, and a numerous posterity have inherited the land of their fathers? The sterile soil would at least have been proof against a low-land degeneracy. Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape! Again, perhaps, Nature will try, with me for a first settler, and my house raised last spring to be the oldest in the hamlet. (176)

34This passage, which was obviously written on the spot, as shown by the deictic “last spring, shows that the ecstasy of total solitude is far from being the only mood of Walden. What is expressed here, without the usual defence mechanisms, is a deep sense of alienation, and a solidarity with all the “losers”, to use an anachronism, who lived, failed, and died in Walden. It is even an attempt to imagine a counter-culture of sorts, which the Biblical reference makes appear as a second Eden, but an Eden that the phrasing associates with a hypothetical past. The final projection into the future does introduce a modicum of hope, but it reads more like a vague dream than like a true project.

35I suggested above that the building of the hut was presented as an alternative to the erection of monuments which were dedicated to death. Some of the metaphors which are resorted to, or comments which are made in this chapter shed a new light on the opposition. When Thoreau “conjures up” the life of Cato Ingraham, he notes: “There are few who remember his little patch among the walnuts, which he let grow up till he should be old and need them; but a younger and whiter speculator got them at last. He too, however, occupies an equally narrow house at present.” (171) Again, when he recalls the burning of Breed’s hut, he adds: “It was about the size of mine.” (172) Death is no longer associated with a mausoleum-like palace, but with a “narrow house” or with a hut which reminds him of his own.

36The next chapter, “Winter Animals,” begins with “the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far”, which oddly enough strikes him as “the lingua vernacular of Walden Wood.” It continues with the foxes, “barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if laboring with some anxiety, or seeking expression.” Then we hear “a pack of hounds threading all the woods with hounding cry and yelp… as if afflicted by a species of madness,” or “snapping the air as if possessed,” or “prowling about the woods” and skulking out of his way. I regard this chapter as the lowest ebb of the curve which reached its climax during the summer months, then gradually declined with the coming of winter. The preceding chapter conveyed nostalgia and despair; this chapter takes us beyond despair, to the brink of “madness” and “possession”. The urge which led the isolated dweller of the hut to identify with the harrowing lives of black slaves and Irish drunkards now prompts him to hear the demented cries of animals which winter has transformed into demoniac creatures.


37It would be deeply erroneous to remain on this note of gloom. The last two chapters of the book undeniably express the irresistible surge of life which spring brings. My only point is that there can be no rebirth without previous death, and that the winter chapters do describe a form of symbolic dying. Thoreau himself suggests this, when he alludes to “widowed Nature,” or when he writes: “Walden was dead and is alive again”, or: “So our human life but dies down to its root…” (206, 208, 207) Thus the major difference between the English Romantics and Thoreau is not the absence of “dejection”, but the attempt to deny its presence, and the way in which it expresses itself indirectly, clandestinely, unwillingly as it were, through a process which is remindful of a return of the repressed.

38One last point. The best-known passage of “Spring” ends with a quotation from the Bible (Corinthians 15.55): “O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?” (211) I would like to point out here that the undeniable fervidness of this cry is a little impaired by the use of the preterite—as if after living through the attacks of winter, the survivor denied in retrospect the ordeal that he has lived through. Conversely, the episode (in the “Conclusion”) of the insect which is discovered after sixty years of confinement in a wooden table is seized upon not as a denial of death, but as a source of comfort for those whom the death-in-life of daily existence leads to despair of the future:

Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb… may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last! (223)

39“The semblance of its well-seasoned tomb”: is it not deeply disturbing to see Thoreau use as his most undisputable proof of life’s triumph the experience of being “buried alive” which he repeatedly associated with the discontents of civilization? The “sting” of death, the “victory” of the grave are no longer associated with the past, as in the Biblical quotation, but with the present, even though the future hatching of the egg turns this Poesque vision into a resurrection of sorts.

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Fiedler, Leslie. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: California UP, 1986.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. [1854] New York: Norton Critical Edition [1966], 1992.

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1 Thoreau adds: “He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence implied.” One may suppose that this sympathy was not feigned, for such an event was very likely to provoke Thoreau’s anxiety. He himself had inadvertently set fire to the woods and was blamed for it by the Concord inhabitants—it was one of the reasons for his decision to settle in Walden. He alludes to the event in “House-Warming,” in a sentence which mixes confession and denial: “But I was interested in the preservation of the venison and the vert more than the hunters or wood-choppers, and as much as though I had been the Lord Warden himself; and if any part was burned, though I burned it myself by accident, I grieved with a grief that lasted longer and was more inconsolable than that of the proprietors…” (167)

2 The attempt to translate the owl’s song by gl words anticipates the famous account of the thawing of ice on the railroad bank, in “Spring” (204); but note that the same letters convey very different, nay opposed meanings in the two chapters: what will become a hymn to life, growth, expansion in ‘Spring’ is here a dirge, a celebration of death.

3 The passage is even closer to the opening lines of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.

4 This passage echoes the rejection of the railroad in “Economy”: “I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”(25)

5 Thoreau’s references to different forms of pathology are often quite telling, in their very violence. The denunciations of “Economy” are especially rich in references to sickness. Thus he describes the tempo of modern life as follows: “The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well nigh incurable form of disease.” (7)

6 Note also this comment on house-building: “Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are slanted over him or under him, and what colors are daubed upon his box. It would signify somewhat, if, in any earnest sense, he slanted them and daubed it; but the spirit having departed out of the tenant, it is of a piece with constructing his own coffin,—the architecture of the grave, and ‘carpenter’ is but another name for ‘coffin-maker’”. (32)

7 The mixed metaphor which concludes this passage is present in the opening pages of the book: “The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” (3)

8 My emphasis.

9 Thoreau’s emphasis.

1 0 Thoreau’s emphasis.

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Yves CARLET, « Toying with Death in Walden », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 21 février 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier 3)
Yves Carlet a enseigné la littérature et le cinéma américains de 1966 à 2004, à l’Université de Bourgogne, puis à l’Université Paul-Valéry. Il a écrit un certain nombre d’articles sur Emerson, Hawthorne et Thoreau, ainsi qu’un ouvrage sur Stephen Crane.
Yves Carlet taught American literature and film from 1966 to 2004, at the Université de Bourgogne (Dijon), then the Université Paul-Valery (Montpellier). He wrote a number of essays on Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, and a book on Stephen Crane.

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