Gossip and the Seeds of Disobedience

Thoreau’s discussion of “The Village” goes a long ways toward explaining why he retired to the woods and to Walden Pond:

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

It’s obvious Thoreau sees the newspaper as little more than “gossip,” and gossip seems to be as meaningless as the rustle of dry leaves. I’m not sure what these “medicinal” doses of gossip were intended to do, other than confirm his resolve to spend his time in the woods away from society.

Thoreau avoids the news because it produces “numbness and insensibility to pain:”

Some have such a vast appetite for the former commodity, that is, the news, and such sound digestive organs, that they can sit forever in public avenues without stirring, and let it simmer and whisper through them like the Etesian winds, or as if inhaling ether, it only producing numbness and insensibility to pain -- otherwise it would often be painful to bear -- without affecting the consciousness.

Even if it doesn’t produce “numbness” it’s obvious that it does little good for the men as they “sit forever in public avenues without stirring.”

Thoreau even suggests light-heartedly that he was let out through the back door to escape to the woods after hearing the news:

I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news -- what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer -- I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.

The news is so bad that he needs to escape out the back door. Of course, when we later find out that he was locked up for not paying his taxes, perhaps he wasn’t entirely joking here.

For me, the most interesting line in this chapter, and perhaps in the whole book is:

Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Caught up in the infinite possibilities of the world I think I entirely missed this line when I first read Walden as a college junior. Many years later, it seems to make perfect sense. It is precisely at those moments when I felt lost and “lost the world” that I truly found myself. The most dramatic of these moments was, of course, upon returning from the Vietnam War and realizing much to my dismay that my entire view of the world had changed. Everything I once believed was called into doubt, and I literally had to reinvent myself after returning, just as many other veterans must have done. After the war, though, I had a much better sense of who I was and what I believed. The same thing happened recently when I had my operation for throat cancer and was unable to eat or talk to anyone for two months. I lost more than just forty pounds in those two months. Two months of isolation, even in the room with the ones you love the most, can force you to reexamine what you believe.

Nor did I realize just how prophetic this paragraph was just two years before I was sent to Vietnam:

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. 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, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.

Now, of course, it’s slavery that Thoreau is objecting to here, not our intervention in a foreign country to deny those people the right to rule themselves. Still, the idea is the same for those of us who went off to fight a war we neither understood nor supported. For a while at least, the “dirty institutions” of the American government constrained me to fight a war I did not believe in.

Thoreau’s final charge against society somehow seems equally ominous in light of recent trends in American society:

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

Now I’m not going to live as simply as Thoreau did. Otherwise I would have to give up my web page, and we wouldn’t want that, would we? Still he raises a number of interesting questions about trends in America. How many people do we have locked up in American prisons? Why is there an increasing disparity between the wages of the upper and lower classes? Is there a connection between these two? Duh.

And we knew this in the 1850’s and still can’t find something to do about it?

It’s funny how a "dated, overly optimistic" writer can seem so relevant today, isn’t it?

Walden, Chapter Eight, “The Village”

It would be a very natural occurrence for a well adjusted man in the mid nineteenth century to walk into town to gather news and visit with friends, and that is exactly what Thoreau did.

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

Typically, Thoreau viewed a group of people to be similar to any gathering of living things. He would feel comfortable with either group, learning from it.

...a colony of muskrats...a village of busy men...

Being human, he was drawn to his own kind, however, to keep current.

The village appeared to me a great news room...

Thoreau preferred that a certain amount of distillation occur before he listened to the village gossip. The original stories from the first speakers he thought rough and unedited.

These are the coarsest mills, in which all gossip is first rudely digested or cracked up before it is emptied into finer and more delicate hoppers within doors.

The evening visits with friends were his choice. Here he could gather news of the village and of his country all in one pleasant setting, perhaps over a cup of coffee or a digestif.

I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieve-ful of news, what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer, I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.

Returning home after dark prompted Thoreau to comment on just how dark the woods could be and how easy it was for people to lose their way. But time spent lost in the woods is not necessarily time lost if you know what I mean. Thoreau decided there was a lesson to be learned off the path.

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

...and not till we are completely lost, or turned round,...for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,--do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature.

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

One afternoon spent in town, retrieving a shoe from the cobbler’s, resulted in Thoreau’s being arrested for not paying a poll tax. His omission was a protest against his government which allowed slavery to exist. Unless there was another time Thoreau was arrested, this is the jail stay that prompted his writing of his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.”

One afternoon,...I was seized and put into jail, because, ...I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state, which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.

The chapter ends with a comment on the honesty of travelers who stopped by his cabin to rest when Thoreau was not there.

Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book...

I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

‘The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.’

What do you think?