Learning from the Late Greats: Henry David Thoreau edition

This morning marks the fourth installation and therefore the fourth author in my ‘late greats’ series.  I’ve already examined the lives of Johannes Gutenberg (b. ca 1390), Jane Austen (b. 1775), and Alexandre Dumas (b. 1824), with a specific eye for the ways in which these authors do or do not conform to the archetype of the self-published author, and an ear for lessons they have to teach us in the current world of self-publishing. 

This week, I want to examine someone a little more … controversial.  A lot of names get thrown around in the self-publishing world as antecedents for us to look up to, glittering stars on the horizon that prove it can be done, it will be done, and thou shalt do it too—but often, it seems as though we play a little too fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to provide a sense of solidarity and affirmation.  (And indeed, the knowledge that one’s favorite author or authors have gone through the same struggles can be a powerful incentive to carry on.)  You might not, then, be surprised to find out that the case of Henry David Thoreau (b. 1817) has provoked claims that he is both the prototypical self-published author—and that he is no such thing at all, but rather an incredibly mainstream example of the traditionally published author.

Thoreau, circa 1856

Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to clear up the matter, even with all of the facts in hand.  Thoreau’s earliest publications were comprised of a motley mess of short pieces, of which some were published (anonymously) in respected print journals and some were (sort-of?) self-published in Dial, a local Concordian Transcendentalist journal with only two editors, of which he was one.  For the majority of his life, he was known mostly for his impassioned speech in defense of the violent abolitionist John Brown—and for his equally impassioned delivery of “Slavery in Massechusetts” at a rally in Framingham.  He then published a whole clutch of articles and essays and books around the same time, of which he self-financed at least one (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers).  But the waters are muddied when it comes to public lectures and rally speeches: where do they fit on the Traditional vs. Self-Published spectrum?  We may never have a definitive answer to that question.

At the site of Walden Pond (courtesy of Wikipedia)

So if the waters are muddied, what can we learn from Thoreau?  I have two primary takeaways from the Thoreauvian saga, both of which I hope embody the spirit of his work as much as the fact:

1) Optimism is a discipline, not a fragile state to be moved through and discarded.  “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world,” wrote Thoreau in his conclusion to Walden, “and yet we tolerate incredible dulness.”  His primary interest—or rather the locus of this particular chapter—was political in nature, but what element of life isn’t?  (In some small way, at least.)  And yet for Thoreau, admitting the nature of politics and even our stagnant investment in politics was not a cause for ultimate despair.  Invoking his own amazement, he writes also that “We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind.”  The implication being, of course, that such a tide does indeed rise and fall—in you.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite resist such a potent call to arms! 

To be clear, Thoreau didn’t equate optimism with naïveté or ignorance.  It was a virtue to be cultivated, as a mental and physical and even spiritual posture.  He wasn’t a success by worldly standards, particularly as a writer, and he knew it.  But instead of succumbing to a broken system with its equally broken standards of success, he chose to reframe and redefine both system and standard.  He operated on the assumption that humanity is a force of nature, and that we therefore have the agency to invest our choices with meaning.  That sounds about right to me.

2) We must write what we feel compelled to write.  Thoreau didn’t believe in catering to trends, or to any external systemic expectations.  This isn’t to say he endorsed opposing every element of the system simply to oppose it; but he did believe in acting according to individual conscience (“…I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject…”), in questioning everything (and I mean everything), and in seeking out a richly textured life. 

Our interests may indeed align with those that have reached critical mass at the popular level—which currently includes Young Adult literature, dystopias, romance, and a number of other genres—or they may not.  We must allow ourselves the opportunity to color in and outside of the lines—and live in fervent belief that we define the framework of our own success (as self-published authors, among other things).  This is Thoreau’s legacy, as muddled of a self-publishing icon as he may be: writing is not a game of comparison, in which we win or lose.

Thoreau’s fusty vocabulary and complex argumentative structure might prove a barrier to a modern reader of Walden, but it has routinely defied the odds and repeatedly surged in popularity.  This is a book that hasn’t been out of print since 1862, the year of Thoreau’s death.  (It was originally published in 1854.)  Still, he rattles off a few zingers that leave me breathless.  I’m going to close today’s blog in his words—and in what I think makes for a resounding metaphor for rejecting any institution—including, perhaps, the institution of traditional publication?—that has lost touch with its participants:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.  I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.  The hospitality was as cold as the ices.  I thought that there was no need of ice to freeze them.  They talked to me of the age of the wine and the fame of the vintage; but I thought of an older, a newer, and purer wine, of a more glorious vintage, which they had not got, and could not buy.  The style, the hosue and grounds and ‘entertainment’ pass for nothing with me.  I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality.  There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree.  His manners were truly regal.  I should have done better had I called on him.”

* NOTE: all quotations sourced from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. I (2008 edition).

If you have any comments, reflections, or suggestions for this new series, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments box, and watch this space on Wednesdays in 2015!

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog, kellyschuknecht.com.

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