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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The man who couldn’t think straight

June 1st, 2003

thoreauBY GREG ROBERTS

Thoreau messed me up pretty bad. I read Walden at seventeen, and it turned me into a non-materialist for most of my life. As a result, I endangered my family by driving them around in a hundred-dollar Peugeot 504 with bald tires that were ready to blow any second. I thought I was saving the planet. I’m better now. We have a thousand-dollar Toyota van with new tires.

I’ve lost some respect for Thoreau. He’s a wonderfully clever writer, but he couldn’t think straight. The imprisonment at the pond, in a hell-hole of a cabin, slaving over a goddamn bean patch, would have driven anyone to suicide, except for one thing — he was writing the book. With the inspiration of his art, it didn’t matter where he was. Same for Beethoven. His drive to compose music made him oblivious to his filthy room with the many unemptied piss pots.

Anyone without a major artistic project had better stay away from a Walden situation. Better to exist in a studio apartment with a part-time job at Burger King and a basic cable package.

Thoreau’s revulsion for industrial society comes, in part, from seeing those miserable textile factories in Lowell. There, cutie pies who today could make forty dollars an hour at Hooters were stuck staring at spindles for twelve hours at a time for about a dollar per shift. Terrible.

But that’s no reason for anyone to slink off to a dark little cabin and hoe beans. Millions of early Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, had no choice but to do just that — and they hated it.

Much of what Thoreau thought seems nuts to me now. He hated the railroad. Couldn’t stand the noise. Today, on those sublime occasions when a wood-burning steam locomotive is fired up and comes puffing down the line, the crowd that assembles is so overcome with awe and emotion they become speechless, almost catatonic with delight. In the 1850s what kind of lunatic would be opposed to a machine that enabled people to travel a hundred miles in a day, instead of smelling mud and horseshit for a week?

Thoreau is not the only arrogant, selfish author. They’re all over the place. Hawthorne bitched about losing his lame customs house job — a non-essential post which he abused — and Melville was angry about having to leave the naked hotties of the South Pacific to teach school in Puritan Massachusetts. Even lamer was Faulkner. While working at the post office, he threw mail away so that he could write Light in August. I once thought that was groovy. I now realize that the guy was jerk. The mail has always been sacred and was especially so in the 1920s. If I had found one of my letters in Faulkner’s wastebasket, I would have punched his rummy schnozz.

The post office attracted an even worse reprobate, Charles Bukowski. Fun to read, sure. But leave my mail alone, Chuck, or I may have to emulate your kind of short fiction by cutting off your head with a chainsaw and dumping your corpse on the beach in the moonlight.

The Thoreau non-materialist message has had a lot of press, but try to find someone who really lives the religion. The barefoot lady in the hippie dress who raises goats and organic garlic suddenly is gone for the winter — she’s treating her sun-deprivation syndrome by flying to a villa in Tuscany. The goat milk and garlic she produced doesn’t quite cover her $400-a-day expenses, but that’s OK. The dividends from the Philip Morris stock will handle it. Ah, there she is, reclining up in first class, reading Walden at 35,000 feet.

I’m as bad as she is. I drive the crappy Toyota van and wear the goofy bowling shirt from Goodwill, but I’m conveniently quiet about trips to remote fishing lodges with ten thousand dollars worth of tackle in my carry-on. The only people I know who come close to the Walden non-consumer ideal are some potheads who are non-materialist by default; the weed sucks up their whole paycheck.

Thoreau and the people who are like him today are no friends of the arts. When Louis Moreau Gottschalk gave one of his virtuoso performances in the 1850s, he didn’t sell many tickets to bean-picking cabin dwellers — they didn’t have the goddamn money. And when did Theodore Steinway place one of his baby grands at the Thoreau summer estate at Walden? I thought so.

It’s funny. Non-materialists are always complaining about the ambitious and the wealthy, but every museum from the Smithsonian to the Prado is really nothing more than a repository for the possessions of the wealthy. Even that weird mask from the Amazon, the one described in the catalog as the finest of its kind, belonged to the tribal chief, who had the most jaguar skins and toucan beaks.

Would the world be better off if we all followed Thoreau and lived simply, ate vegetarian, and stayed away from trains? Absolutely. Is it happening in a significant way? About as significant as the renewed interest in flint-knapping among Revolutionary War re-enactment enthusiasts.

The world is complex now. There are six billion of us, and if a few of you get the Walden bug and cancel your $7,000 zebra-watching vacations in Tanzania, the locals may machine-gun the zebras and turn them into a boudin blanc (et noir) for the next cookout.

Walden has had no measurable impact on this materialist world. On the other hand, Edison’s incandescent lamp saved the sperm whale from extinction. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Roberts | Link to this Entry

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