Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thoreau, the railroad, modern times with technology

"Aug. 9, 1854: Thoreau Warns, 'The Railroad Rides on Us'"


Randy Alfred

August 9th, 2010


1854: Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden, or, Life in the Woods. His distillation of two years living in relative seclusion offers deep insights not just into the natural world and humanity’s place in it, but how that relationship was being impacted — and degraded — by the Industrial Revolution. It remains to this day a trenchant criticism of the excesses of technology.

Thoreau lived in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847. He was not intending to be a hermit, though he valued solitude and wrote movingly about it.

He visited friends and received visitors, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin. Walden devotes several chapters to visitors and neighbors. And he made trips into town to see family and friends.

Thoreau made his intention clear:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation….

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

A man is rich, Thoreau wrote, “in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone”:

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Two new technologies, the railroad and the telegraph, were — within Thoreau’s lifetime — supplanting the horse, which for five or six thousand years had been the fastest way to move people, goods and information. Thoreau had little regard for the new devices:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

A railroad ran along Walden Pond about one-third of a mile from Thoreau’s cabin, and he could hear the rattle of the trains. But he thought a trip by rail was a bad bargain:

One says to me, “I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.” But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you.

Thoreau was sensitive as well to the social costs of building and maintaining railroads, and the worsening conditions of laborers in the rapidly industrializing United States and Europe:

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…. 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. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

Of fashion, Thoreau was openly contemptuous:

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes….

When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, “They do not make them so now,” not emphasizing the “They” at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates…. We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same….

The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable….

I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. The … principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, had sold only a few hundred copies. He wrote in his journal, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.”

But Walden sold comparatively well. The first edition, with a press run of 2,000 copies, cost a dollar (about $26 worth of today’s buying power).

Walden fell out of fashion (that word again) in the late 19th century, but Thoreau gained increasing and deserved recognition and accolades throughout the ever-modernizing 20th century. He is today recognized not only as a literary giant but as one of the founders of the environmental movement.

Less well-known is his role in the 1830s and ’40s as the modernizer of his family business: manufacturing pencils. Thoreau, who sometimes styled himself an engineer, both improved the product and streamlined the factory’s production process.

Is this a contradiction? Rather than being judgmental of such changes, better we should be mindful of Thoreau’s own dictum:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

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