Today’s theme song in ENGL 203-04 is John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream.”
It’s the refrain, of course, that connects with our examination of Thoreau’s Walden:
Blow up your TV,
Throw away your paper,
Go to the country,
Build you a home.
Plant a little garden,
Eat a lot o’ peaches,
Try to find Jesus,
On your own.
Granted, neither TV’s nor peaches put in an appearance in Walden, and Jesus merits just a single passing reference; but we do get the railroad, the paper (in “Where I Lived” paragraphs 18 and 19), beans, and something like a personal search for God (“God himself culminates in the present moment …”).
More broadly, we get the idea that the good life is to be found in giving up “worldly things” (material wealth, fashion, gossip) in favor of a simple existence in harmony with Nature.
All of this is to say that one way to read Walden is as a member of the general literary category known as pastoral. Whether we call pastoral a “type,” “genre,” “convention,” or “mode” the point is that to invoke this term in an effort to understand Walden is to identify Thoreau’s work as a particular kind of thing; that is, to give it a certain identity.
But texts don’t have singular identities any more than people do. In our discussion of Walden, we’ve already seen that we can also identify it, in whole or in part, as a particular instance of several other types: social criticism (a category that arguably includes the words of Hebrew prophets like Amos as well as those of ancient figures like Socrates and Diogenes); the sermon; the useful lecture; the travel narrative; and, of course, autobiography. We could undoubtedly expand this list.
If texts can be identified in so many different ways, one might be forgiven for wondering if there’s any point in trying to pin them down with an identity at all. Aren’t we just forcing the amorphous stuff of human creativity into silly boxes?
Yet we can’t avoid the move to identify, for at least two reasons. First, in trying to understand a text, the first question we’re bound to ask ourselves is “What kind of thing is this?” The second is that writers themselves, like all creators, always begin from what has been created before them. They learn to write books by reading books. In building on the creative work of the past, they inevitably carry forward one or more traditions, whether they see themselves as doing so (and they frequently do) or not.
Identifying a work as this or that kind of work only gets us into trouble when we assume that the work has only one identity, and when we fail to recognize that identifying it as an instance of this reveals some of its characteristics (while obscuring others), and identifying it as an instance of that both reveals and obscures others. We only begin to get a full picture when we can see it as simultaneously this, that, and perhaps some number of other things as well.