“A good example of nature writing is Thoreau’s famous piece ‘Waldo.'”

Make this the first book on your summer reading list!

This sentence communicates a lot. Most obviously, it identifies the writer as a member of a specific generation and a player of a specific game. The British children’s book Where’s Wally?, retitled Where’s Waldo? for the American and international markets, appeared in 1987. You know that book: pages crowded with little people and things, and somewhere the elusive Waldo (or Wally) for the sharp-eyed child to proudly find. It was a huge hit, prompting a whole book series as well as a film and a video game. So the writer of this sentence is probably under 40, and most likely considerably well under 40. Hearing the word “Walden” and not coming from Concord, Massachusetts, such a person might well hear the unstressed syllable as “O” rather than “(e)n.”

This hearing error is, alas, most likely to occur in a student who has not just read the assignment for the day, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—and very likely didn’t read it when excerpts were assigned back in high school English, either. His confusion might have been increased if he did remember the name of Thoreau’s friend and fellow “nature writer,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Come to think of it, maybe my student knows of a text I haven’t heard of. It would be, perhaps, the first draft of what later became known as “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s inspirational essay on the individual’s relationship to the state and on nonviolent resistance to unjust law or authority. Those of us who have read our assignments will recall that Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax (current and delinquent), as the best way he could find of severing ties with the government that was engaged in the Mexican-American War and that permitted and enforced slavery. Concord was determined to keep him in jail until the tax was paid. Emerson tried to persuade him that his gesture was futile, and before Thoreau had languished behind bars more than a night his aunt ponied up the dough. Can’t you just see him, emerging enraged into the sunny street, bellowing “WHERE’S WALDO????” in the belief that Emerson had encouraged dear Aunt Maria (or one of his other aunts) to betray his principles for him.

I’d like to read such a text—Henry laying out while still in high dudgeon his complaints against the state and his frustration in being thwarted in his protest, and blaming it all on Waldo! We might finally truly understand Wordsworth’s point that good poetry is strong emotion recollected in tranquility. Thoreau was a terrific writer—his defense of John Brown can still make me gasp and weep—what must he have been like in a rage? Yes, I would love the chance to read Thoreau’s “Waldo.”

Henry David Thoreau. What rage may be seething behind his calm demeanor?
This well-known image can be found on numerous sites, including transcendentalists.com.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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