“On Thoreau: Staying Behind” by Benjamin Balthaser

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Paper Route Bakery, Austin, Texas, from a concept by Aaron Seriff-Cullick; this photo and those below by S.L. Wisenberg

I hate traveling.

There, I said it:  I do not like airplanes or hotels or having to go places and look at things that will not look at me back: art, landscapes, balconies, bus maps, a strange and bluegreen sea. I do not like finding alien words for ice cubes, notebooks with blue ruled lines, or folding chairs, when it is hard enough to express a single complex thought in one’s own language.

Most of all I cannot stand that travel has become the way we have learned to express our inner self, our deepest interiority. Look on any social media profile, and travel is the way we communicate that we are human, have value, and are complex, individuated adults: see the palm tree next to my pink bubbly drink? You should invite me over for dinner. See the ancient Roman wall and the way my green shirt shocks by contrast? Marry me, I am rich in experience.

Indeed, our economic and social system has become so in love with motion that staying still for two months appears as an act of suicide. We will leap soon out into the street, go to bars, universities, restaurants and theaters and risk an illness that can rupture one’s internal organs like packing bubbles because not even death is worse than sitting still.

In this context I delight in the perverse logic that the greatest work of literature against traveling was written by an American. Americans, more than anyone else, love to travel. It’s part of our national culture: we were after all founded as a nation by people who left one continent and went to another. And once we arrived we would not stay put. We killed, stole, burnt and looted just to keep moving, to keep spreading west. As Edmund Wilson noted in his Depression-era travelogue when Americans could no longer go any farther west, their last “futile effervescence” was expended throwing themselves off the final seawall and into the granite Pacific — San Diego was the suicide capital of the country.

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West Byron Street, Chicago

So what does it mean that one of the most American of all works is an ode to staying put? A vial of hater-ade against traveling. As Henry David Thoreau concludes his most famous work, “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats of Zanzibar,” before translating Claudian thus: “Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians. I have more of God, they more of the road.”

One of the more common misreadings of Walden is that Thoreau goes somewhere. He wanders off into some deep forest, “into the woods,” and lives the life of a hermit. There’s an Existential Comics routine ridiculing Thoreau for having his mother do his laundry, which would be very funny, if he didn’t say all over the place that he has others work for him all the time: he went into his friend’s (very large) backyard, borrowed an axe so that in an ironic nod to Adam Smith, his “fellow men could have an interest in my enterprise,” and then asked “acquaintances” out of an “occasion of neighborliness” to put on his roof. “Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip” and he describes in his chapter “visitors” that he has three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” All this in full view of the railroad line that ran by Emerson’s property.

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Near North Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago

So if Henry is neither in the woods, nor alone, what exactly, is he doing? As he says on the first page, he wishes “to earn my labor by my hands” and by doing so – not work very hard. He pities land owners, people who inherit property, people with herds, businesses, railroads – anything that might take his free time. To do what exactly? Well, write a book, raise some beans, have lots of friends over, go out to the pub and listen to gossip every other night. And perhaps of greatest interest to me: create a different sense of place.

Our Henry is so familiar with his cabin on Emerson’s wood that he describes, after frequent nights spent drinking in town, that he finds his way home in absolute blackness by “the known relation of particular trees I felt with my hands” or by the feel of his feet on the cart-path. While this is on one level a funny story of someone walking home in the dark, it suggests such a thorough intimacy with place that he can literally guide his way home by the feel of the trees he passes through.

This sense of place is a marked contrast with Manifest Destiny, a logic that imagines America through the representations of maps, borders, wide vistas: a vast expanse to conquer. Walden is a book of compact spaces, neighbors, short walks home in the dark. His main economic activity, besides selling his writing to magazines, is raising legumes, and while he is dismayed at the worms, cool days and “most of all woodchucks” who eat his crop, he admits to no right of property: “The last have nibbled for me a quarter of an acre clean. But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden?”

As Thoreau’s contemporary Lewis Cass maintained, it is precisely the idea of property rights, that abstraction, that commodification and universalization of space, that legitimized theft from first nations.

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Prinz Beach Park, Chicago

Thoreau’s voyage around his friend’s backyard refuses Whitman’s “wide vistas” and instead travels through the tightness of space into the greater expanse of history. He frequently notes he finds arrowheads in the tilled soil; the skeleton of a log canoe, and perhaps most poignantly, the ruins of a community of freedmen and escaped slaves who made their living much as Thoreau did, off the land, selling the surplus products of their sewing and farming. They were burned out of their homes during the War of 1812 and Thoreau suggests frequent sightings of Zipha’s ghost, muttering “Ye are all bones, bones!” His decision to stay put one could say is really a kind of excavation of the many layers of American violence that cleared the land so that he could occupy it. The bones, in other words, the bones.

This is not hagiography of Thoreau – his cabin in the woods, like the logs of Huckleberry Finn’s raft, finds its freedom bound up in the unfreedom of others. But I would also say that it is only by Thoreau’s decision to not go West, to not take the journey “into the woods” that thousands upon thousands of Americans were taking as a rite of passage and conquest, that Thoreau is able to engage in the kind of repair work out of which a different vision of democracy might emerge.

“You don’t ride the railroad, it rides you,” Thoreau writes. And in a way he was writing less about trains than the capitalist investment they represented. We are being ridden you could say by the same locomotives – driving open our economies, and our bodies, in the risk of a deadly pandemic, whether we like it or not. Thoreau’s challenge is precisely that we go nowhere, and find different expanses for our minds, and our pleasures, than air travel, than the endless airy accumulation of wealth, built on the bones, the bones of our dead labor.

Whatever Thoreau’s faults are, the combination of wanting to be left behind, and regain control of his labor, are not coincidences. In some ways I do not want the slowness of this quarantine to end, its brief, perhaps already vanished promise to revalue life, a community of shared risk, our collective health over speed, expanse, and money. I fear however, we are already back on that locomotive, and it will take us nowhere better than it did 150 years ago. As Thoreau writes in “Civil Disobedience,” “opponents of reform in Massachusetts are not…politicians of the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity.” Switch Republicans and Democrats, meat packing plants and university presidents, and the same is as true today.



Benjamin Balthaser’s creative and critical work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Massachusetts ReviewBoston ReviewJacobinAmerican Quarterly and elsewhere.  His 2012 book of poems, Dedication, details the lives of blacklisted Jewish activists during the McCarthy era, and his 2016 book from University of Michigan Press, Anti-Imperialist Modernism, explores connections between cross-border, anti-imperialist movements and the making of modernist culture at mid-century.  He is associate professor of multi-ethnic literature at Indiana University South Bend and lives in Chicago.  He loves, and does not love, the South Shore Line.