Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Twittering Thoreau? I Don't Think So...

Traveling back to rooting my paper with Henry David Thoreau, I googled (I love how this is a verb) "Twitter and Thoreau" and wound up with some interesting results. My synopsis: Thoreau would not have a Twitter account, nor a Facebook account, nor a YouTube account. A man of solitude who once said, "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, then be crowded on a velvet cushion," enjoys privacy and a world void of clutter. He would view our world today as a world filled with noise and clutter. As a man who respected privacy and solitude, as written about in Walden, Thoreau communed with nature to find and discover life in its purest element. Thoreau says:
Our life is frittered away by detail...I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or athousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail....Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.
Although Twitter and other forms of social networking do indeed "distract our attention from serious things" they also allow us to keep up to date with breaking news, participate as an activist, promote worthy causes, and assist in helping citizens fight for independence and freedom. These are serious things that are "improving means to an unimproved end" 140 characters at a time.


  1. You are forgetting one thing, Thoreau didn't stay at Walden Pond. He eventually went back to rejoin society. Could that be considered an argument that Thoreau decided you could not live away from society?

    This may be especially true considering that Thoreau began to travel extensively and also get involved in the abolitionist movement.

    Thoreau may have said that he wanted to live in solitude, and he did at one point, but he actually became very involved in the affairs of others.

  2. I think old A.J. Morris makes a good point about Thoreau returning to society...he didn't stay at Walden pond forever. Nor was he completely isolated there forever. Even though he writes things like "I should be pleased to meet man in the woods. I wish he were to be encountered like wild caribous or moose," he had visitors, and even went to dinner parties at Emerson's home during the time he was supposedly in "isolation" at Walden pond.

    Some interesting observations about his non-isolationist activities here:

    However, I think I agree with you that he wouldn't have been an avid twitter user. I'd need to research more about his life, but I suspect he'd be one of those people who was teased for not having a cell phone...he would seek in every way ways to "simplify" and remove distractions.

    But Thoreau as a person could be separated from "civil disobedience," I think. You can still write about the ramifications of his essay without connecting it to tightly to his personal inclinations about distractions and social interaction.

  3. I agree. No, Thoreau wouldn't have used twitter; no he probably wouldn't own a cell phone. However, he would have used Emerson's twitter account and cell phone whenever he needed it.

  4. I like Allison and Neal's points the Thoreau would of leaned on Emerson for technology today. I also think that would be the case, because no matter how far in isolation you put yourself, your natural body is craving for some sort of human contact.

  5. Ha! I agree with Allison.
    This post was fantastic, though. Keep writing, dear, you're good :)

  6. Thoreau's reason for returning to society was that it seemed he "had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." Maybe he meant "more lives" to mean other people? That he "couldn't spare any more time for" the one (his life in solitude) suggests the need for other people Stacie points out a couple comments back.

  7. Your peers are making some good comments, showing that Thoreau's stance about isolation and simplification did have some limits. One way you might set this up is to look at the Thoreau of Walden vs. the Thoreau of Civil Disobedience. The former was actively disengaged; the latter, actively engaged. He knew how to be withdrawn and how to get socially involved. This goes back to a very ancient debate between the "vita activa" and the "vita contemplativa." The question is, does the online world mediate those two extremes in new ways?

    You should probably look at some conventional scholarship about Thoreau (perhaps articles discussing both his Walden mode and his Civil Disobedience mode), then see how the ideas from such articles might apply to the Internet aspect.

    Look at work by Stefan Wray. But also, be sure that you are looking at discussions of electronic civil disobedience that take into account the uses of social media (which has not been prominent until the last five years)