As I was poking around on Voyant Tools, I was having trouble coming up with some profound bit of distant reading with which to report back. Yet, I found myself pulled by the question, is Thoreau’s deliberate way of living attainable only by those who live in the woods? Is that what he is suggesting? Or are his insights ones that arose largely from his time spent in nature, but ones that can be appreciated no matter one’s lifestyle?
I latched onto that theme of Thoreau’s critique of society and the ways men live. Using the word frequency chart tool, I came up with some words that usually signal that Thoreau has entered into one of his wiser moods – I chose “human”, “true”, and “right”, since he often comments on the lives of men and distinguishes between good and bad or right and wrong. From the looks of the resulting graph, I gathered that Thoreau concentrates his intuitions at the very beginning, the very end, and about evenly spaced in two main areas in the middle (although, of course, we know that his ideological assertions show their face in almost every chapter). This seemed like a pretty tidy set-up for starters.
I assumed that passages more purely focused on nature and the physical environment of Walden Pond would fill up the gaps between these epiphanies, and I chose the words “animal”, “tree”, and “bird” to pinpoint those sorts of passages.
What I found was not what I predicted, however! I found that in the first half of the text, this sort of alternating appeared quite neatly. Yet, the graph shows that the third concentration of philosophical language coincides with a peak in “outdoorsy” language, too. This did not surprise me too much, though; it makes sense that Thoreau might group his observations of nature with his thoughts on society, since he probably came to many profound conclusions while simply looking out at the water.
I found it very interesting that he chose to weave the topics in this way, though – to introduce nature and society as separate entities at the beginning, and to suggest that there are many similarities and lessons to be learned about society from nature by the end. There are two things we know for sure about Thoreau, although we are assailed by both staunch criticism and utmost praise. These two things are that, one, he is a gifted writer, and two, he lived a truly unique life. This weaving of words and themes is something only a talented writer and unique person such as Thoreau would be able to do.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of the questions that inspired my probing on Voyant Tools. Again I ask, do you have to live in the woods to live deliberately? In a way, the organization of the text does suggest that an understanding like Thoreau’s is only acquired by careful observation of nature and life. This excludes many people who do not have equal opportunities from that sort of wisdom. On the other hand, perhaps Thoreau is speaking to all people and simply encouraging greater appreciation for nature and the wisdom it grants by grouping the two themes together. At the moment, I am leaning toward the latter interpretation. I’d like to believe that Thoreau considered this “living deliberately” thing open to all people of all backgrounds and all lifestyles. However, only further close reading of his texts will answer that question.