Simplify, Simplify

When one thinks of Henry David Thoreau, the classic image that comes to mind is of a man who lived alone in the woods, attempting to live simply using only that which he deemed necessary. After all, one of his most famous sayings from Walden is “Simplify, simplify.” However, for someone who was so adamant on preaching simplicity, the number of times Thoreau used the term simplicity (or variations) was actually quite low. The word simple was used 25 times, simply was used 19, simplicity was used 10, and simplify was used only twice.

This brings up some interesting observations and questions. Why do certain sayings stick out to us and become memorable, especially if the words in the saying are rarely used? Generally, in order to remember something, we have to drill it into our heads, and read it and see it often to embed it. It seems that that is the opposite here. Here, the lack of frequency of certain words is what seems to be the key to remembering it. The lack of the variations of simplicity is also interesting from a message point of view. By not using those particular words frequently, Thoreau is being simple in using the term “simple,” and direct in the language he is using for his overall message of living simply. Whether he did this on purpose or not, the idea is interesting to think about.

Wordy Relationships

For a man who loved nature, I find it intriguing that Thoreau mentions his house more frequently than he does nature. I do believe that he took great pride in the structure that he not only build but also lived in for many months. I also think that this is not necessarily a true representation of how much Thoreau talks about nature, for one can talk about something without explicitly naming it. In looking at words used to describe nature, or things that are found in nature, it is clear that nature really is spoken about more often than the house is.

I am curious as to if this is a common method of Thoreau’s writing: discussing something, like nature, using both its name and its components with similar frequencies. I have found in past reading that the author will tend to either rarely name the actual object of discussion to avoid redundancy and use its components or ideas within it to talk about it or will repeat the topic name often using a variety of descriptors, rarely repeating one or another. Additionally, in comparing ‘house’ and ‘nature’, the former is more of a concrete concept than the latter. So I wonder if Thoreau finds it necessary to define the more abstract with concrete things like trees and animals. Perhaps this is a theme of his writing but that would require an analysis of other concept pairings across his works.

Thoreau was clearly an intelligent individual. However, I have to wonder what brought him enjoyment. He hardly uses the word in Walden and barely makes use of its synonyms. (He doesn’t use the word ‘fun’ once.) It is difficult to determine a correlation between amusement and companionship or a lack thereof. I think it would be interesting to explore some of his other works to see if he truly requires solitude to enjoy himself or if he just prefers it to spending time with people. I am in no way trying to suggest that he does not know how to have fun with other people; merely that he more frequently enjoys himself when people are not around.

Despite the apparent lack of amusement, it is highly likely that Thoreau had a positive outlook on life. His discussions and evaluations of the world around him reflect a deep passion for nature as seen in Spring. Perhaps his enjoyment is described in ways in which are not obvious to the untrained eye and are similar to his discussions of nature: defined without being named explicitly.