Exploring How Diction Informs Perspective in Thoreau’s Walden

The COVID-19 pandemic, and our transition to remote learning because of it, caught us all by surprise. No one was prepared to make such drastic lifestyle changes in how we live, work, and learn. And yet, even though this transition came with many challenges, our group’s final project turned out to be one challenge we could successfully overcome through communication, teamwork, digital collaboration, and the spirit of optimistic determination that we gained from studying Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Read on to learn how our group (Kira Baran, Lauren Beers, Justin Colleran, Abigail Henry, and Joshua Mora) approached the task of analyzing revisions within Walden, and in doing so, gained unique insights into Thoreau’s life and work.

Our Task and Mission

Our group decided to compare revisions made across two of Thoreau’s original manuscript drafts: Version E (p. 55-56 on the Huntington Library Website), and Version F (p. 50). The specific passage we tackled appears as paragraph 5c on the fluid text website, and would eventually be included in the chapter “The Ponds” within Walden.

We strove to analyze the handwritten revisions Thoreau made on these manuscript pages both on a micro (or “close-reading”) level, as well as how these revisions compare/contrast across these versions on a macro (or “meta-reading”) level. We chose this specific passage because we feel that its intricate revisions give insight into Thoreau’s attention to nuance and detail. His concern for precision informs not only his descriptions of the pond, but also carries into his every-day perspective on writing and life as a whole. Within the human experience, whether it be admiring various hues of pond water or interacting with people during a turbulent time period like we are currently experiencing, angle and perspective are everything. Even the most seemingly minor of revisions carry an effect on how readers interpret Walden both line-by-line, and as a whole work. And this is exactly why precision and accuracy are important when it comes to diction.

Our Perspectives and Insights on Thoreau’s Revisions

When attempting to analyze a writer’s manuscripts, there are many elements to consider. We made sure to keep in mind Thoreau’s intent during our construction of the timeline, so that we could properly examine what he was trying to say with the word choices and revisions he was making. Although it is nearly impossible for a reader to interpret something exactly how the author intends, there are certain ways we can get fairly close. For example, when Thoreau switches one word for another in a revision, we can take this as a sign that the new word did a better job at helping the reader achieve the correct interpretation.

Take this revision from our selected passage, for instance: “of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural” had been changed from “of an alabaster whiteness, equally unnatural.” By revising comparatives like “equally” and “more,” Thoreau presumably strives for accuracy and precision when comparing how one’s angle/viewpoint/perspective can influence one’s perceptions and, in turn, their evaluations. Again, be it the color of water in a pond, or a serious matter of discourse when interacting with another person, viewpoint matters, since looks can be deceiving. As Thoreau knew well, in order to communicate an intended message to a reader who possesses a different viewpoint than oneself, it is very useful to be able to communicate with precision. Precision aids the active listening (and reading!) process. To convey meaning effectively is to communicate as accurately as possible.

Ultimately then, through this project, we learned that a writer’s revision process can be treated as a physical manifestation of their thought process. It is a window that allows us to infer a potential intended message of a text. To see what we mean, check out other examples in our timeline below!:

Our Process for Creating Our Timeline and TEI File

Overall, the technical aspects behind the TimeLineJS portion of the project were fairly straightforward. The process was very easy to follow and didn’t cause us to pull the hair out of our heads. The one thing we did find kind of annoying about creating the timeline was trying to figure out how to include what specific point of the year we were talking about. For example, when wanting to write “Late 1852,” it would not allow us to preview the timeline because it didn’t recognize the word “Late.” In the end, we decided to use just the years. Another aspect that was slightly disappointing was the lack of customization. On the website, it really only allows you to change the fonts and what slide the presentation starts on. It would be nice for our timeline to have more of an identity or personality, rather than just black and white backgrounds.

Surprisingly, our GitHub workflow worked out well, too. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first, as any small mistake on someone’s part could have caused chaos in our project repository. Not to mention, we were also all new to this part of GitHub, and remote learning didn’t exactly help. However, by communicating with each other through Slack about who-did-what-when-and-how, we were able to avoid any complications.

As for the TEI file, its creation was not too complicated. Since we were given the template file to use as a guide, it made encoding the manuscript text much simpler. Once we spent time learning to use the basic markup commands, it just came down to being consistent throughout the file, lest a single error invalidate the entire file (similar to how a single word invalidated our timeline). Honestly, the most difficult part of making the TEI file came from trying to decipher Thoreau’s handwriting. From a distance, it could be easily mistaken for a bunch of nonsense scribbles, or overly elaborate calligraphy. The fluid text version of Walden lent us a huge hand in figuring out what the (almost illegible) manuscript said, especially when it came to penciled-in revisions.

Looking at the handwritten revisions on the manuscript pages with our own eyes, and comparing them to the revisions on the fluid text version, however, did present what was probably our most unusual challenge when it came to encoding revisions on our TEI file. The fluid text version notes that, on the Version F page, “. . . the body of the bather” was revised to “the body of one bathing in it.” However, by just looking at the handwriting, it was difficult to tell these revisions for certain. Thoreau didn’t fully cross out “bather”; instead, he seamlessly transformed the “e” into an “i” and added “ng” over the “r,” (instead of adding it above or off to the side like most of his revisions). He wrote it as if it was a typo rather than a revision. “One” is also squeezed into the margin without a caret, which made it even more difficult to determine if this should be counted as a typo or a deliberate revision that was made after the fact. This presented a challenge for encoding the TEI file, because adding a revision within a word (“bather” to “bathing”) is not common to come across.

Our Takeaways

Through the unexpected journey that has been this entire project (and course and semester), each of us has come away with a newfound appreciation for Walden. Having to work from self-isolation (or social distancing or quarantine or whatever you’d like to call it) was a new experience for everyone. Remote instruction forced us to jump into the role of self-starters. Online collaboration meant becoming reliable team members. It forced us to use Slack as a communicative platform, since we had to allocate project tasks between us without being able to physically meet in person.

From studying Walden, we were able to relate to Henry David Thoreau’s experiences on a uniquely personal level. We learned from his determination, adaptability, and resourcefulness. And, from the specific passage we analyzed, we learned that, sometimes, all it takes is an open mind and an altered angle or viewpoint to be able to gain a new, appreciative perspective on our surroundings. Being stuck at home for the past couple months, we can now appreciate the small part we played in converting Thoreau’s writing to a digitized version, which makes his writing more universally accessible, readable, and legible.

“Social” versus “Physical” Distancing

While stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve come across multiple news articles claiming that calls for “social distancing” have been sending the wrong message to people. They claim “physical distancing” would be a much more accurate term to be using.

These articles make a good point. Does physically standing six feet away from other people have to mean being anti-social? True, restaurants and recreational meeting places are closed down; but does this necessarily mean that we have to close ourselves off, too, when we live in a technologically-driven society that allows for human connection and communication through virtual means? I would argue that it is possible to be physically distant without being socially distant, just as it is possible to be socially distant without being physically distant. (A sentiment Thoreau echoes in the chapter “Solitude”: “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”)

While I was reading these articles, I couldn’t help thinking back to Walden, and what Henry David Thoreau has to say about isolation and socialization. For example, take a look at this quote from the chapter “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors”:

“Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children’s hands, in front-yard plots,—now standing by wall-sides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests;—the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man’s garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half century after they had grown up and died,—blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful, lilac colors.”

The above passage reflects on the fact that people often forget that their physical presence is not necessary in order to influence their environment and surrounding ecosystem–or, in the case of this blog post, their society. Physical distance, or even altogether physical absence, does not have to equal social absence. Even from far away, even from their computer screens, people have been finding innovative ways to influence their world in surprising, powerful ways. We are seeing this happen now, as things like remote learning, digital literature, and virtual communication step up to the plate to make up for in-person interaction. Of course, that’s not to say this transition has been easy on any of us. It hasn’t. Physical distancing does not have to eliminate socialization, but it certainly does discourage it and make it more difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, I think we can count ourselves comparatively lucky when considering that, centuries ago during past pandemics, things like online education, literature, and communication would not have been available to us whatsoever during a widespread lock-down situation.

On a final note, if there is one thing I have learned from studying the drafts and revision processes that Thoreau went through in writing Walden, it is that precision and accuracy matter when it comes to how we use language. As Thoreau knew all too well, the nuances of language are subtle yet powerful. On face value, “physical distancing” and “social distancing” might seem like synonyms; and perhaps they are. But even synonyms differ in connotation and meaning. These slight variations are what impact how language is interpreted by listeners/readers/language users. For this reason, taking a moment to reflect on the difference between “physical” and “social” distancing is worthwhile. The difference between the two may be a fine line indeed, but in the end it is all the difference to us as we power through this pandemic.

English & The Humanities: Documentations of Change

When I first got to college, I thought English as a discipline was static. Unchanging. I had some vague notion that literary works heralded as “classic” or “canon” are worthy of these labels because scholars consider the writing to be as perfect as possible. Shakespeare’s texts have lasted centuries because, as “perfect” works, they have been deemed worthy of preservation–preservation from change. (Or, so I thought at the time.) Having always been interested in writing, I was intrigued to start learning about the secret to what makes a “classic” a “classic,” and particularly what makes it worthy of preservation as an unchanging entity. What I failed to realize then, is that even the most “perfect” work is imperfect and ever-changing.

I am now a junior, three years into the English major at SUNY Geneseo, and my views on English and the humanities have changed dramatically. I now believe that the concept of a “finished product” or “finished work” is a myth. What is more, perfection is an unattainable asymptote for which writers strive, but can never reach. Literary works are a show of a writers’ efforts toward perfection; they are not a show of the actual achievement of perfection.

Being introduced to “meta-reading” (i.e., the analysis of the drafts and revisions–both during the writing process, and post-production–that a text has undergone) is responsible for reshaping my flawed perception of English as a discipline. The concept of “fluid text,” in which a text’s meaning can be enhanced through studying the changes it went through, was a new concept to me. During my studies, I began to understand that, when a writer chooses to replace or omit certain words/phrases/passages, these edits are what make for a “fluid” text—one that does not adhere to one single “true” version. By examining drafts and revisions, we can gain insight into the writing and thinking process of writers and even their intended messages.

Learning about meta-reading has opened my eyes to the truths of literary study. My first encounter with meta-reading was during a course I took on W. B. Yeats. The class opened my eyes to the imperfect, even frantic writing process that such literary greats as Yeats underwent in order to present a supposedly “perfect” “finished work,” fit for public consumption. Yet, even after publication, I learned that it is not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their works.

In trying to understand why an author would go through the effort of revising his/her works that have already been published, I think W. B. Yeats himself summed up the possible reasons well: “Whatever changes I have made are but an attempt to express better what I thought and felt when I was a young man.” This same concept can connect to a well-known, if seemingly paradoxical, Bob Dylan lyric: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

Now, as I study the digital humanities and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, my understanding of the ever-evolving nature of literature has deepened even further. Just as Yeats underwent many drafts, revisions, and rearrangements of his writing, so too did Thoreau. I have learned that such revisions oftentimes reflect the writers’ changing views on life. In editing their writing, a writer tries to more accurately capture and represent their views. In reading different variations of authors’ texts, it becomes evident that literary choices are very important in capturing, articulating, and conveying one’s intended message.

When an author gets older and gains more life experience, it is only natural that they grow not just as a person, but as a writer, too, in their abilities to better articulate what they once thought or felt. Over time, writers (like anyone, including me and my views on English) can also change their minds about a subject and therefore feel the need to change their writing on it. The human experience itself is fluid, as anyone working towards a growth mindset knows well. It takes courage to edit and re-publish one’s work, and it similarly takes courage to admit that one’s previous opinions/writings were not as accurate as they could be, and therefore justify a need for post-production edits. In this way, fluid text versions can be treated as a way of mapping an author’s growth as an individual over the course of their lifetime experiences.

It is also worth noting that, even if a text has remained relatively unrevised for a long period of time, readers’ interpretations of that text are still ever-changing. The future affects how people perceive the documented past. New literary and/or sociocultural theories lead to new ways of interpreting early English works. And because humanity evolves in these ways, so too do the artifacts that make up the humanities.

I now know that two of the most important parts of studying English literature–and studying historical documentation of the human experience in general–are: change and imperfection. The humanities (be it English texts, artistic works, etc.) tell a story of how human experience, and interpretation of past human experience, has developed and evolved over time. It is an unfinished, imperfect, and ever-changing story that is still being written.

Relevance, Obsolescence, and the Computer as a Cultural Mainstay

Language is an ever-evolving system by which we create meaning and share that meaning with others. It is a bridge to understanding others’ experiences and perspectives. Language is a collective, collaborative effort that changes along with the people and generations who use it for their own unique purposes, depending on what is relevant to a society at the time.

While people may be mortal, computers and digital documentation of human language is not so mortal. In a way, computers and digital technology may be thought of as an immortal mainstay for culture and language–for linguistic culture. They document and preserve how humans once created and shared meaning through words.

But what role do computers and digital technology platforms play in preserving, or at least documenting, human meaning-making? The case of the word “gaslighting” is an interesting example.

During a group discussion in one of my college English classes, I brought up the word “gaslight” and how it applied to an abusive relationship between characters within one of our reading assignments. (The text was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow “Wallpaper,” for those curious.) As a self-declared classic movie buff, I assumed that the meaning of this word–which originally became coined and consequently universalized from the 1944 movie Gaslight, a movie with which I was familiar–was common knowledge to everyone in the room. While my professor was familiar with the word, I quickly became aware that none of my classmates were, and had to explain that this word meant to “psychologically manipulate someone into becoming insane.”

The next day, while reading James Gleick’s The Information for ENGL 340, I coincidentally came across this now-obscure word once again. “[T]he technology for gaslight had not been invented [prior to the twentieth century],” Gleick writes. “Nor had the technology for motion pictures.” As Gleick explains, “[The word] exists only because enough people saw the 1944 film of that title and could assume that their listeners had seen it, too” (p. 76). Through cultural interest in a movie, a word and its meaning were born, gained relevance, and were shared into society’s collective consciousness.

While the meaning of the word “gaslight” could have been usefully applied to people or characters long before (or after, for that matter) the 1944 movie ever came into existence, the technology that allowed the word to become culturally relevant did not exist until that year. Luckily, the technology preventing the word from becoming forever extinct (if not irrelevant/obsolete/endangered) and preventing its meaning from becoming unknown to any humans, has also been invented: VCR’s, DVD’s, movie streaming platforms, digital dictionaries that now include the word “gaslight,” etc.

While this word seems to be relevant to my life lately as both a classic movie enthusiastic and English major, I am aware that “gaslight” is not a common vocab term to come across in the twenty-first century. Its technological-turned-etymological source, the 1944 movie, has become decidedly more obsolete; in turn, so has the cultural relevance of the word’s meaning. And so, too, then, has the word itself.

While movies may be a relevant technological platform in general, black-and-white films are not particularly popular types of movies anymore. When a certain type of technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete, it follows that its cultural byproducts do too. By this logic, technology is important in the present for being a producer and diffuser of cultural meaning in the form of language–especially temporary “slang.” Technology is important in the past for being a preserver of what was once culturally relevant, even if it has ceased to be relevant in the present.

At the intersection between past and present, between what is relevant and what is obsolete, is the digital humanities. And computers are the immortal platform that allows the digital humanities to exist in both the past and present–and future.

In this way, technology–be it in the form of movies, or the Internet where now-obsolete vocabulary definitions are forever preserved for users’ future reference–connects humans from all generations in time. It allows human meaning and language to also become immortal. Be it Shakespeare’s texts, or niche vocabulary term from a 1944 movie, language is forever being invented, used, and then filed away for future technology users to come across, either by accident or by intent. In essence, computers–like print literature–have become an extension of the human mind, of society’s collective consciousness, where language and meaning are stored.