How Alone Was Thoreau, Exactly?

In her scathing attack of Henry David Thoreau and Walden, Kathryn Schulz implies that Thoreau deliberately misleads readers into thinking he is more secluded from society than he is. However, defenders of Thoreau point out that he never does mislead readers; it is only common misconception that has lead people to view him as a recluse. So I began to wonder, what does Thoreau have to say on his isolation? And can distant reading help me determine that?

Using Voyant Tools to comb through Walden, if one enters words into the tool below, they will find words are that are commonly found near the original word. Of the words I chose to look at, three had to do with seclusion–loneliness, hermit, and alone–and three had to do with companionship–friend, Concord, and neighbor. While no definitive answer was found as to Thoreau’s own view of his separation–with this method, anyway–it was interesting to see which words were linked with each other.

Some things pointed more towards Thoreau being a member of society. He has “old” “friends,” “Concord” is “good,” his “neighbors” are also “good” and “known,” and his “loneliness” is found to be “relieved.” However, other things indicate that Thoreau was distant from others. He “avoided” his “neighbors,” and they were a mile away, maybe even a “good” “mile” if one is to read it that way. Additionally, he is “let” “alone” a “great” “deal.”

Ultimately, only six words and their correlates cannot tell us anything about Walden. Such information as I was trying to glean must be found from reading the book. But that does not mean that analyzing the novel from afar does not tell us interesting things as well. This provides a framework for what words and sections to study in order to determine more about Thoreau’s greatest work.

On Revision

I had the rather meta idea while doing this to “word vomit” and publish, just to make a point about how important revision is. I wound up being unwilling to risk my grade for such a point, but as I revise this very piece, I am reminded yet again of just how much revision means to me.

As someone who writes both academically and creatively, I am a firm believer that just as much–if not more–writing is done in revision as is done in a first draft. The first thing I do when writing is make an outline. That may not seem like a part of the revision process (perhaps the prevision process, if anything), but it is hugely crucial to my writing, for it allows me to revise even as I am writing a first draft. Are the sources I’ve listed in my outline actually helpful, or do they drag down my paper? I can fix that here. Do I actually need to make this point, or is it too similar to a point I made earlier? I might decide either way. Should I use my meta idea about not revising this post as a final thought, as I originally intended, or should I use it as a lead, instead? It was while writing the first draft of this post that I made that choice.

Once I’ve written my draft, I will start truly revising. These revisions don’t feel very formal to me, as I don’t usually save drafts in their entirety or do it in a methodical way. Instead, I’ll begin by reading over a paragraph and then, when I feel there’s something I could fix, I’ll rewrite it. Then I’ll rewrite the idea immediately following it. Then I’ll keep rewriting, pushing the original text further and further down the page. Sometimes, if I remember phrasing something really well the first time around, I’ll copy that in and pick up where the good section leaves off, but often I’ll just keep writing, not even looking at what I’ve written earlier. And then, when I’ve finished the new paragraph, I’ll cut and paste the old one at the bottom of the document, so it is there to refer to if I need it. And this continues until I have a finished work.

However, if there is one thing writing this post has taught me, it’s that I don’t always do things the same way. This being a shorter piece, I didn’t do as extensive an outline. I also found myself very motivated to write; much of my original writing wasn’t that bad, so I didn’t rewrite as much and instead focused more on tweaking, as I might do in the final stages of a large paper. Ultimately, however, if there is one constant across all of my writing, it is that I do revise, no matter how much or little. And when I don’t, I tend to wish I had. Once, I sent an email to a former teacher. Instead of revising, I convinced myself to trust in my own ability to write and understand grammar rules. Turns out, I had misplaced three commas and written “two” instead of “to.” I pride myself in being a very good writer and grammarian, but I know I would be nowhere without revision.

On Annotation

Recently, I have taken the time to reflect on annotation. I annotate a lot. Generally, it follows predictable patterns: red ink means I have written it on my own time, blue ink means I heard it from a teacher or classmate. I annotate more on informational writing than on fictional works, and more when reading on a computer than not. Obviously, I will still write in books, but as someone with notoriously bad handwriting who hated having to fit long rants in tiny margins, using computers to annotate is amazing. The note is always readable, and on some programs, I can leave notes in a separate comments section, so it doesn’t clutter the page.

Although I understand how I annotate, what I don’t understand is why. It’s certainly not for anyone else to read; I get embarrassed when others read my annotations because they are often informal and about my personal views (I almost included a picture with this post of my annotations but felt too self-conscious and removed it). I often do it to help in my understanding of a work and to prove to myself that I am paying attention as I read; when I cannot annotate, I feel I absorb less of what I am reading.

But even that seems too official a reason for my annotation. What I write isn’t always intelligent. It’s often just inane commentary. Maybe I do it to entertain myself, like doodling. Either way, I know annotation is important to my reading process, and I’m grateful for the digitization of media for making it easier to annotate.