This essay by nature writer David Gessner is really quite provocative. Here are the first two paragraphs:
I AM SICK of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. It's been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as "quiet" by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office dressed in his pajamas ("Doesn't he work, Daddy?") or having those same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, complete with binoculars. And finally, four years of being constrained by the gentle straightjacket of the nature-writing genre; that is, four years of writing about the world without being able to use the earthier names for excrement (while talking a lot of scat).
Worse still, it's been four years of living within a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School. A strange Sunday School where I alternate between sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit (writing nature). And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books? Fellow nature lovers who already believe that the land shouldn't be destroyed. Too often when I flip through the pages of contemporary nature books the tone is awed, hushed, reverential. The same things that drove me away from Sunday School. And the same thing that drove me, unable to resist my own buffoonery, to fart loudly against the pews.
Gessner goes on in the next paragraph to observe astutely:
As the 150th anniversary of "Walden" approaches on August 9, it may pay to remember that Thoreau's great book also has its share of fart jokes, including references to Pythagrians and their love of beans. Bad puns, too, but you get the feeling that that isn't what the anniversary party is going to focus on. Instead the same, tired old cut-out of Thoreau as nature saint will be dragged out, St. Francis of Concord, our sexless -- and increasingly lifeless -- hero. It makes you wonder if anyone's actually taken the time to read his strange and wild book lately. If they did they would find sentences that fulfill Emerson's epigram: "My moods hate each other." Sentences that are, in turn, defensive and direct, arch and simple, upright and sensual, over-literary (even for the times) and raw. Of course I'm not claiming that Thoreau's book is free of nature reverence, just that the pious tone is often contradicted -- delightfully, thornily -- by moments like his confession that, for all his reasoned vegetarianism, "I could sometimes eat a fried rat with good relish, if it were necessary."
In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that not many people, including most nature writers, have "taken the time to read [Thoreau's] strange and wild book lately." Indeed it wouldn't surprise me to learn that few people have really read Walden at all, at least as it really is and not through the prism of a romanticized revisionism that sees the book as the kind of prissified environmental tome most people take it to be. There's plenty in it that's cranky, imperious, inflexible, and manifestly not politically correct. Most of all there's Thoreau's sometimes dense and allusive style: "I would fain say something, not so much concerning the Chinese and Sandwich Islanders, as you who read these pages, who are said to live in New England; something, about your condition, especially your outward condition or circumstances in this world, in this town, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Brahmins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of the tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars--even thes forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness."
This hardly seems the sort of thing one would now expect of the tea-sipping kind of nature writing Gessner describes, writing that seeks to describe nature in translucent language and dulcet tones and that seeks to elevate the scenery so described above the writer's own subjective perceptions. In effect, an image of Thoreau as a certain sort of nature-worshipper has replaced Thoreau the writer his texts actually present him to be.
One might say that this kind of inattention to what objectively characterizes the work of writers from the past, a failure to actually read it, is almost inevitable when these writers become known to us only--or at least mostly--through their inclusion in curricula of academic study--through being listed on course syllabi of various kinds. Familiarity with their books or plays or poems comes entirely in the "textbook" variety, although we don't necessarily read them only in literal textbooks. We read them in snippets, abridgements, condensed versions. It becomes very easy in this context for Thoreau to become the solemn nature-writer or Dickens to become the creator of Tiny Tim and other sentimental characters, or Hawthorne to become the grim chronicler of Puritanism, tags that efficiently describe them--or a version of them--and make it unnecessary to read them further.
This dilemma becomes especially acute with Shakespeare, who becomes the great Bard, the English National Treasure, the all-wise and perfect poet, and, most frequently, the measure by which we judge our qualifications to "culture." It was Shakespeare who created the most towering monuments of Culture in its pristine form, and thus the reason to read or view Shakespeare is to admire these monuments. That some people would rather not do this, especially when they're given little help in further understanding why their admiration is warranted, is perfectly understandable, this conclusion being my immediate response to a recent newspaper article explaining its author's refusal to any longer accord Shakespeare such reflexive respect. (This article is unfortunately no longer available online, but I thank The Elegant Variation for the link to it, nevertheless.) The author is wrong in assuming that Shakespeare really doesn't have anything to say to him, at least in my view, but it's hard to deny that the general assumption shared by too many of those who highly value Shakespeare is that one should esteem the plays because, well, just because one should.
Since the dominant attitude toward canonical literature among those who would otherwise be entrusted with educating readers or playgoers in the appropriate strategies for appreciating literature--that is, in the academy--has actually become a skeptical if not belligerent one, this situation will only get worse.The culture mavens will continue to insist on the spiritually pharmaceutical properities of Literature, and the professors will continue to use the snippets and abridgements to advance whatever preconceived agendas they have in mind.
Yet at some point it does become necessary to acknowledge that perhaps some writers, perhaps some great writers, just no longer engage present-day readers as effectively as they seem to have done in the past. Perhaps people no longer read Walden because its voice seems too alien, too prickly, for current sensibilites. Perhaps even the time will come when overcoming all the obstacles to understanding Shakespeare in his own language and according to the appropriate literary conventions will become too difficult, at least for all but the few. Neither insisting on the greatness of these writers nonetheless, nor attempting to reinterpret or literally retranslate them into contemporary idioms and assumptions will forestall this for long. It is true that we live in a time when any kind of difficult or unorthodox writing is often decried as an offense to the "common reader," and it is possible that at some time in the not so distant future such writing will again be welcomed. At that time the difficulties involved in reading works of literature from the past might again be seen as worth the effort as well. But there is effort involved, and it remains an open question whether "literary reading," as it was called in the recent NEA report, will ever really be an interest shared by more than a small, if ardent, minority. And, if not, whether this would be such a bad thing.