Thoreau And The Modern American Housewife

Mrs. Brown is a Texas housewife, a free-lance writer, and a high school teacher of English.

I shall never be rid of Henry. He has become a part of me, an important living part that I should never want to lose.

I first met Henry in a college literature class. The professor was a terrible bore, his lectures ill-prepared, his assignments long and often dull. One week he as­signed us Thoreau’s Walden. Thinking of it as only another time waster, I picked up a copy at the library, planning to race through it in one evening. I soon found that to be impossible.

Walden took some time and con­centration. I can’t say that I was then enthralled nor did I imme­diately recognize its value to me. But, I met Henry.

I really didn’t realize that we had met, so subtle was his influence; but I soon found him pop­ping up quite frequently at very strange moments in very strange places.

One day I went into a college shop to purchase some slacks, a pair of good, comfortable, baggy, long-legged, wool slacks. The clerk brought out for my inspection a variety of colors in my size as well as numerous shirts and sweaters to match. I selected a pair of the style I desired and went to the dressing room. Un­fortunately, the legs were tapered in such a way as to squeeze my calves and the length stopped two inches above my ankles.

"Do you have some without the tapered legs and with a little more length?"

"Oh, but this is the way they wear them now."

I stood there silently, but a line from Walden kept racing through my head: What authority have they in an affair which affects me so nearly?

"I refuse to be dictated to by the fashion-monger," I said deter­minedly.

"I beg your pardon," the clerk stared at me.

Although the voice was mine, the thoughts were Henry’s, and I didn’t know exactly how to ex­plain his mysterious presence.

"Oh, nothing," I said, "I’ll not take the slacks. Those are not what I want."

I rushed out of the store, but I heard Henry, before he disap­peared, laughing and saying:

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religious­ly the new.

I left college and took a job to save every penny for a trip to Europe. I did not want a go-now­ pay-later three weeks flying tour. I wanted to spend some time in Europe and really get the flavor of the countries. I thought that by using the strictest economy I could in three years save enough to quit my job and spend three to six months abroad.

I hated my job and the time dragged on. Before the first year was over I was disgusted. One evening when I walked into my apartment, there was Henry. We had quite a discussion.

What is this spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a ques­tionable liberty?

I noted the scorn in his voice as he ended by saying: as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I quit my job the next day. I decided to do exactly what I wished to do. I took a poorer paid job as a low-low junior reporter on a small paper, but I loved the work and the occasional by-line. At the end of the next year I was planning to be wed to another junior reporter. All thoughts of Europe were out of my head, and I was, of all people, most happy.

The Simple Life

In those years of early mar­riage the funds were often low. I was thankful for Henry’s visits; he always whispered encourage­ment to me.

My greatest skill has been to want but little.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.

I wished to live deliberately, and not when I came to die, dis­cover that I had not lived.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplic­ity!

Simplify, simplify.

On one occasion my husband and I were invited to attend a very important dinner in the city. I wanted so desperately a new outfit that John consented to take the necessary amount from his going – into – business – for – my­self fund. I went shopping and found the perfect garment. I was just about to have the clerk put it into a box for me when Henry appeared:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call Life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

I stopped and stared at the out­fit. I would rather he had not appeared at this time. He kept talking:

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, com­monly, to have fashionable clothes than to have a sound conscience.

"Are you well, madam?"

"Oh, yes, quite well. Henry just told me not to buy the suit." "Henry?"

"I just decided it was not wise for me to buy the suit."

"Oh ———–  could I show
you something else?"

"No ——- ," I paused. "Yes,
can you tell me where to find the sewing notions?"

I bought two fifteen-cent pack­ages of seam binding and left the store. But I had not lost Henry.

A civilized country, where -he roared his warm laughter at me, where people are judged of by their clothes.

I wanted to tell him to hush, but he had always been so wise, so helpful to me, I decided I would not endanger his friendship.

At home I shortened my old suit and cut the sleeves from the blouse. In a day’s work I had a modern suit I was proud to wear.

That evening John asked, "Did you find a suit, hon?"

"I surely did. I found a beauti­ful, perfect suit."

"How much?" he asked, with fear in his generous voice.

"Oh, I decided it cost too much Life. I didn’t buy it."

"What!"

That night I showed him my creation. He was very compli­mentary and proud. I also intro­duced him to Henry. I thought two gentlemen who could so easily find agreement should meet. John had heard of Henry but had never ventured to become well-acquainted.

Being One’s Own Boss

Henry put ideas into John’s head as he often did into mine. Only a few months later John de­cided that one can’t kill time with­out injuring eternity, and he launched his own paper in an­other small town.

Our two sons arrived, and the paper’s expenses were terrific. It seemed that financially we were going under. We decided that I should hire someone to keep the boys and go back to work. That night Henry came:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed despera­tion. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

Then he began to say over and over again:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call Life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

The next day we decided to ask for a loan to keep the paper going another year and to keep me home with my boys.

Those years when the boys were little and I was tied so closely to home became rather discouraging to me. I grew very tired of dust­ing, sweeping, washing, ironing, and cooking over and over and over. When my despair became unbearable, I ran to fetch Walden. Sure enough, Henry had the an­swer for me:

You are the slave-driver of yourself.

Once I had three pieces of lime­stone on my desk, but I was ter­rified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furni­ture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.

We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ail­ment than on our mental aliment.

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the read­ing of a book!

Thinking for Oneself

When the time came for my tour-of-duty in P.T.A., I was, at first, quite eager to do my service to the improvement of the schools and of my abilities as a parent. However, I soon became disgusted with the lack of action on the part of the organization. I sat quietly back and let the others lead the group into a chaos of utter use­lessness. I took it calmly until at one meeting it was proposed to budget $150 to purchase an elabo­rate silver service for the socials which followed the business meet­ing and programs. This proposal burned my natural instinct toward economy.

Our school library was only half finished—chairs, tables, and, more importantly, more books were all sadly needed. The age of audio­visual education was here, but our school owned only one movie pro­jector—no television, no tape re­corder, no slide projector, no rec­ord player. How could these mothers even think of a silver service for their social hour! I knew quite well that they used glass cups or sometimes even paper ones at home, but I sat quietly.

That is—until Henry sat him­self beside me and started bruis­ing my conscience with his words:

No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not there­fore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.

I jumped to my feet and brave­ly led the opposition to defeat the measure. For the next few years I found myself guiding the P.T.A. into a worth-while position, its original purpose of providing service to the school through com­munity effort.

We Pay with Our Lives

Our little two-bedroom house which had been perfect for the boy’s elementary school days sud­denly seemed to become wholly in­adequate. Several of our friends had bought new, larger homes, and the urge to do likewise burned within me. And the boys were rather large to share such a tiny room. And our kitchen had no built-ins. And we didn’t have central heating. And we could use a two-car garage, one side for the car, the other for storage. I could think of so many valid reasons.

I set forth a plan to convince John to buy a new house. I found a new one that fit our needs if not our pocket book. I figured with a realtor on how much trade-in our house would bring and how much we would be obligated per month to live in the new house. The total cost was of little signifi­cance.

Henry jumped up with his usual the-cost-of-a-thing-is-Life remark, but I did not listen. I told him to vanish as this was too im­portant to the boys for me to be concerned about spending my Life to pay for it.

I had things well-arranged. I fixed John’s favorite supper and did it so inconspicuously that he didn’t even notice the trap.

I told him the plans, and he was seriously interested. He always wanted that which pleased me and provided the best for his boys.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Henry wouldn’t let me rest:

I would rather sit on a pump­kin and have it all to myself than to be crowded on a velvet cushion.

That didn’t make sense. What did he mean?

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

He would not leave me alone. I got out of bed to keep from dis­turbing John. In the cold living room my thoughts began to come more clearly.

The boys had never once talked about moving. They sometimes complained about the lack of closet space for certain things, but they didn’t seem unhappy with the house.

It was I who wanted to move. Really, I didn’t mind the size of our house too much. I really didn’t mind that my stove sat out of my cabinet or that the house had a floor furnace and heaters scat­tered about, rather than one cen­tral unit for heating. It was just that the Davidsons, the Kellers, and the Rices had new houses, and I knew that John’s income was equal to any of theirs. I didn’t want us to seem to be poor man­agers. I wanted to look successful to the world. But was public opin­ion worth the debt it would create?

Henry patiently repeated his words:

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.

My decision was made. I slept the remainder of the night so well that John had to shake me awake the next morning.

He said that he could almost tell by the expression on my face that Henry had been there and the wisest decision had been made.

That summer we added a room above the garage that served as a family room and as extra storage. It was easily paid for with so little Life that we hardly missed it.

Vocational Guidance

Oh, those school years passed much too rapidly. It seemed as if the boys were ready for college when they should have only been leaving junior high school, and my plans for them were just not working out.

John and I were in perfect dis­agreement about the future of the elder of the boys. Bob had made up his own mind that he wanted to enter the newspaper business with John. We were all pleased about that. I wanted him to go to a good liberal arts college and prepare himself. John argued that Bob could better learn the trade by working in the trade.

I came in one evening to find John reading Walden. I was sure that I had won the argument; for a man of Thoreau’s intellect would surely favor a decision for one to send his son to college before learning his trade. I was mistaken. Henry and John collaborated, and I came down in defeat.

Henry’s argument was this:

I f I wished a boy to know some­thing about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neigh­borhood of some professor, where anything is professed and prac­ticed but the art of life; to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not de­tect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the mon­sters in a drop of vinegar.

Bob finished high school and started immediately working at the newspaper office—not as a manager, but as a route boy, a copy boy, an assistant typesetter, and on a few occasions when no one else was available as a low-low junior reporter. He learned his trade well.

A few years ago he came home to announce that he had decided that one can’t kill time without in­juring eternity. He had heard John say it many times. He and his wife were taking their little girls and were starting a news­paper, a weekly, in a nearby town.

Jack never had an interest in newspapers. All of the salesman­ship of both John and me could never convince him to follow our trade. He wanted to be a doctor or a rancher. Jack had maintained extra high grades in school with really little effort. Before gradu­ation he was offered a scholarship to Tulane.

John and I were very proud, thinking of the credit to us to have a son at Tulane and to have a medical doctor in the family.

Only a few days later we were absolutely appalled when Jack an­nounced that he had decided to refuse the scholarship. He wanted to go to Oklahoma State Uni­versity to study veterinary medi­cine. He had never really wanted to be an M.D.

I am sure I would have burst into tears had not Henry once again saved me from an act of desperation!

I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s in­stead.

It was soon easy to see that for Jack his own way was best.

A Worthy Bequest

Life has been good to John and me. We were sitting last evening recalling our life and its decisions.

"I only regret that we have so little to leave the boys," I men­tioned.

"Of course, there is the house and the paper."

"Oh, but that is not a memorial from us to them. The house will only sell for a little, and the news­paper will only bring a living, not ever wealth."

At that, Henry leaped into our midst:

Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I love better to see stones left in place.

He didn’t repeat his remark, but he said it with great finality.

Then he vanished, and somehow I feel that he’ll not need to come back. Since our first meeting his influence has never been gone, nor would it ever leave my life.

Today I went to town and bought two copies of Walden, and I mailed one to each of the boys, enclosing this note:

I would like for you to become better acquainted with my dear friend, Henry David Thoreau. The reading of this book started a new era in my life; it helped me to con­sider my values before I acted. I hope it can bring to you some of the hap­piness it has brought to me.

With love, Mother

 

***

The socialist does not trust in the goodness of humanity. He is convinced that the hungry will not be fed, the naked clothed, the aged cared for, the sick visited, unless the power of the state intervenes to confiscate from society the means necessary for the state to attend to these needy. But this poses an interesting question. If the vast majority in our society really share this powerful urge to help the needy, why do they fear for the fate of charity if left to the voluntary care of the people? It is a well-known fact that there is little or no administrative cost in the sort of family or neighborhood charity for which America was famous, whereas there is great administrative cost in the compulsory redistribution of wealth by government agencies. So what is there to lose in allowing the people to follow their avowed inclinations without recourse to the power of the state?

Glenn L. Pearson, College of Religion, Brigham Young University

Further Reading

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