Recollections of the Past:
From Pioneer Naturalist to Mountaineer Buddhist
(Thoreau and Kerouac)
An old adage says "never let the truth get in the way of a good story". However, where is the line drawn between embellishment and fabrication? Artistic privilege is just as it sounds; a liberty to manipulate and coerce verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech and sentence structure to yield a far more pleasing narrative. As with any privilege there comes responsibility, in this case, a responsibility to not change the original intent of the story or the context in which it took place.
In "Walden, Or Life in the Woods" (1995), by Henry David Thoreau, he takes a very analytical approach to his recollections of the past. Through the use of colorful descriptions, he paints a vivid account of his surrounding scenery with no detectable embellishment while providing an extremely accurate report of his experience. "But while we are confined to books, though the select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard." (Thoreau 72) In this description of sound, the level of scholarly, colorful language is clearly evident. Comparing Thoreau to his modern counterpart Jack Kerouac, in "The Dharma Bums" (1958), Kerouac writes with far less colorful language but provides more detail on personal sentiment and emotion. "Far off, just the sound of the yards where they were kicking cuts of cars with a great splowm waking up all El Paso, but me." (Kerouac 154) Kerouac is still descriptive, however is much less academic in his word choice. Despite the difference in literary style both authors present and insightful look into the world of self-reliance and self-reflection.
Much stress is placed on the "Value of Simplicity" which is a thematic element present throughout the entirety of both works. Thoreau states, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Thoreau 59) Here it is evident that he takes solace in the simplicity and sanctity of nature. Various other examples of this thematic element occur throughout the text. Tying this theme into Thoreau's view on imagination he writes, "My imagination carried me so far that I even had the refusal of several farms, -the refusal was all I wanted, -but I never got my fingers burned by actual possession". (Thoreau 53) Kerouac emphasizes the "Value of Simplicity" a little differently stating, "And suddenly I realized I was truly alone and had nothing to do but feed myself and rest and amuse myself, and nobody could criticize." (Kerouac 59) Kerouac litters his narrative with much of the same embrace of this theme. When discerning his intentions of living with the bare essentials he writes, "
But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an old-time bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc of New York to Mexico City or San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True meaning, or Dharma, and gain future Hero in Paradise." (Kerouac 5) Coming to the realization that self-sufficiency is a key element in simplicity; both Kerouac and Thoreau embark on their journey to self-actualization.
The genre of both stories is strikingly similar. Both authors write in first person elaborating firsthand on events they experienced and what realizations they made throughout the process. Expressing that they both felt most introspective in the woods, this implies that nature was of the most importance to both of them. Thoreau gives an example of this when he...
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