The Saunterers’ Club

In pursuit of a more wayward Thoreau

Caleb Smith
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

From "Distraction and Attention," a folio of responses to Caleb Smith's Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. To read the entire folio, click here.

Imagine it is a cold, nasty night in December, and you have made your way to your local library to attend a reading by a well-known writer. He has a reputation as a nature lover, a radical, something of a mystic. He is going to read an essay about the landscape in this time of year, as fall gives way to winter.

Right away, though, you get a bad feeling. From the first line he utters, noting “the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage,” the writer looks miserable. His voice is hoarse and unsteady. As he quotes a few lines from an English poet—“see the fading many-colored woods”—maybe you start to realize that your chair is uncomfortable. Maybe you want a drink. Elsewhere in the audience, a newspaper critic is preparing to call this the single worst performance in the history of the library’s reading series.

The writer stops to cough, then carries on. He uses the Latin names for plants. As he gets discouraged, he seems to become more self-righteous. “A man shall perhaps rush by and trample down plants as high as his head, and cannot be said to know that they exist,” he says. “Yet, if he ever favorably attends to them, he may be overcome by their beauty.” Maybe you are still paying attention, or maybe your mind is drifting.

When Henry David Thoreau read his “Autumnal Tints” at the Young Men’s Institute in Waterbury, Connecticut, on December 11, 1860, it was a time of trouble all around the country. There was talk of Southern secession, maybe even civil war. A storm was passing through New England. Thoreau was sick with a fever, and his trip through the freezing, sleeting weather had worn him out. He was only forty-two, and he didn’t know it yet, but he was never going to get well.

In her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls notes the poignancy of Thoreau choosing “Autumnal Tints” for what would turn out to be his final public lecture. The essay finds beauty where some people might notice only a withering deadness—or be too distracted to see anything at all. To recognize “the wide-spread, but late and unexpected glory of the Scarlet Oaks,” Thoreau writes, “requires a particular alertness, if not devotion.”

Rather than just teaching his listeners a lesson, Thoreau enters into a risky, delicate interaction with them.

“Autumnal Tints” makes for slow reading. It seems designed to dilate time, lingering in the last bright minutes before winter, and it makes severe demands on its readers’ attention. Thoreau did most of his writing in private journals, sharing them with a small circle of people he trusted. But in his public essays, books, and lectures, he did not shy from controversy. He courted strong reactions from readers—reactions that he still is getting. With his peculiar blend of memoir and moralism, he has a way of making people defensive. In Waterbury, a growing city that was getting rich from its brass foundries, in a time of political crisis and harsh weather, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say.

Midway through “Autumnal Tints,” Thoreau speaks directly to his audience, to you. He gives you some advice about how to spend your time: “Let your walks be a little more adventurous,” he says. “If, about the last of October, you ascend any hill in the outskirts of our town, and probably of yours, and look over the forest, you may see—well, what I have endeavored to describe.”

I have read this passage more than a few times, gleaning from it what I took to be Thoreau’s main point, that natural beauty is available to anyone who wants it. The glory of the Scarlet Oaks is out there in the commons, free of charge. Just climb a hill, and you can get your share. But as I look at Thoreau’s words again now, alongside the reflections that Ana Schwartz, Daegan Miller, and Laura Dassow Walls have composed for this occasion, I realize that I overlooked some things. Maybe my mind was wandering.

After all, Thoreau hedges. He places some conditions on the promise he is making. He doesn’t tell you what you will see if you climb your hill. He tells you what “you may see.” “You may see” means that you have permission—everybody has permission—but it also means that you might see or you might not. In fact, Thoreau insists, you will not see the magic unless “you are prepared to look for it.” Most of the time, the best things stay hidden from us in plain sight because “we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them.” In other words, we are too distracted.

Thoreau wrote a lot about this problem: how people become disconnected from what really matters and how to rehabilitate attention. In Thoreau’s Axe, I take up the works of nineteenth-century writers and reformers like Thoreau who worried about distraction in their time, when industrial capitalism was reengineering their society. They witnessed the development of the economy that Walls describes us living in today, “in which everything can be commodified” and “attention itself, that limited good, has become a commodity.”

Trying to repair the damage, to reclaim attention, these writers—who range from the famous (abolitionist Frederick Douglass) to the all but forgotten (Creole mystic Adrien Rouquette)—devised a whole range of experimental disciplines and self-disciplines. Some of the programs were coercive, imposed in institutions. Others were taken up by choice, in private, by people trying to protect themselves against the new economy’s compulsions. I like to think of Miller with his scythe in his rewilding meadow, joining this nonconformist lineage.

While I was working on Thoreau’s Axe, I saw “Autumnal Tints” as one more variation on the themes expressed in Walden: he was asking his audience, I thought, to reorient their minds away from modern noise, toward natural beauty. What Walls, Miller, and Schwartz have helped me to remember is that the writer’s relation to an audience is never such a straightforward matter. Rather than just teaching his listeners a lesson, Thoreau enters into a risky, delicate interaction with them, putting himself on the line. He hopes to make a connection, but he might also wish to protect himself against misrecognition and abandonment. Revisiting the essay now, I notice Thoreau faltering. I feel the hesitation and the doubt that interrupts his promise.

“You may see—well, what I have endeavored to describe,” Thoreau says. Before he can finish his own sentence, he loses his self-composure. Instead of naming an object that you may see, he waves his hand, vaguely, toward whatever he said earlier. He seems to acknowledge that his own writing, his effort to conjure the radiant woods in words, might not be good enough.

Throughout “Autumnal Tints,” Thoreau has set himself up as a model noticer, the one who discovers beauty where other people can’t, but his phrasing here betrays his awareness of what Schwartz calls “alienation.” No one in his audience is obliged to care about him. If his listeners are cold, then they reject more than his opinions. They withhold a more personal kind of acknowledgment that, from his lonely spot behind the podium, might feel like love.

When Thoreau’s prose is at its best, it doesn’t browbeat you. It calls you along as an accomplice on a wayward cruise.

Thoreau’s habit of making himself exemplary exposes him to various kinds of rejection. Sometimes it takes the form of strong judgments—accusations of hypocrisy or narcissism. Sometimes, at least for me, it takes the form of dissociation, as I let my mind wander from his words, the way I used to daydream in my church pew when I was a little kid. This is what I mean about “the charisma of other people’s self-possession,” a phrase from Thoreau’s Axe that catches Schwartz’s eye: I find Thoreau most compelling when he writes about his own encounters with the world, least so when he lays down moral axioms for the rest of us. I love his wildness, not his preaching. When his prose is at its best, it doesn’t browbeat you. It calls you along as an accomplice on a wayward cruise. I think this is one reason why so many of us—Walls, Miller, Schwartz, and me, too—end up writing about our own lives when we are writing about Thoreau. I’m grateful for their company.

We have the right to walk away, and so does he. As Walls writes, “Thoreau’s perverse gift was to ‘saunter,’” indulging in an “open-ended, nothing-in-particular truancy.” It is true; Thoreau was like a flaneur of the woods. The word saunter, he noted, was said to derive from the French Saint Terre, or “Holy Land,” a destination for medieval pilgrims. Saint Terre, saunter, Holy Land: This etymology resonated with Thoreau, who saw wandering as a spiritual exercise, a way of “getting absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” as he wrote in “Walking,” especially when the sojourners went nowhere in particular.

When I first moved to New England, I used to go around exploring the ruins of burned-out factories and defunct tourist sites. (Connecticut has a reputation as a rich, pleasant little state, but like a lot of other parts of the country it was badly gouged by deindustrialization, especially in its cities.) I knew a local journalist who kept a list of such places, and we trespassed through a bunch of them. We were getting a feeling for the region’s character by seeing its scars, but we were also just meandering, curious, looking at whatever weird stuff we might find.

There was a resort community on an island off the coast, destroyed by storms and fires. The bridge was out, and we could only reach it at low tide, along a beach of crunchy sea snail shells. There was a flooded quarry, good for swimming. On a hill overlooking Waterbury—the scene of Thoreau’s last lecture—we visited a defunct Christian theme park called Holy Land USA. Built in 1958, it had closed some decades later, as Waterbury slid into poverty. It was easy to get through the beat-up gate. There seemed to be no security at all. Nobody harassed us, anyway, though we must have loitered for more than an hour.

A winding path led to various small-scale installations, representing Biblical scenes. The figurines were recognizable but damaged. The sun had bleached the painted signs along the path, and weeds and wildflowers grew in the crevices. We saw the traces left behind by other, earlier vagrants—graffiti, cigarette stubs, broken glass. In no hurry to arrive at the big cross on the summit, we wandered around and noticed things. We liked the place the way it was, abandoned but unguarded.

Caleb Smith is a professor of English at Yale. He is the author of The Prison and the American Imagination, The Oracle and the Curse, and Thoreau's Axe. @calebsmith203
Originally published:
May 23, 2023


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

How to Sharpen a Scythe

Is paying attention good in itself?
Daegan Miller

Sublimation and Self-Possession

Bearing witness to life’s weirdness
Ana Schwartz

Beyond the Attention Economy

Turning to face our burning world
Laura Dassow Walls


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.