THOREAU’S AXE: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture

Caleb Smith

ISBN 978-0-691-21477-1  Princeton  £28

 reviewed by Alan Dent

Using short extracts from nearly thirty writers, amongst them Melville , Poe, William James, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, and less retrievable names such as James Dana, Austin Reed, Lydia Maria Child, Smith reflects on the tension between distraction and attention across more than two centuries of American culture. There is no easy way through the thicket. Opposition to distraction and insistence on the improving nature of attention have been employed by reactionaries, reformers and revolutionaries. Smith doesn’t try to impose consistency. He attends to each piece diligently and works as an insightful critic. The result is a condensed overview of the pattern of an important feature of American life. It’s an ingenious conception very well accomplished.  

Thoreau borrowed an axe in March 1845 to cut timber for his house at Walden Pond. When the head came off, he fitted a new wedge and put the tool to soak. As he did, he spotted a snake which slithered down a bank and into the water, where it lay quite for quarter of an hour while he watched it. Thoreau turned the snake into a metaphor for his fellow-countrymen: they were lying low, dormant, unawakened. If the spring could run through them, they might come to life. Thoreau believed he had identified a spiritual absence in American life, a lack of character. They should rise to a “higher” and “more ethereal” condition. What had Thoreau discerned? He was an abolitionist of course, at a time when white supremacy  was taken for granted by the majority. He opposed war. He went to prison, if only for a night thanks to his aunt, who he didn’t thank for it, rather than contribute to what he opposed. Much has been written about his version of individualism, his Transcendentalism, his creation of the doctrine of Civil Disobedience; but wasn’t what he knew, emotionally for want of a better way of putting it, that the economic system exported from Europe and made the basis of American life, was an insult to human nature?  

Thoreau was a major influence on D.H.Lawrence (H.D.T. and D.H.L.) whose work is characterised by a visceral dislike of the pursuit of material gain. In Thoreau he found an echo of his mother’s non-conformism as well as his father’s uncomplicated love of nature and the American helped him elaborate a way of being at odds with his culture. It’s as impossible to imagine Lawrence putting on a dinner jacket and dickie bow to attend a swanky dinner for the award of a literary prize as it is to think of a contemporary writer who doesn’t fantasise about such flummery. Lawrence picked up from Thoreau that humanity had taken a wrong turn: making the contest for lucre the defining aim of life has dehumanised us. Like the snake in the water, we are drowsy, unaware, unable to rise to life because of our hibernation n in the cold world of profit-and-loss calculation. 

“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by attending to trivial things”, Thoreau wrote. The defenders of the bustle and business he despised, might argue their occupations aren’t trivial but he recognised that what we’ve created are “pretty toys”. Distraction is a form of suffering, but attention can inflict pain too. There are references to asceticism in Walden (Nye Bevan commented that it warps the mind) but self-flagellation is not Thoreau’s intent. What he’s after is a more intensive way of living, but not the intensity of cocaine-fuelled commodity traders, because they offend human nature. Thoreau is pushing to answer probably the hardest question we face: what is our nature?  

Early on, Smith picks up on the irony that the kind of attention Thoreau seeks, has been used for purposes he didn’t intend: he quotes a Massachusetts state legislature report on a New England site for a youth reformatory. The description has in common with Thoreau a belief in the healing power of the peace and slowness of nature. Yet what is going on here is not the setting free of the inviolable individual, but confinement and manipulation to achieve the aims of the ruling ideology.  

The second extract is from Jarena Lee, born in 1783 she was a slave who found salvation in religion. Her attention is to a force outside herself. She experiences her faults as the work of the devil and her virtues as the inspiration of god. Oddly, then, attention in this case reinforces heteronomy. Perhaps she would have been better off engaging in a bit of daydreaming, in so far as it is at least an escape from control.  

J.H. McIlvaine disdains debased reading material. Writing in 1849, he sees it as the corrupter of minds. The debate is still alive. McIlvaine fears popular literature because, he thinks, it includes such things as the work of Thomas Paine. Perhaps he would be surprised at how few people read Paine today. His high-mindedness is melded with a low desire for control. He is more moralistic than moral. Smith points out his implicit racism: the tradition he defends is white. Her has no praise for non-white culture (most of the world’s). Smith comments on McIlvaine’s diagnosis of the source: the sensationalist press, the dominant mass medium in the period before the Civil War. On the one hand, McIlvaine is arguing against a manipulative press and for self-mastery, and who be opposed to that? On the other, he is too wedded to control. Karl Marx was no intellectual slouch, but he had a taste for cheap fiction. Popular culture isn’t necessarily incompatible with self-mastery and seriousness. What matters is where the fulcrum lies.  

In part two, Smith moves from the devil and distraction to reform. The reformers of the early nineteenth century focussed on the straightening out of individuals to the neglect of the social questions. William Watkins writing in 1836 believed children should be “indoctrinated” in the “practices of our holy religion”. Curious but widespread the idea that autonomy might be achieved through indoctrination. William Kelley, judge and reformer saw Philadelphia fall under the malevolent influence of what Smith calls “racial capitalism”. He was an adcoate of rehabilitation, but he was intent of reforming the individual by bringing him or her home to god. No doubt beneficent in his intentions, Kelley absorbed the conventions of his time. What was hardly available was a recognition that the nature of American society was generating the problems he was so exercised by.  

Part three is Revival and part four Devotion. Whether the snippet under discussion is from Whitman, Dickinson or Henry Clay Fish, Smith is teasing out the contradictions and ironies. The Afterword contains an interesting discussion of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd and Walter Benjamin’s response to it and the existence of crowds and mass culture in general. Benjamin favoured the cinema, the mass form, over literature, because he believed it was a bulwark against the herding power of fascism, a belief which seems somewhat naïve, as Smith suggests, in a world where authoritarian populists make use of the media the masses rally to.  

What seems clear is that distraction isn’t necessarily negative, nor discipline (or attention) necessarily beneficial. A little more distraction among the clerks at Drancy could have saved a lot of lives; a little less attention among Trump’s followers might have avoided the regrettable spectacle of 6th January 2021. The virtue of this book lies in leaving many questions open, in proposing that much of what we try to understand puzzles us. Trying to answer hard questions is a good way to spend your time, but believing you’ve got the answers is almost certainly a questionable destination. All the writers featured were, one way or another, trying to assist moral progress. It’s a project worth paying attention to and Smith’s book is a thoughtful and well-written contribution.