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Walden or the Violence of the Letter: Toward a Theory of Reading

Isabelle Alfandary


This article seeks to unfold and contemplate the terms, conditions and consequences of Walden’s groundbreaking theory of reading based on an understanding of the sign as original if not originary, leading to an inversion of the values of sound and echo, presence and absence, reading and literature, mother tongue and writing.

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1In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, H. D. Thoreau develops an original and ambivalent theory of reading. In this article, I would like to examine and investigate the incalculable terms, i.e., conditions and consequences, of Thoreau’s reading theory as it is developed in chapter 3 from Walden, and as it is put into practice throughout the book. “Reading” is a four-page chapter that may pass unnoticed in the long chain of Walden chapters. Reading, at least reading in the way in which Thoreau conceives of it, cannot be held separate from the book’s general project, which I shall try to recapitulate, for reading lies at the core of Thoreau’s experience of Life in the Woods.

2Throughout Walden, reading is implicitly defined as a faculty as well as a practice. The reason why Thoreau makes room for reading, and addresses what may pass for an indoor and abstract issue, can legitimately be questioned. In a larger transcendentalist perspective, Thoreau’s meditation on reading in Walden will come as no surprise. A very wide range of texts, coming from different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds, forming a largely imaginary and dematerialized library, are mentioned throughout the book. Be they literary or philosophical, Classics or Eastern tradition treatises, each and every text seems to gesture toward one text which contains and generates them all: Nature, whose script is constantly to be examined and deciphered.

3In Walden, Thoreau addresses reading metaphorically, or to be more specific, conceives of what we commonly call reading as a metaphorical extension of a general, if not transcendental, faculty of the mind. Reading as we generally understand it does not encompass the infinite range and variety of signs and events which lend themselves to be read in nature. Letters and books are only a minuscule portion of the readable, for the realm of the readable coincides with the confines of the real. Reading is not a mere competence, but “the queen of all the sciences” to take up the famous Kantian phrase, the ruling Thoreauvian faculty. Therefore, Thoreau’s theory of reading cannot be confined to books and literary works but determines what I would call a general economy of the mark. Reading results and implies a certain handling, a certain entertaining of the trace, be it echo, imprint, or print.

4Although Thoreau confesses that he hardly has the time to read while at Walden, Walden’s narrative is interspersed and punctuated with literary or philosophical intertexts. Such is the case in the chapter preceding “Reading” in which Thoreau quotes from the Roman author Old Cato whose lines from De Re Rustica he knows by rote. Books may not be actually within reach in Thoreau’s cabin, nor actually read by want of time (“I did not read books the first summer: I hoed beans”, Thoreau 411), but they are incessantly remembered and/or quoted from. Thoreau’s attitude vis-à-vis literature is neither anecdotal, nor merely cultural or generational. Books do not need to be physically present to be accessible and even to be read. As strange as this may sound, Thoreau’s theory and praxis of reading builds on this intuition.

5Literary texts haunt the surroundings of Walden pond and fill up the air with their metaphorical presence, contributing to taming the American wilderness with classical notes and references. This is the case in chapter 2, where Thoreau compares the humming of a morning mosquito to a Homeric stance:

Morning bring back heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. (Thoreau 393)

6The woods around Walden abound with signs treated as letters and turned into texts. The further the library, the closer the book: as paradoxical as it may seem, this tenet governs Walden, a book made of books, a book in which books and letters are demultiplied, redoubled, disseminated.

7In a transcendentalist conception, Nature is the book of books, the Bible of textuality:

My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on the bark, and now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. (Thoreau 402)

8“Those books first written on the bark” as Thoreau calls them stand out as nature’s archive, and refer books back to their natural roots. Books along this view are construed as copies of nature’s original logos, its originary inscription. Such a phonologocentric conception of writing is nothing new under the sun especially if we think of Emerson’s philosophy of language grounded in words themselves derived from nature’s symbolic agency; yet the gist of Thoreau’s argument in Walden radically departs from this neo-Platonic conception of writing according to which writing is inessential and subservient to speech.

9However, Thoreau addresses at the very opening of the next chapter (“Sounds”) the threat which reading might after all represent, as Plato did long before him:

But while we are confined to books, though the most 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. Much is published, but little is printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity to be forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen. Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you and walk on into futurity. (Thoreau 411)

10Thoreau’s promotion of the letter is not a mere promotion of literature but must be recontextualized with respect to nature and its language, a language Thoreau hastens to add “which all things and events speak without metaphor”. Thoreau’s theory of reading eventually proves enigmatic and ambivalent, in some respects. His advocacy of the letter turns out to be a defence of the mark in general, of all marks embedded in nature. The letter does not exist per se but only as an extension of the mark, as a metonymy of nature’s signs and infinite modes of expression. The letter is neither originary, nor specific: it is a mark among the infinity of marks in which nature abounds. The letter is not bestowed with any grammatological privilege or sense of precedence whatsoever: “the sentences first written on bark” are supposedly neither less nor more valuable than those available in the rest of nature.

11Reading which is usually dialectically connected to writing is held separate from it in Thoreau’s conception. Reading implies an irreducible disjunction—for reading does not follow writing in any sense. Deferral and difference are hence the very condition of reading. No trace ever lends itself for immediate translation, nor sublation. Reading is always postponed; the event of reading, to paraphrase one of Jacques Derrida’s famous phrases, is “to come”: “I kept Homer’s Illiad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then […] Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in the future” (Thoreau 402).

12However, Thoreau provides the reader of Walden with a general economy of the sign applicable to all marks in nature, be they carved on the bark of a tree or “copied from time to time on to linen paper” (Thoreau 402), and why not printed. Reading is itself a modality of what Thoreau describes and defines as “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen” (Thoreau 411). To read is essentially to see, to see into the light of things, the light of things written. If the language of nature is deprived of metaphor (“the language which all things and events speak without metaphor” (Thoreau 411), it can only be captured through the metaphor of reading.

13Thoreau’s conceptual language needs to be addressed at this point, and its ambivalence revealed. On the one hand, Thoreau advocates scarcity, even simplicity. Commenting on his experience of the pure present, he is reluctant to resort to the conventional temporal divisions and use the words which undergird them:

My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of the clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow and overhead for the passing of day. (Thoreau 412).

14Very few words are needed to render the intensity of pure duration, which goes somehow without saying, at least without saying much. To reduce the possibility of language gives a counter-intuitive and privileged access to a form of experience in nature, a form of experience of nature which remains beyond the reach of the average speaking subject, let alone the man of letters. On the other hand, Walden’s narrator, who is obviously well aware in the same chapter of the Latin names for the trees and flowers growing outside his cabin, seems to revel in uttering and juggling with them:

In my front yard grew the strawberry, blackberry and life everlasting johnswort and golden rod, shrub-oaks and sand-cherry, blueberry and ground-nut. Near the end of May, the sand-cherry (Cerasus pumila,) adorned the sides of the path with its delicate flowers arranged in umbels cylindrically about its short stems, which last, in the fall, weighed down with good size and handsome cherries, fell over in wreaths like rays on every side (Thoreau 413).

15Here the descriptive precision of poetic diction starkly contrasts with the simplicity advocated just a few sentences earlier in the same double page. The mimetic accuracy of language is mobilized to convey the aural/oral pleasure of “pastoral life” (Thoreau 419).

16Nature is replete with vibrations of each and every pin and needle. Thoreau’s version of the “universal lyre”, in the wake of Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp” (1795), finds in music the true language of nature, a language of signs and phenomena turned into echoes, rhythms, and melody. On hearing the bells, Thoreau remarks:

At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires, a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which is swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph. (Thoreau 420)

17Thoreau’s concept of the echo as an original sound is consonant with his theory of the letter: the echo is a mark whose structure and value results from a mediation both in time and space, a phenomenal conversion which takes the shape and guise of a conversation (“which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood”).

Later in the same chapter, Thoreau pays attention to the anthropomorphic nature of the birds’ songs he calls “voices”:

When other birds are still the screech owls take up the strain, like mourning women their ancient u-lu-lu. Their distant scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tu-whit-tu of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolation of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernatural love in the infernal groves. (Thoreau 421)

18The air is filled up with sounds which Thoreau comically transliterates into articulated speech: “Oh-o-o-o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then — that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and—bor-r-r-r-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods” (422). One syntagm perfectly instantiates Thoreau’s thesis: “comes faintly from far”. The condition of possibility of reading is only met when a sign, be it natural or textual, is itself echoed at a distance. Only through distance and negativity can signs be read, i.e., embraced and deciphered. “Faint” and “faintly” are objective correlatives to this general economy of the trace as sign of sign.

19It is remarkable that the phoneme which comes to Thoreau’s mind when remembering the hooting owl is “gl”, the very phoneme which Derrida picks up and dwells upon at length in Glas, and considers to be the phoneme of pure expressivity. Although “gl” may not strike the exact same chord in each langage, the French “glotte” certainly has an equivalent in the English “glottis”.

20Throughout Walden, Thoreau is constantly on the look out, engaged in the deciphering of signs of signs: in the chapter entitled “Solitude”, he goes so far as to confess his ability to tell whether a visitor has paid him a call “by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes, and generally of what sex and or age or quality they were by some slight trace left, as a flower dropped, or a bunch of grass plucked and thrown away, even as far off as the railroad, half a mile distant, or but the lingering odor of a cigar or a pipe” (Thoreau 425). Walden’s narrator seems to master to perfection the art of reading each and every trace, imprint, or mark. Reading is an activity and even a faculty which reaches far beyond the mere competence of the common reader. Letters have their natural counterpoints in nature, which Thoreau proves capable of sorting out and assessing: the many instances of “little pine needle”[s] encountered now and then in nature gesture toward the reader and contribute to meaning just like a natural alphabet: “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary […]” (Thoreau 427).

21What we call reading is, as Thoreau suggests, the metonymical extension, metaphorical exercise of the faculty of seeing through absence, of making sense of faint marks in a general economy of signs. Meaning can only be accessed through a series of discontinuous mediations, a process which involves reverberation and remoteness. Presence, as Thoreau conceives of it, is not ever recaptured or regained: it has always already been lost. What turns out to be eventful, if not more eventful than the event itself of pure presence, is the making sense of the trace: the moment of experience is by no means a moment of coincidence, but the event of a difference—differance which one may be tempted to spell with a Derridian a.

22In this context, it is no surprise that solitude proves company to Walden’s narrator, who claims that he has “a great deal of company in [my] house; especially when nobody calls” (Thoreau 431), and whose visitors hardly need to physically stop by or host their new neighbor in order to exist. The status of presence is strongly undermined and even dismantled through Thoreau’s capacity to relate to absence, to the missing person reanimated through the act of thinking or the exercise of imagination, acts which prompt literally ghosts into being. Thoreau is thus capable of re-membering absence and of entertaining a relationship with beings he never actually meets or met in the flesh:

I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods, who tells me stories of old time and new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening, with social mirth and pleasant view of things, even without apples and cider, a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much, who keeps himself more secret than ever did Goffe or Whalley; and though he is thought to be dead, none can show where he is buried. An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of unequalled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young. A ruddy and lusty old dame, who delights in all weathers and seasons, and is likely to outlive all her children yet. (Thoreau 431)

23In this rather comic and slightly disquieting excerpt, the words “visit”, “dwelling” are tinged with a special Thoreauvian touch: to visit, just like to read, implies to relate to otherness, an other whose physical presence is never required. Encounters no longer depend on the actual co-presence of the two neighbors. The power of perceiving, which is aligned with and inseparable from the faculty of reading traces, will allow the missing and lost to be brought back to life and presence, at least to some relational form of presence. What is “invisible to most persons” is precisely what the seer, a reader of sorts, is affected by: an odorous herb garden will resuscitate its former and long passed-away gardener. In this particular instance, one realizes that reading partakes of a synesthetic process in which the smell proves literally “telling”, if not talkative.

24Meaning can hence only be grasped through estrangement, traces of presence via alienation. Such a conception of reading is strangely enough in accordance with a strict deconstructionist approach. I do not mean to contend here that Thoreau anticipates deconstruction, but I would like to argue that Thoreau proves a deconstructionist writer by undermining the metaphysics of presence through his reading theory. Let me turn to conclude to the passage from chapter 3 where he elaborates his reading theory when applied to books and literature:

To read well, that is to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of the nation by which they were written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius in those languages; for these were not written in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of literature. They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very materials on which they were written were waste paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap contemporary literature. But when the several nations of Europe had acquired distinct though rude written languages of their own, sufficient for the purposes of their rising literatures, then first learning revived, and scholars were enabled to discern from that remoteness the treasures of antiquity. What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages a few scholars read, and a few scholars only are still reading it. (Thoreau 404)

25Thoreau’s position with respect to literature may sound conservative at first glance: his defence of the classics is yet grounded in a violent and baffling, if not revolutionary conception, of the letter. His invitation to read texts that have been handed down from generation to generation does not result from the consecration of holy and founding letters. To Thoreau books are relics, a literature is a thing of the past, but in an undecidable sense which needs to now be elucidated.

26Literary texts are for the most part inaccessible, if not illegible (“The works of the great poets have not yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them”, Thoreau 406), and this to most readers be they contemporaries, or foreigners. This lack of intelligibility of literature is essentially due to the language it is written in: “The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times” Thoreau writes. The problem with translations is that they usually do not bring the readers “nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity” (Thoreau 403). Reading implies the abolition of a distance which the act of reading yet requires. This “getting nearer” is mainly prevented by the interference of what Thoreau calls “the character of the mother tongue”, i.e. the translation of the text into a native and modernized language. In order to read the authors of the past, one must learn their words and un-learn one’s native tongue: the study of the classics is an absolute prerequisite to the Thoreavian version of the American Scholar, be they learned citizens or ordinary peasants. He goes so far as to claim that “it is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has heard” (Thoreau 403). What is dead in language is never the language itself but our deadly incapacity to read, to get the text nearer to us. What the ancient texts have in store for us to read remains unimpaired and for us to discover: “There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. […] The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered” (Thoreau 408-409). Walden’s whole argument is implicitly based on the principle of the futurity of reading, or the reading to come: “They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave” (Thoreau 403). Literary meaning, if any, is not an eternal truth which each generation should repeat and hand down to the next. Literature as Thoreau conceives of it is not a mere pedagogical tradition but an experience in discontinuity and singularity of reception. The actuality of the text remains to be disclosed in a differed and heterogeneous time and space.

27Fluency may be a prerequisite to understanding a language; yet it is certainly not enough to read literature; it may even turn out to be a hindrance to literary reading. In the passage just quoted from chapter 3, at least a couple of sentences deserve comment for they foreground the violence of the letter that I have tried to establish in Thoreau’s Walden:

The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. (Thoreau 404)

28Speech is transmitted via mothers – the juxtaposition of syntagms in the unfolding sentence “like the brutes, of our mothers” would allow for yet another reading if it were not for the comma – while reading is taught in schools by masters identified with father figures. Reading is compared to an athletic training, yet the order of the body, and specifically that of the maternal body, is here explicitly and violently rejected through the mention of the coarseness, if not deafness, of the ear, and the contingent and hence negligible accident of birth which endows the speaker with no reading privilege whatsoever.

29By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest that following Thoreau’s theory of literary reading, Americans are no less entitled to read the Classics than Europeans; their geographical and temporal remoteness may even constitute a strategic asset, a wonderful opportunity for them to seize. If Thoreau’s stance on reading is aligned with the Transcendentalist concept of American exceptionalism, his analysis and practice of reading reaches beyond the ideological claim. Revisiting the traditional opposition between phone and the letter, Thoreau argues that in order to become a reader, one must un-learn one’s mother tongue and be born again to a so-called “father tongue”. The language of literature would only be accessible to those radically estranged from their linguistic roots and background. Literature presupposes the enactment of a radical and undecidable violence exercised by the native on his/ her language.

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COLERIGDE, Samuel. Poetical Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

CULLER, Jonathan. On Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

DERRIDA, Jacques. De la grammatologie, Paris, Minuit, 1967.

DERRIDA, Jacques. Glas, Paris, Galilée, 1974.

EMERSON, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Other Essays.

THOREAU, H.D. Walden. in A Week, Walden, Maine Woods, Cape Cod. New York: Library of America, 1985.

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Electronic reference

Isabelle Alfandary, « Walden or the Violence of the Letter: Toward a Theory of Reading », Sillages critiques [Online], 22 | 2017, Online since 30 March 2017, connection on 23 August 2017. URL :

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About the author

Isabelle Alfandary

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, PRISMES (VORTEX)
Isabelle Alfandary is Professor of American Literature at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3. A specialist of American modernism, she is the author of many articles on American poetry and three published books on E. E. Cummings (E. E. Cummings. La minuscule lyrique. Belin, 2002), and on American modernism (Le risque de la lettre : lectures de la poésie moderniste. ENS-Editions, 2012), and Derrida-Lacan : L’écriture entre psychanalyse et déconstruction (Hermann éditions, 2016).
Isabelle Alfandary est professeur de littérature américaine à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. Spécialiste du modernisme américain, elle est l’auteur de nombreux articles sur la littérature américaine et de trois monographies : E. E. Cummings. La minuscule lyrique, (Belin, 2002) et Le risque de la lettre: lectures de la poésie moderniste (ENS-Editions, 2012), Derrida-Lacan : L’écriture entre psychanalyse et déconstruction (Hermann éditions, 2016).

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