The summer of 1975 was exceedingly hot in Cleveland and we lived on the second floor of an old building without air conditioning. The halls and rooms were long and narrow, with high ceilings and uneven wooden floors, and the walls were whitewashed, cracked and swollen. It smelled of must and bus exhaust, and the only way to cool off and shed the city stink was to soak in the bathtub, usually with a book.
One Sunday afternoon I was rereading Walden in the Princeton University Press edition edited by J. Lyndon Shanley and published in 1971. It was a beautiful piece of bookmaking I lost during some long-ago move. The cool water, clean type and softness of the paper merge in memory with a sentence, one I haven’t forgotten, from the final paragraph of Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:
“My head is hands and feet.”
What makes the sentence memorable apart from its lovely iambic concision is Thoreau’s refusal to write it as a simile: “My head is like hands and feet.” That sentence is forgettable. For context, here’s the surrounding passage:
“The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”
This is not the Thoreau of vaporous Transcendentalism. “The intellect is a cleaver” suggests the start of a conventional Romantic assault on the rigors of reason, but Thoreau follows an unexpected path. The intellect, fortunately, is master of our hands and feet, a sovereign master. Guided by our “best faculties,” our lives are not aimless wanderings. The mind is “an organ for burrowing.” The technological term that comes to mind is “data mining,” just as I’ve always linked Thoreau’s sentence to one by A.J. Liebling, the source of which I no longer remember: “A journalist reports with his feet.”
Thoreau’s sentence came back to me while I was reading “A Glimpse of My Country,” an essay in G.K. Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles (1909):
“It is the same with the voters. The average man votes below himself; he votes with half a mind or with a hundredth part of one. A man ought to vote with the whole of himself as he worships or gets married. A man ought to vote with his head and heart, his soul and stomach, his eye for faces and his ear for music; also (when sufficiently provoked) with his hands and feet.”