Sunday, October 14, 2012

`A Chance to Get Ripe This Year'

Like most writers, I’m shamefully ignorant of economics, finance, government and politics. The average small-business owner, of necessity, knows more about such things than I ever will. I don’t vote, join anything, read newspapers or watch television news, sign petitions or give money to causes. I try to mind my own business and keep my mouth shut. I love my country but I’m not a good citizen. My favorite among the Bill of Rights is the one that guarantees my right to be left alone. Again, like most writers, in this case like most American writers, I’m spoiled and insufficiently grateful for everything I’ve been given and did little to earn. Thoreau writes in his journal on October 14, 1857:

“It is indeed a golden autumn. These ten days are enough to make the reputation of any climate. A tradition of these days might be handed down to posterity. They deserve a notice in history, in the history of Concord. All kinds of crudities have a chance to get ripe this year. Was there ever such an autumn?”

This Thoreau, writing one hundred fifty-five years ago today, is my kin, a New England cousin several times removed. Like the preachers he couldn’t help but hear growing up in the first half of the nineteenth century, this Thoreau thinks, or at least writes, metaphorically. He turns the particular – a pleasant autumn in Massachusetts -- into a conceit worthy of a sermon by Donne: “All kinds of crudities have a chance to get ripe this year.” But Thoreau can’t leave it alone. For the rest of the passage, he revs up his native crankiness, albeit rather charmingly:

“And yet there was never such a panic and hard times in the commercial world. The merchants and banks are suspending and failing all the country over, but not the sand-banks, solid and warm, and streaked with blackberry vines. You may run upon them as much as you please,—even as the crickets do, and find their account in it. They are the stockholders in these banks, and I hear them creaking their content. You may see them on change any warmer hour. In these banks, too, and such as these, are my funds deposited, a fund of health and enjoyment. Their (the crickets) prosperity and happiness and, I trust, mine do not depend on whether the New York banks suspend or no. We do not rely on such a slender security as the thin paper of the Suffolk Bank. To put your trust in such a bank is to be swallowed up and undergo suffocation. Invest, I say, in these country banks. Let your capital be simplicity and contentment. Withered goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is no failure, like a broken bank, and yet in its most golden season, nobody counterfeits it. Nature needs no counterfeit detector. I have no compassion for, nor sympathy with, this miserable state of things. Banks built of granite, after some Grecian or Roman style, with their porticoes and their safes of iron, are not so permanent, and cannot give me so good security for capital invested in them, as the heads of weathered hardhack in the meadow. I do not suspect the solvency of these. I know who is their president and cashier.”

This is a marvelous, extended set-piece. Thoreau is having a grand time pushing his metaphor to absurd lengths. What bothers me, and what bothers me about most of the writerly whining I hear, is the self-righteous petulance. As a literary joke, Thoreau’s tour-de-force is peerless; as a civics lesson, it’s run-of-the-mill nagging.

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