Transcendentalism and the Problem of Misquotation

Above one of the classroom doors in my high school, there’s a well-known quote credited to Thoreau that so many of us have heard over the years: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagine.” No doubt, it’s a beautiful sentiment.  And yet every time I pass that classroom, I cringe because I know better. They aren’t Thoreau’s words.  He said something quite different that wasn’t so pithy as the quote above the door. No, in the last chapter of Walden, he actually said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Am I happy that Thoreau continues to be relevant enough to quote in a high school building, even if the quote is not really what he said?  Definitely, but I also have a strong predilection for the truth, even if it reveals something less than perfect. Think of the moral provided to the reader at the end of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who after torturing Arthur Dimmesdale throughout the book and marginalizing Hester Prynne, says to the reader, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”  There’s more to be said, here, but that’s for a different essay, but at the very least, we should note that many of our favorite quotes are often simplified and edited into neater versions of themselves. I’d rather the real one, however, the less than perfect quote.  

So I thought to explore a bit of this problem of misquoting our Transcendentalist writers. In his “Introduction” to the book The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, Lawrence Buell notes that our major players in Transcendentalism were “strongly drawn to the art of aphorism.” He later goes on to say, too, that so much of their writing was not meant to be expository but rather inspirational.  Perhaps, one way we can see that most clearly is in Walt Whitman’s attempt to live up to the ideals of Emerson’s “The Poet,” which I’ll admit I haven’t read in many long years, but we know that Whitman placed at the center of his endeavor to become a poet. For me, though, when I consider Buell’s statement about aphorism, and perhaps, that Emerson and company considered that form to be the shining star to inspire others, doesn’t it become apparent that we should always strive to be accurate in our attributions to these writers?  And although it doesn’t always lead to folly, there is certainly a disappointment in finding out that your favorite quote from Thoreau was never really written by Thoreau.

My goal here, however, is not to list all these quotations.  That has been done elsewhere by people much more qualified than me, but rather to point out one or two that have bothered me, to demonstrate the harm that misquotation can actually have upon the reader, especially in this day of mass self-creation of saleable goods, where almost anybody can plaster a quote onto a mug or poster for their own profit.  No one stands at the beginning or end of that assembly line to say, Wait! That’s not the truth! Thoreau never said those words. And upon hearing some of these misquotations, I’m sure Thoreau would be rolling over in his grave.  But that’s not what I said!  And even worse, it’s not what I meant!

And so I present Exhibit A: “Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.” It sounds very nice, indeed, and I should have known when I bought the keychain to be wary.  Afterall, all I needed to do was a quick Google search to determine whether those were really Thoreau’s words.  And of course, they aren’t.  The actual words come from the end of the second paragraph of “The Village” in Walden. Thoreau writes, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” There’s a vast ocean of difference in these two quotes, and given everything I know of Emerson and Thoreau, I’d say that this misquotation especially takes the reader into quite different territory than Transcendentalism—more, perhaps, into the world of addiction recovery programs that are so prevalent in our modern society.

Exhibit A: Misquote of Thoreau’s words from “The Village” in Walden

So let’s dive a little deeper into the misquote: “Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.”  To me, it sounds as if someone has hit rock bottom, and I imagine someone wandering in the “dark” not knowing what to do, where to go, or whom to ask for help.  Given my experience with residential rehabilitation programs, the concept of surrender often drives recovery. And specifically, the necessity of surrendering to help with an addiction.  In my opinion, there’s no chance at recovery without surrender. And that phrase, not till we are lost certainly reminds me of that feeling that precedes the surrender and the recovery.  Many of my friends with addiction issues have told me that drug-use becomes their only identity when abusing. They lose their roles as siblings and spouses and parents to meth or heroin or crack. Coming out of the addiction, from a world imbued with loss, therefore, is like a coming back into yourself—as the quote says, we find ourselves again. 

The problem, however, is that Thoreau’s actual quote is not about losing yourself to drugs or mental disease, but rather about our willingness to let go of society and its expectations, one of the biggest themes in Walden.  Thoreau writes, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”  Really, I’m flabbergasted, when reading the original quote alongside the misquote, because they are so very different in meaning. Here, Thoreau is not talking about losing our psychological well-being, but rather talking about losing the society that so often hounds our very existence.  The quote, coming from “The Village,” is saturated with Thoreau’s prescription that the “village” is constantly besieging us. He sees the village as a “gauntlet” pulling us into storefronts and filling us with gossip. It takes determinaton not to fall victim. But without that constant barrage, we can begin to lose the world, especially at night in the woods, Thoreau says we see things differently. Of course, to “live deliberately” is to leave all of those things behind and follow our own laws that can only be determined when “the world” is left behind.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that the original quote speaks to our strength.  When “we have lost the world,” that’s a sign of strength. In the words of Emerson, it’s a chance to “trust yourself,” and finally listen to what’s been ringing in your heart for years and years, but has been ignored because of fear or custom or bullying.  As Emerson says, in “Self-Reliance,” we all want to trust ourselves. He likens only a “man” as being up to the task, and if we excuse the sexist language, he’s suggesting the strength and maturity needed to be a non-conformist. If we are to live by our own rules, as Thoreau does by going into the woods for two years, we must leave the world behind. 

On the other hand, I’d argue the misquote suggests weakness: “Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.”  The message, here, especially without the context of the “The Village,” seems to be that losing our strength as an individual somehow leads us to find ourselves again, and as I said before, it seems best related to a context where addiction or mental health seems to rule the day. Nevertheless, many of us lose ourselves in the day-to-day existence of our lives.  Life is complicated. So much robs us of meaningful reflection, and it’s easy to listen to the latest tea or live through our screens, rather than reflect on our identity. We remain lost our entire lives.  And we don’t even realize we aren’t living life from within, but that we constantly move in response to the outside world.  We haven’t the time to even reflect upon our desperate lives, so certainly, we remain lost for years and years. 

The other day I had this thought that so often we build our castles, and even having laid down the foundations, we lock ourselves inside, sitting in front of the television to watch other people’s fictional lives. And it’s sad. There’s a reason Thoreau tells us to build our “castles in the air” and put our foundations under them, for the foundation underneath such castles will require so much more, and often, the need to disregard the world and go headlong into your dreams.

But it takes strength and courage to break out from that existence.  Think of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury as a model. Here’s a dystopian world, by our standards, where entertainment rules the day, and certainly Montag’s wife is lost in her world, where screens steal away thought.  Montag, on the other hand, is demonstrating strength, recognizing the world around him as fallen, and gaining more and more strength to break away, to “lose the world,” and live by another set of our rules that allow for individuality, that allow for our selves to flourish rather than sit stagnant in a world of rules and constrictions meant to keep us subjugated from ourselves. It’s a good comparison, I think, and perhaps, a pairing of Ray Bradbury with the Transcendentalists might make for an interesting curriculum.

Indeed, I had no intention for this essay to be a comprehensive list of misquotations, but rather an examination of at least one misquote that changes our perception of Thoreau. I guess I’m writing a cautionary tale, because if we aren’t vigilant, we risk skewing Thoreau’s message in ways that change his original intentions, and that’s sad to me, even though I like that Thoreau’s name might gain visibility.  As I’ve written before, there is a sadness when people stop at “life is a but a stream I go a-fishing in” because they never make it to the important point, which is that Thoreau wants us to “fish in the sky.” He wants us to lead deep lives of reflection, right down to the bone, rather than standing in a puddle that we call life.  In the “Conclusion” of Walden, he says, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” That’s a good quote to keep in mind whenever I see a misquote of Thoreau. 

2 Replies to “Transcendentalism and the Problem of Misquotation”

  1. Do you know who originally said this or something like this, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”? I’ve seen it attributed to Jimmy Carter, Ghandi and Thomas Jefferson. A similar thought was definitely said by Vice President Hubert Humphrey – but I’m not sure if any or all of the others said something along those lines.


    1. I found the same thing. It seems most often attributed to Ghandi, but, indeed, falsely. In a quick search, it’s difficult to find out who might have said those exact words. Obviously, it’s a great sentiment. I wish I could help you more.


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