Thoreau, meet Kaczynski

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”)

Something I learned a few years into my teaching career (that I wish I would have known earlier) was that pairing texts when designing a syllabus can create great dialogue in the classroom as well as cohesion in course content and discussion. It seems like such an obvious choice now, but early on I found myself starting each class period with new subject matter and thematic material. Once I figured out the pairing trick I began putting together unlikely texts and found interesting things happening in class discussion. Here’s an overview of one of my favorite pairings of Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” section of Walden (1854) and Joy Williams’ essay “Cabin, Cabin,” (2001) which is told from the perspective of Ted Kaczynski’s (the Unabomber’s) Montana cabin.

The idea behind these paired texts is simple: living in an isolated cabin is central to both Thoreau and Williams’ works. However, the approach and intent of each text is quite different, and I find that my students become (productively) uncomfortable when they consider that Thoreau and Kaczynski retreated to their small abodes for very similar reasons. Thoreau is often idealized in the American imagination as a key Transcendentalist and a proto-hippie who wished for simplicity and a life away from the masses so he could deeply consider the purpose of his life. Kaczynski, by nature of his nickname the Unabomber, has developed a darker character in the American imagination and my students often refer to him as “that crazy guy with the small handwriting.” However, Kaczynski retreats to Montana to practice self-sufficiency and escape the ever-developing industrial world (Thoreau grumbles about the post office, newspapers and railroads). Kaczynski wanted to think and reflect on life’s purposefulness (Thoreau “wished to live deliberately”). Both are resentful of governmental influences and technology, which they see as devastating their lives. What we see when we compare these two texts is that these two American figures have a lot more in common than just their dwelling places.

I begin this part of the semester by introducing students to this project by artist James Benning, who recreated both cabins by hand and documented his work. The visual similarities between the cabins does a lot of the comparison work for students.

Thoreau's cabin
Benning’s Thoreau’s cabin remake
Kaczynski's cabin
Benning’s Kaczynski cabin remake

I also think it is helpful for them to see a contemporary artist such as Benning contemplating the same kinds of connections we will work through together as a class.

We spend a good deal of time discussing the formal differences between Thoreau’s and Williams’ works. Thoreau is writing an autobiographical account and as a class we discuss the speaker’s persona and trustworthiness. Thoreau is incredibly detailed in his descriptions and optimistic about what his new lifestyle choice can offer his readers. He uses phrases such as “we must” to encourage readers to do as he has done, and he’s similarly disagreeable about those who refuse to follow in his footsteps. I ask students if they were writing about their own experiences what information they would include and what they would censor. This gets them thinking about authenticity and a writer’s representation of truth in nonfiction.

Williams adopts the persona of an inanimate object – Kaczynski’s cabin – to give insight into Kaczynski’s belief system and rationale. Williams personifies the cabin on a practical level because she could not get an interview with Kaczynski, but much can be made of her rhetorical choice to animate the inanimate in this essay. I lead students in a discussion about what they believe Williams is able to offer readers by bringing the cabin to life. As a recluse, the cabin was Kaczynski’s most trusted companion. As a class we read “Cabin, Cabin” as an essay, although it is nonfiction cloaked in many imaginative leaps. Surely cabins don’t have consciousness and there is no way for Williams to know what this cabin is “thinking,” however, a great deal of research about Kazcynski went into the essay and the choice to personify the cabin allows Williams an unlikely sympathetic view of the Unabomber. This is a much different take on Kazcynski than the one given to us by mainstream media. In some ways, Williams’ essay admits that it fictionalizes whereas Thoreau’s makes no such admissions. Williams’ essay also points readers into the direction of considering that Kazcynski – underneath his violence and psychological disturbances – may have some good ideas. This can create some unease among readers because on the whole we do not want to agree with the Unabomber, but, through the use of Williams’ rhetorical choices, she asks us to suspend our moralizing of Kazcynski and endure a flickering moment of empathy for him.

There are many other ways to teach these texts together, and here are some ideas:

  • Compare descriptions of the cabins and their surroundings both literally and stylistically.
  • The audiences of each essay span some 150 years, and I could see interesting conversations circle around reader expectations and the differences in relationship between readers and authors in those two time periods.
  • Include some of Thoreau’s less-than-flattering work, which Kathryn Schulz details here in her New Yorker article, to compare the ways in which public personae influence how we read and consider a text.
  • A reading of space could also be productive if students consider how the smallness of both cabins may have influenced the thinking of Thoreau, the perception of Williams’ cabin, and even Kazcynski’s written manifesto.
  • Make connections between the ideas of space to Harriet Jacobs’ garret in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl so that students begin to consider how lived experiences influence an author’s textual representation and formal choices.
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