Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book of labor, book of dawn--

Walden Pond. Courtesy of Bekah Richards
of Snellville, Georgia and
Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.  --Thoreau

Thoreau once joked that he owned a library of 900 books; they were all his own and all the same, for Walden had not sold. The pages uncut, they slumbered on the shelf, unread. Perhaps the book was too singular in its wordsmithery (despite kinship to Emerson, who was a much-admired speaker of the time, as well as a writer) and too bent on veering away from the laboring realities of his time. It is hard to picture Henry David Thoreau as a contemporary mid-list writer, vigorously marketing his book and chatting on twitter and facebook, and it's not just because the neck beard would put us off. For Walden whispers to us that book marketing is not an "effort to throw off sleep" and so will end with labor, rather than the "poetic or divine life."

And Walden is certainly right.

I am glad that some book marketers manage to make a living, and that some fine books manage somehow to sell in our age despite the noise of the day. I recognize the need for horn toots to announce books and the need for helping friends bring their books from the invisible world to the visible. I do for my own new books what I can and have no Franzenian pride in scorning encounters on twitter and Facebook (such pride comes easily to the luck-kissed writer of books that a publisher chooses to push as lead books. And I enjoy chatting with writers and readers, so that's luck for me.) No mid-list writer desires to own a library of 900 identical books because a small first run did not sell. Very few resist the publisher's call to market and promote.

But Walden is nevertheless right. Marketing is one of those activities not of the dawn but of labor.

And yet the book Henry David Thoreau didn't market and that readers rejected has become a cornerstone of American literature, while works that could speak only to their time have been flung away, tumbling into the waterfall of oblivion. Thoreau's pure, demanding voice, full of love for the awakened, whole man and woman drifted on into the world. Walden multiplied wildly and fed and awakened many with its light and lovely singularity. How rare and sweet that is! Would that have happened in our over-busy and chaotic world, or would such precious things be lost? The paper and ebook Niagara of published and self-published books roars, deluging us with words of labor and occasional dawn light.  Does the singular and the beautiful still find its way through the labyrinth of time, heading toward the center? Can we still distinguish the book of labor from the book of dawn?


  1. Thanks, Robinka... He just climbed into my head this morning.

  2. Too often the labours of love by writers and artists are not appreciated until much much later in their lives, or sadly after their death.

    Lovely post, Marly. You must find inspiration from Thoreau, I think.

  3. I have at various times been obsessed with "Walden"... Have not read the whole thing in a long time, but it is very beautiful.

    I still think Thoreau must have been influenced by Susan Fenimore Cooper's "Rural Hours," which was written here in Cooperstown and came out not long before "Walden." He never mentions her, though.

    The whole business of having your work known is so complicated and flawed and at the mercy of luck that one can't depend on it in any way. So I don't!

    I was just reading a rather peppery interview between two poets, Michael Burch and Joseph Salemi. Here is a Salemi response that has something to say about that issue: "You don't write poems in order to be read. You write poems that deserve to be read. That's a crucial difference. The intrinsic quality of a work doesn't depend on its readership, or lack thereof. As far as we can see, practically no one read the Pearl Poet in his own day, and he had to wait half a millennium before he was rediscovered and published widely. By then his medieval dialect was opaque, and his poetic greatness appreciated only by a handful of scholarly readers. But according to your argument he didn't win the competition for general mass readership, and is therefore a failure. That's an argument for a car salesman or an advertising agent to make, not a serious appreciator of literature like yourself."


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.