A Night in the Thoreau Cabin
“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
(Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby)
Sleeping bag. Matches. Lantern. Extra clothes. School books (optional). Paper and Pencil. These are the only items two adventurous students from Advanced V English could bring with them on their overnight in our Thoreau Cabin replica.
Starting with our summer reading text, Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, weaving through Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s documentary, Story of Stuff, and ending with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, members of Advanced V English began the year looking at material excess and a perceived moral bankruptcy of modern society . Both Annie Dillard and Henry Thoreau’s respective pieces present the audience with an essential question: Can one peel away the burdensome veil of materialism to expose the natural self? Using this as a springboard, students then confronted the idea that Jay Gatsby “turned out alright in the end.” Is Nick Carraway right? Did Gatsby retain his natural self to only fall victim to the “vast carelessness” of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s world? Or, was Gatsby merely driven by a Platonic conception that was steeped in the amorality of the 1920s?
So, where does spending one night in our Thoreau Cabin fit in? Volunteering to spend, separately, one night in the Cabin, Ian Rasmussen and Pratima Singh set out to answer that very question. During our class breakfast the next morning, Ian commented on how he went to get “a lot of work done but did nothing but think.” He was “amazed” at how easy it was for him to think without a dorm of fifty boys, without electronics, and even without a watch--and the routine it creates. Perhaps there isn’t an overt connection to The Great Gatsby. However, Ian’s experience in the cabin, as brief as it was, does lend hope that Gatsby did in fact “turn out alright in the end” and that we, in our own way, will also turn out alright in the end, too.
-- Stuart Miller '97, English teacher