Lawrence and Thoreau: Opposing Mechanical Modern Life

Sarah Petrides, American Civilization Graduate Student, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In "Life Without Principle," Thoreau writes, "The world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work." The locomotive -- the hideous mechanization of modern life -- appears also in Walden. Like Thoreau, Lawrence displays disgust with the pace and accoutrements of modernity. Witness the following set of passages from Twilight in Italy:

In Lugano I stayed at a German hotel. I remember sitting on a seat in the darkness by the lake, watching the stream of promenaders patrolling the edge of the water, under the trees and the lamps. I can still see many of their faces: English, German, Italian, French. And it seemed here, here in this holiday-place, was the quick of the disintegration, the dry-rot, in this dry, friable flux of people backwards and forwards on the edge of the lake, men and women from the big hotels, in evening dress, curiously sinister, and ordinary visitors, and tourists, and workmen, youths, men of the town, laughing, jeering. It was curiously and painfully sinister, almost obscene. (166-167)

And later:

I took a steamer down to Como, and slept in a vast stone cavern of an inn, a remarkable place, with rather nice people. In the morning I went out. The peace and the bygone beauty of the cathedral created the glow of the great past. And in the market-place they were selling chestnuts wholesale, great heaps of bright, brown chestnuts, and sacks of chestnuts, and peasants very eager selling and buying. I thought of Como, it must have been wonderful even a hundred years ago. Now it is cosmopolitan, the cathedral is like a relic, a museum object, everywhere stinks of mechanical money-pleasure. (168)

I dared not risk walking to Milan: I took a train. And there, in Milan, sitting in the Cathedral Square, on Saturday afternoon, drinking Bitter Campari and watching the swarm of Italian city-men drink and talk vivaciously, I saw that here the life was still vivid, here the process of disintegration was vigorous, and centred in a multiplicity of mechanical activities that engage the human mind as well as the body. But always the there was the same purpose stinking in it all, the mechanizing, the perfect mechanizing of human life. (168)

Let's contrast Lawrence's critique of modern life with Thoreau's. In particular, we might examine the difference in the writers' tones. Thoreau hectors his audience, demanding that they follow him through an argument, while Lawrence seeks to express his disgust with the situation by using personal recollections to evoke feelings in the reader. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Also, Lawrence, unlike Thoreau, avoids prescribing a solution to the problem of the "perfect mechanizing of human life." Why? We might also consider how his role as a tourist affects Lawrence's conclusions about what it is possible to "fix."

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Last modified 26 October 2003