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In the first chapter of Walden; or Life in the Woods, Thoreau writes:

If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where any thing is professed and practised but the art of life;—to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar.

My question pertains to the part of the quote that is bolded, which remains unclear to me. Of what mechanics does Thoreau speak here?

2 Answers 2

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Thoreau is saying that practical knowledge is more useful than academic study. He makes this claim by playing on two different meanings of bread and mechanics.

First, he is using bread in the senses of the staple food and of livelihood. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

b. Livelihood, means of living, subsistence. Now chiefly in to earn one's bread: to make a living, to earn income sufficient to live on.

Next, Thoreau contrasts the study of classical mechanics with a different sense of mechanics, viz. actual practical labor. From the OED entry for mechanics:

1. With singular or (occasionally) plural agreement: (a) the body of theoretical and practical knowledge concerned with the invention and construction of machines, the explanation of their operation, and the calculation of their efficiency; mechanical engineering; (b) the branch of applied mathematics that deals with the motion and equilibrium of bodies and the action of forces, and includes kinematics, dynamics, and statics. Now often distinguished as classical mechanics (as opposed to quantum mechanics).

2. Manual labours or activities. Obsolete. rare.

The sole citation OED gives for this second meaning is from Gulliver's Travels:

1726 J. Swift Gulliver II. iv. x. 160 I shall not trouble the Reader with a particular Description of my own Mechanicks; let it suffice to say, that in six Weeks Time..I finished a sort of Indian Canoo.

This sense might seem too out-of-date for Walden, which was published in 1854, but further evidence comes from the OED entry for mechanic, which has the following definition:

1. Relating to or involving manual labour or skill, esp. in mechanic arts (see etymological note). Cf. MECHANICAL adj. 1. Now rare (chiefly historical).

Here are two citations from around the time of Walden:

1838 W. H. Prescott Hist. Reign Ferdinand & Isabella I. i. ii. 44 He was a considerable proficient in music, painting, and several mechanic arts.

1891 W. C. Smith Poet. Wks. 46 Pure good from mingled good and ill, From tokens of mechanic skill Illimitable glory and might.

The same OED entry also includes the following:

a. A manual trade or craft. Obsolete.

Citations:

1656 tr. T. White Peripateticall Inst. 387 Consider the honour of..the Mechanicks, 't is the work that's most proper to mankind.

1692 J. Ray Wisdom of God (ed. 2) i. 195 Besides the known Uses [of plants]..in Building, in dying, in all Mechanicks there may be as many more not yet discover'd.

While Thoreau's using mechanics in the sense of manual labor would perhaps strike even a contemporary reader as somewhat archaic, the above citations, particularly those from 1838 and 1891, show that this sense would be readily accessible.

So according to Thoreau, sending a boy to a professor would mean that the boy learns chemistry, but not how to bake bread (which involves chemistry); and mechanics, but not any skill which would enable him to earn his bread (which involves manual labor).

References

"bread, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2023, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/22888. Accessed 10 April 2023.

"mechanic, adj. and n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2023, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/115543. Accessed 10 April 2023.

"mechanics, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2023, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/115556. Accessed 10 April 2023.

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  • Your dictionary links are paywalled, if I'm not mistaken. I'd be interested in more documentation of what "mechanics" meant when Thoreau was writing.
    – tgdavies
    Apr 10, 2023 at 3:13
  • Ahh, great, now it makes sense. Nice wordplay. (And @tgdavies think about Shakespeare's rude mechanicals.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 10, 2023 at 6:27
  • @Randal'Thor I was thinking of that, and wondering what meaning's were current for Thoreau
    – tgdavies
    Apr 10, 2023 at 6:36
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    @tgdavies webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/mechanics and etymonline.com/word/mechanical -- basically the same, the two meanings of working with machines (labor) vs. what we might call Physics 101. Apr 10, 2023 at 17:35
  • @tgdavies revised to include citations. Happy now? 😈
    – verbose
    Apr 10, 2023 at 21:51
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The author is contrasting the academic way of studying things and the "school of life". Making bread involves chemistry (for example, the working of yeast) and "mechanics" (for example, when the kneading of dough is studied as forces that work on the dough). But studying chemistry does not teach you how to actually make bread, and the study of mechanics does not teach you how to earn bread, i.e. earn a living.

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  • The parallel between chemistry and making bread is clear, but why is mechanics (rather than, say, economics) put together with earning bread?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 9, 2023 at 20:41
  • @Randal'Thor As far as I can tell, it's chemistry and mechanics on the one hand versus making bread and earning bread on the other, rather than chemistry vs x, and mechanics vs y. In other words, I think this part of the sentence does not entirely follow the pattern of the other contrasts.
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 9, 2023 at 20:47

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