Picture, for a moment, Henry David Thoreau. He is at his cabin, of course, near Walden Pond. He is grumpy. He is making arguments that, to our modern, harried sensibilities, seem shockingly relevant: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.” Crucially, he is alone.
But what if Thoreau, and his fears about distraction, actually belonged to a large and noisy crowd? That’s one takeaway from a fascinating new book, “Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture,” by Caleb Smith.
Smith, an English professor at Yale University, shows that worries about attention and distraction were everywhere in 19th-century America. Preachers, prison reformers, and former slaves all fretted about and fought against forces that threatened to destroy their ability to pause and think. “The cultivation of attention,” wrote one Boston woman, “is of the first importance to the intellectual life.”
It’s a problem that feels uncannily familiar today. But the most surprising thing about Smith’s book is that the 19th century’s solutions feel familiar, too.
In the summer of 1849, a preacher named J. H. McIlvaine delivered a lecture to mark the opening of a new library in upstate New York. He titled it “A Discourse upon the Power of Voluntary Attention.”
McIlvaine criticized a new kind of reader — someone who “can only skim the surface of what he reads, hastening on from page to page.” The minister continued: “Shrinking from every effort,” this reader “can find no interest in any subject of depth or difficulty.” The cause of these struggles, McIlvaine believed, was the fiction becoming popular at the time — ”tales of the supernatural, of wonderful robberies and impossible escapes” — made more affordable by faster, steam-powered printing presses.
It was one of many ways in which things seemed to be speeding up and dumbing down. Smith points out that long before Facebook targeted its ads, 19th-century newspapers began simplifying their stories and cutting their subscription rates. In other words, they began monetizing their audience’s attention and then grabbing as much of that attention as possible with their new presses. Several technological breakthroughs made the world move faster and feel noisier, including trains and telegraphs and the tools of industrialization that were spreading from factories to farms.
Then there were the cities, all haphazard growth and incessant commerce. In a short story, Edgar Allan Poe described an overwhelming urban landscape: “pie-men, porters, coal-heavers, sweeps; organ-grinders, monkey-exhibiters . . . ragged artisans and exhausted laborers of every description.” Poe also described how this chaos chipped away at the mind, how it “jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye.”
These were big, structural problems, and sometimes the 19th century looked for big, structural solutions. In the 1840s, Massachusetts built the country’s first state-run juvenile reformatory, outside Westborough. The Legislature wanted a site “sufficiently retired” from the distractions of city and commerce — a quiet spot far from any theaters, factories, or newspapers. They ended up building their reformatory, like Thoreau’s cabin, near a beautiful pond.
Most of the people in Smith’s book, though, sought solutions aimed at individuals. In her poetry, Emily Dickinson considered how a person might “close the Valves of her attention — / Like Stone.” The same possibility was preached from pulpits and at outdoor revivals. “The power of fixed and continuous attention,” wrote one minister, “is one of the most familiar principles of mental science.” Consuming frivolous things would make you a frivolous person. The better choice, especially from an eternal perspective, was to take control of your focus — to turn toward salvation and self-improvement.
If this was difficult, it was necessary. “The great weakness of our age,” wrote another minister, who was living among the Choctaw people, “is impatience, a panicked haste, an agitation like some kind of fever.” The minister decried his era of “machines and money” and urged his audience to slow down, to find some self control: “Today, it seems, we wish to ripen everything in a hothouse, and we regard as unachievable anything that cannot be achieved in a moment’s time.”
Smith began thinking about attention’s past because of its present. When he read the debates about the Internet and attention spans, the relentless calls for smartphone users to just exercise some self-control, there were parts he understood. “Like a lot of people, I feel the hurriedness and the scatteredness of being distracted,” Smith says. “I feel it when I try to read, and I feel it in my students when I try to teach.”
Still, Smith was suspicious of any demands for personal discipline. Many recent works of cultural analysis have argued that an emphasis on individual actions can distract from the structural causes driving a problem — and can make real change harder to achieve. Smith assumed he would write a book that followed this line of thought and challenged today’s simplified moralizing about distraction. “That was the kind of critique I knew how to do,” he says.
It’s a critique that has become quite popular — not just in blaming Big Tech for our shrinking attention spans, say, but in blaming Big Oil for the crushing effects of climate change. There’s certainly some truth to it. After all, the history of attention isn’t just 200 years of anxiety; it’s also 200 years of calls for change by individuals. And yet humans continue to struggle with distraction. Individual actions can’t fix everything.
But neither can ignoring individual actions. That’s one thing Smith came to appreciate while working on his book, which reminded him of the power and also the difficulty of one person slowing down and thinking hard. “I had to recognize my own faith in certain practices of attention, including the practices of reading and writing,” he says. “And some of the works in my archive were real resources for living in the present.”
His best example is Thoreau. Rereading the author while thinking about distraction, Smith “came to see how his work was not just about detaching from the world. Actually, he was trying to rehabilitate his own capacity for attention in order to reconnect with the world, to have a different, better relationship to nature and to his neighbors.”
Sometimes that relationship would turn political, especially in Thoreau’s public efforts to oppose slavery and war and in his attacks on market capitalism, his lament that “the world is a place of business.” But it always started with Thoreau’s careful and private commitment to protecting his own attention.
Structural critiques can matter, but individual reforms can matter, too — and both require us to choose what we attend to, every day. “What’s most useful,” Smith says, “is to think about different versions of attention and to distinguish which ones can be meaningful to us.”
Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian. His most recent book is “The Best Presidential Writing from 1789 to the Present.”