September 12, 2018

Different drummers, from Thoreau, Flo, Snow and more...


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”   
       Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
       American essayist, poet, philosopher and social activist
       A famous passage in the concluding chapter of his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods (published in 1854)
       This quotation from Thoreau’s Walden became famous within a few decades after the book was published and used to describe someone who is somehow special, different or iconoclastic. It also came to be used as words of encouragement urging people to pursue their own paths. Eventually, Thoreau’s quote morphed into the modern idiomatic sayings “march to a different drummer” and “march to the beat of a different drummer,” now often used without reference to him.
       Those sayings are often applied to people who are leaders in their fields or on a higher level than most people in some way. But, ironically, Thoreau’s quotation, when read in the context of the sentences before and after it, seems to have almost the opposite meaning. It seems to suggest that it’s OK to accept having a humble status as long as you find satisfaction in the path you decide you want to follow.
     “Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose?” Thoreau wrote. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak...However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.”

“I find that few men of imagination are not worth my attention. Their ideas may be wrong, even foolish, but their methods often repay a close study. Few honest passions are not based on some valid perception of unity or some anomaly worthy of note. The different drummer often beats a fruitful tempo.”
       Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2001)

       American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and science historian
       Commenting on past theories of pioneering scientists that are now viewed as wrong, in his book The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980).

“Even my different drummer had a different drummer.”
Florence King (1936-2016)

       American journalist, novelist and columnist             
       I first saw
versions of this quip attributed to King as a description she gave of herself in one of her books and it does seem apt. Florence was a conservative, bisexual feminist who was critical of both the “rubes” in the Southern U.S. culture she grew up in and of liberal Democrats. Some sources suggest the line is in her most popular book Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), but I her original use may have been something she wrote about someone else in another book. In With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look At Misanthropy (1992) she says of the 18th Century American Puritan Jonathan O’Dell: “even his different drummer heard a different drummer.” I suspect she did say “even my different drummer had a different drummer” when describing herself to interviewers and others, but I’m not sure it’s in one of her books. If you can confirm that she is, please send me an email

“Small town residents march to a different drummer. Their lives are slower paced. They seem to be slower to anger, quicker to forgive, more at peace with the deck of cards that life has dealt them.”
A.C. Snow

        American journalist, newspaper columnist and editor
        This positive view of small town residents comes from
Snow’s May 9, 2018 column in the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer. Some people who grew up or spent some time in small towns may not agree with it. (Florence King, for example.)

“When you think of the ‘drummer’ type, you think of someone like Ringo Starr, or Charlie Watts, or Alex Van Halen. Guys who are not the flashiest or most attractive, or even the most talented, but nonetheless are ‘part of the band.’ If you are attracted to ‘drummers,’ it is because you are insecure and don't think you deserve any better. You want a man to ‘set the pace’ for you, but you can’t commit and are always looking to ‘march to a different drummer.’ Your choosing a drummer is unfortunately a ‘cymbal’ of your unwillingness to ‘get on the stick’ and make your own choices!”
Cathryn Michon

       American writer, actress, filmmaker and stand-up comic
       Self-help advice, of a sort, in her book
The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex (With Other People): A Self-Help Novel (2005)
“I Don’t March to the Beat of a Different Drummer, I’m the Whole Band: Perceptions of a Bipolar Life ”
       Leslie Jay (born Leslie Jay Lytton)

       This is the witty sardonic title of the short book Jay wrote about the struggles he faced from being, and a life spent in and out of psychiatric facilities. It was published in 2004. Leslie died on 2016.

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