The Box Man by Barbara Lazear Ascher
“The Box Man” was written in 1986 in Barbara Lazear Ascher’s first book, Dancing after Dark and was later reprinted in the Compact Reader. The setting of the Box Man essay took place in Manhattan, New York. Although it was never stated, Ascher hinted at this by mentioning two of New York’s newspapers the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal (Ascher par 8). In addition she gives the address “220 East Forty-Fifth Street” which is right in front of where I lived. The three main characters in this essay are the Box Man, the lady at the coffee shop and the lady across the way. She uses the Box Man, a man who has chosen his loneliness and “lives the life of the mind” (Ascher par 12). The thesis of Ascher is that we must accept are [our] loneliness and embrace our imagination, by doing this we can find solace in our self.
Ascher states, “All humans are estranged from each other, regardless of their relationships, because of the impossibility of true communion and pure communication.” [Ascher does not say this. This is my explanation or analysis of Ascher’s thesis taken from “Understanding ‘The Box Man’” without any attribution or sourcing.] The Box Man‘s acceptance of his loneliness and reliance on the solace that comes from looking within and outward through the imagination shows a way of dealing with this estrangement. This “life of the mind” can be achieved by living a simple and creative life. She urges us to simplify our lives and leave “pasture enough for imagination” and also to be free from clutter. [This is one of the best summaries of what the essay is actually about any student ever wrote.]
Ascher starts the essay with a description of a homeless man who is building a home out of boxes (par 1-7). The Box Man is not only searching for boxes, but he is looking for the perfect ones. Ascher then compares the Box Man reading the Daily News on his boxes, to a businessman reading a Wall Street Journal on a subway (par 6.). She is showing just how focused the Box Man is on the article. She then says that the Box Man “touched his tongue to his finger before turning each page, this is something grandmothers do” showing the Box Man as a loving character and informing the reader which side the essay is on (Ascher par 7).
Ascher explains how the Box Man’s simple life is a better and more relaxing way to live. She does this by bringing up the memory of her favorite childhood book The Boxcar Children. In The Boxcar Children, the young protagonists used their imagination to live off the land. For example, “an abandoned boxcar was turned into a home and a bubbling brook became an icebox” (Ascher par 9). Even though they lived the life of the mind, they did not live a life of solitude. The Box Car Children fought to stay together instead of being separated. [Of course, Ascher is not really comparing anyone to the Box Man. Instead, she is assembling examples of ideas that when put together amount to her thesis. Or better put, she produces examples that make one or another aspect of what she is talking about seem concrete, so when she describes her thesis explicitly in the last four paragraphs, it is much more understandable.]
Ascher sees the Box Man as Henry David Thoreau[no at a certain stage of the essay, Ascher says that to express what she wants, the Box Man would have to have similar ideas to Thoreau on one part of his ideas, those about the imagination. Ascher says nothing about many other aspects of Thoreau’s point of view or life example that are contained in the book Walden that are totally in conflict with the views Ascher expresses in this essay]. Thoreau is a 19th century poet, naturalist, activist and transcendentalist philosopher [comma] and [Ascher] picks Thoreau’s ideas about imagination and simple surroundings. In Walden, Thoreau explains this by saying, “most of the luxuries and many so-called comforts of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (Thomas ‘Thoreau’ 12). In paragraph 8 she has transformed the Box Man from a man she is observing into a metaphor and chooses Thoreau’s ideas. Ascher compares the Box Man to Thoreau in the sense that both lived simple life without clutter of material possession or social judgment. [Thoreau lived most of his life in his family home or in the homes of upper middle class children or college students he acted as a tutor. Even for the year or two that Thoreau lived in the shack, then Cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau maintained an extensive social life with the many poets, writers, philosophers, and artists who visited the home of his friend and Mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact a number of famous intellectuals from the US and England converged on Emerson’s place while Thoreau was there and attempted to start a commune based on Emerson’s ideas. The shack that Thoreau replaced with a Cabin—in part to accommodate guests better—was on Emerson’s property which neighbored Thoreau’s family home. While Thoreau talked about the value of a simple life, he lived a very complex intellectual life, the center of which was maintaining friendships and colleagueship with people like Emerson who had books, particularly on Asian and Ancient Philosophy that even major universities and libraries of the time did not have. Thoreau put a lot of effort into becoming a successfully published writer, although while he was a live, he writing was never as popular as it began to be in the late 19th Century, let alone a classic many people read in School as he has become in the last 50 years. He also tried hard, but had little success launching a career as a public speaker which was often how writers made money in those days. ] Earlier in the essay Ascher referred to the real Box Man and asked “who knows what the Box Man knows?” (Ascher par 4). Now we all know what the Box Man knows and it is Thoreau’s ideas.
Ascher states, “His is a life of the mind, such as it is, and voices only he can hear” (Ascher par 12): however, though all the hardship that a New York homeless man has, she states “that this life is of his choosing and he will ignore you if you offer an alternative” (Ascher 12). The Box Man lives an uncomplicated life; however, he lives a creative life, one that reminds Ascher of a child who “let the imagination hold sway” (Ascher 10). The Box Man keeps his mind uncluttered which lets him imagine goddesses and heroic ages (Ascher 12). [Ascher never really present’s the Box Man as uncomplicated. Indeed, in the first seven paragraphs he 1) is attentive to the exact few minutes the watchman takes his coffee; 2) selects only what he deems the best boxes, though they all seem good enough; 3) walks in a particular manner that his toes must know they touch Earth; quickly and formally arranges his boxes and shopping bag in a neat arrangement close to that of a living room, 5) Even when he reads the Daily News, he is studying it like a businessperson studying the rows of business statistics in the Wall Street Journal in the subway on the way to Wall Street. This not someone living a simple, uncomplicated, childlike life!]
In “The Box Man” essay Ascher contrasts the Box Man to the “lonely ones” (par 13). The “lonely ones” that are portrayed by two women, neither of which lived the life of the mind nor accepted their loneliness. The first example of the “lonely ones” is the lady at the coffee shop. She fights her solitude by eating dinner at the same coffee, at the same time, by breaking the crackers into smaller and smaller pieces, first halves and then the halves into halves (Ascher par 13) in order to have more time to spend with others. Ascher imagines her life without friends or family and pictures her life full with Christmas cards from her ex boss, and game shows that she watches to fill the time (Ascher par 6) [paragraph 6 only contains information about the Box Man. This woman is only discussed in paragraphs 13-16]. This character is different then [different from] the Box Man who accepts his loneliness. Her activities are pointless when compared to the Box Man.
Ascher’s idea is that clutter of material things are unimportant and leave no room for imagination and she uses the lady across the way as an example. (Ascher par 17). She is described as having a lot of expensive objects such as a crystal chandelier, matching Chinese lamps, six Siamese cats, and many exotic plants. However, despite her many possessions, Ascher states “that her life is not necessarily a lonely life, except that her 3 A.M. lights and television seem to proclaim it so” [punctuation is always inside a quotation mark except when you have an MLA parenthetical reference. Of course, you should have such a reference here, but you don’t sp you are wrong her both going and coming1]. [The following is not a sentence but part of the previous sentence. Change the preceding period to a comma] Meaning, that even with all her many possessions, her life is a lonely one (Ascher par 17). In contrast to the lady at the coffee shop, this woman seems to accept her solitude. She is not in coffee shop craving companionship, and has a lot more resources; therefore she has more choices about being alone. However, unlike the Box Man, her possessions stop her from living the life of the mind.
Ascher starts to talk about the Box Man as a metaphor for the way we all should live our lives. She says “that an essential solitude is all we got, that life is a solo voyage” (par 19).She feels that relationships can not save you from your loneliness and proclaims that we go through series of relationships from a child to parent, to friends, to love. She believes that not even true love can save you from your loneliness and feels that those who rely on it will end up like Juliet (Ascher 20).
For Ascher, the best solution is to recognize that we all have to find solitude within ourselves. She urges us to be like the Box Man, a man who “welcomes the night, like a lover” (par 18) and feels that no one can understand you, except yourself. Her reference to the Box Man is a metaphor for a simple life that leaves “pasture enough for imagination” (Ascher 11). It is the Box Man’s lack of material things and his solace which makes it possible for him to live the life of the mind (Ascher 12).
Aaron, Jane E. The Compact Reader: Short Essays by Method and Theme.
7th Edition. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2003.
Ascher, Barbara Lazear. “The Box Man” The Compact Reader: Short Essays
By Method and Theme. 7th Edition. Jane E. Aaron, Editor. Boston:
Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2003. 7-11.
Thomas, Tony. “Understanding ‘The Box Man.’” “Handout on ‘The Box
Man’ for Tony Thomas Enc1101 Classes.” Miami, Unpublished, 2006.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden.” Selected by Tony Thomas. “Handout on ‘The Box Man’ for Tony Thomas Enc1101 Classes.” Miami, Unpublished, 2006. 11-13.