Massachusetts, part II: in defense of Thoreau

On our recent trip to snowy Massachusetts, as Heather told you last week, we carved out time for a pilgrimage to Walden Pond, just south of Concord, the very wellspring of American conservationism. Walden Pond, of course, is where that notorious crank Henry David Thoreau lived alone for two years in a tiny cabin he built himself on land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, an experience recounted in his seminal Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854.

Off the top of my head, I can think of no book or author more misunderstood, then or now. Even Emerson missed the point; in his eulogy of Thoreau, the Sage of Concord said that his protégé’s lack of ambition meant that, “instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.” To this day, many dismiss Thoreau as either a misanthropic hermit or a parasitic hypocrite.

In fact, while he may indeed have been a little weird, and stubborn as hell, he was far more humane, even charming, than common opinion would have you believe. And, far from lacking ambition, he intended his book to be a revolutionary manifesto, pointing to an entirely new way of thinking amid the hustle and bustle of industrializing, materialistic nineteenth-century America. In Walden he seeks “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Robert Sullivan calls the book (appropriately, given its context) “a machine, a device intended to charge and change the reader, rather than incite a withdrawal from society,” and this is an important point. Thoreau wanted to change the world, not ignore it. His cabin was, as he noted, only a mile and a half from the middle of Concord, and the world was constantly impinging on him, in the form of curious friends, wandering woodcutters, runaway slaves, errant fishermen, and, perhaps most obtrusive of all, the nearby railroad. That’s why I love my photo of Walden Pond at the top of this post: you can see the beauty of the woods, but you can also see the contrail of a plane passing overhead, a reminder that this place is not in fact as removed from the world as it might seem.

I think Thoreau would have appreciated the juxtaposition. He was profoundly countercultural, but always engaged. His advice in Walden is not to retreat from the distractions of modern life, but to confront them and face them down. He was a profoundly patriotic man—I do not believe it was a coincidence that he moved into his cabin on July 4—and he deplored the degenerate materialism of his time; his residence beside the pond, and the book that resulted from it, were intended to remind his countrymen of the first principles of the nation’s founding fathers.

If you haven’t actually read Walden, I highly recommend it. I was assigned it in high school, but found it so impenetrably, unutterably dull that I can’t recall if I ever made it past the first page. I picked it up again recently and found it startlingly lively, occasionally maddening, and often hilarious. Why did no one ever tell me that Thoreau was so funny?

For example, early in the book’s first chapter, rather unpromisingly entitled “Economy,” he disarmingly admits that much of what is to follow is self-centered, pointing out that “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well.”

And here he is on his neighbors’ reluctance to venture out to Walden Pond at night: “I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.”

And then there’s this, possibly my favorite passage in the book, on the disadvantages of living in a cabin:

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head.

And yet, despite the flashes of shrewd New England wit (and as the critic and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch noted, “He meant his jokes and was never more serious than when he was being funny”), I cannot think of Thoreau without a tinge of sadness. He must have been, in many ways, an exasperating and difficult man, but I suspect he never really understood why other people found him so. He tried courageously to say exactly what he meant, and believed sincerely that what he said could help make the world a better and happier place, if people would just pay attention. Alas, they didn’t; Thoreau’s writings were notoriously poor sellers during his lifetime, and Walden took five years to sell out its first printing of two thousand copies.

In his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson admitted that “we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how; and yet it was done by his own hands.”

Thoreau began his sojourn at Walden Pond three years later, and if he didn’t quite fulfill his mentor’s absurdly tall order—after all, his mother still brought him food and did his laundry, and he dined frequently with the Emersons—he probably came as close as anyone, before or since. “In the long run men hit only what they aim at,” he wrote in Walden. “Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” American literature has known few better marksmen.

What we’re reading
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness
Martin: Robert Sullivan, The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant

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