Monday, February 11, 2019

'Walden' by Henry David Thoreau

Originally published in 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, is a vivid account of the time that Henry D. Thoreau lived alone in a secluded cabin at Walden Pond. It is one of the most influential and compelling books in American literature. This new paperback edition-introduced by noted American writer John Updike-celebrates the 150th anniversary of this classic work. Much of Walden's material is derived from Thoreau's journals and contains such engaging pieces as "Reading" and "The Pond in the Winter" Other famous sections involve Thoreau's visits with a Canadian woodcutter and with an Irish family, a trip to Concord, and a description of his bean field. This is the complete and authoritative text of Walden-as close to Thoreau's original intention as all available evidence allows. For the student and for the general reader, this is the ideal presentation of Thoreau's great document of social criticism and dissent.

Not many authors have more of a romantic vibe than this guy. Maybe a deep desire to simplify and slow down keeps tourists flocking to the replica of his little house at Walden Pond. Even though he's been dead for over a century, people still hope to catch some of Thoreau's inspiration from just sitting where he sat. He was living the self-sufficient, off-the-grid dream of many of us, which made me choose to read this book for the American classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Basically, Henry David Thoreau decided to escape from the hustle and bustle of normal life and be his own master. So he built a tiny house a mile from his home town, furnished it with basic essentials and figured out that he could live off 27 cents per week. He stretched six weeks of work a year to cover expenditure for the remaining 46, which he spent getting up at his leisure, enjoying nature and recording his thoughts. It sure does sound like an appealing lifestyle.

Walden is an eye-opener though, making me consider that Thoreau might have been an intimidating person to get to know. I was used to thinking of him as a hero who gives eloquent encouragement to jump off the treadmills of public opinion and modern living. But the Thoreau I find within the pages tends to be a hardcore fanatic whose views swing further than I thought in the other direction. I've no doubt that no matter how well we feel we've pared down our lives, the real Thoreau might still dismiss us as worldly conformers. Here are just a few things he has to say about various subjects.

Decorations and Ornaments
'I had three pieces of limestone on my desk but was terrified to find they needed dusting daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.'

'Remember their main objectives are to retain the vital heat and cover nakedness. When you do wear them to pieces, they meld to your character.'

Worldly Goods
'When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all, I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.'

The 7 Wonders of the World
'As for the pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some degraded booby, whom it would have been manlier and wiser to have drowned in the Nile and then given his body to the dogs.' (I guess that ties in with his opinion on working for bosses.)

Also, he maintains a sort of smug tone, that's a bit on the nose. Being confident in your own ethic while going against the norm is great, yet sometimes it's hard to turn a blind eye to Thoreau's show-offy, superior attitude. It's like sitting in on one man's long back-patting session. A prime example is the way he pays out John Field, a destitute Irish immigrant with a wife and several small children, for struggling not to starve. 'Poor John Field, thinking to live by some derivative old mode in this primitive new country. I trust he will not read this unless he can improve by it.' I wonder if any of Thoreau's friends ever reminded him of the following points, which indicate that his case was different from Field's in other ways too.

1) You're single, which means only one mouth to feed.
2) You don't even own the land you're living on. Ralph Waldo Emerson is letting you squat. Others aren't so lucky.
3) Being a local boy, you have frequent visitors from friends and family, who no doubt bring potluck dinners.
4) There's always the option of packing up and moving back to your parents' place in Concord. In fact, you only lasted two years anyway.

Image result for henry david thoreau
That last point was one of the biggest surprises for me, as I'd picked up the book imagining him settled on the banks of the pond for at least a decade. He only did it for two years! It sounds like such a short time for anyone not to lose a bit of face, but he explains it with his usual dash of pomposity. 'I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.' Yeah, okay Thoreau. 

Some of the people he stumbles across are the unsung heroes of the book, whether or not Thoreau intended them to be. I love the self-professed dumb guy, who said he'd always been intellectually deficient from childhood, but guessed that the Lord loved him just as much as the smart guys, since he made him that way. Maybe he's the smartest of all. Thoreau called him a 'metaphysical puzzle.' But he balances it by having digs at clever people too, who he calls, 'men of ideas instead of legs. A sort of intellectual centipede that made you crawl all over.' Nobody is spared from his sharp pen.

In spite of being disillusioned in the ways I've mentioned, his legend continues. He's still such an enigma, and so much irony surrounds him. 'I say let your affairs be two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.' Even though he was such a stickler for not taking on multi roles, so many people from different walks of life still want to claim him as their own, including philosophers, nature writers, poets, minimisers, self-help gurus, relaxation therapists, business men, environmentalists, and the list goes on. I'm glad I read it, although I feel inclined to give it two stars, since it was a bit of a slog and very hard to wallow through at times. Maybe I'm just one of those more intellectually dense people he discusses, who don't fall under its spell. But because I admire the dude for making himself a celebrity by doing nothing much at all for a period of time, I'll add an extra one.



  1. Great commentary on this book. I read it for the first time a few years ago. Thoreau did seem strident at times. I have heard that he was not like that in real life outside his writing. I agree that the two year interval of his stay was very telling.

    You raise a good point about some of the people that Thoreau describes, They add a lot of charm to this book.

    1. Hi Brian, those nameless people he chanced upon in the woods do add quite a bit of charm and appeal. Thoreau was stern, but it's interesting as you say that he didn't come across that way so much in reality. He certainly seemed to do his fair share of entertaining, which makes sense if that's the case. I wonder what he'd think to know people are still visiting the site where he lived.

  2. Great review. I loved it. Very honest and entertaining.

    I must admit, I read his works with biased eyes, specifically for the naturalist and simplistic ideals. I think next time I will look at the character of Thoreau more closely.

    1. Thanks Ruth 😄 Am I right in thinking you've actually visited Walden? I seem to remember reading a review of yours long ago, before I'd ever thought of reading the book. I'm sure it must be an amazing experience to actually go there.