Posts filed under Books

Blogging Walden, #1: 'What's the news?' ... We need Thoreau now, more than ever


It may come as no surprise that a writer living in a small cabin in the woods likes Henry David Thoreau. Despite a lot of recent criticism heaped on the man and his work, I continue to think he was a genius who penned amazing treatises on solitude, nature, justice and self determination.

That's not to say the guy was perfect. But I feel a certain kinship to the naturalist writer who once accidentally burned 300 acres of woods when a campfire got out of control.  He also had a tendency to annoy people, didn't mind contradicting himself, and could be kind of an ass.

Much of the criticism surrounding Thoreau centers on his seminal work "Walden," where he writes about living a life of simplicity near the shores of Walden pond outside Concord, Mass. He describes building his own cabin, growing beans and aiming to live so simply that he avoided the need for basket-selling or most other forms of work. ... What drives people nuts is that Thoreau did not actually live so simply as he describes in his book. He was located a short distance outside of town, frequently went in to socialize, lived on borrowed land and in general was not so separate as a reader might think.

As a self-described part-time hermit, however, Thoreau's approach makes perfect sense to me.

The primary problem with Walden, is that it was written 1846 and in the proceeding 172 years language has evolved quite a bit. Which is to say, Walden can be difficult for modern day readers--and to boot, huge chunks of it are boring. Nobody cares what your beans cost, dude.

Recently, I've been re-reading the book. Slowly. Forcing myself to linger on pages that give me trouble, making notes to look up out-of-date phrases or words, and underlining any passage which speaks to me.  Making a study of it.

Walden has become a morning ritual. I wake up, put the kettle on, make the bed and straighten the cabin, make coffee and sit down to read. Sometimes I make it a dozen pages before the demands of the day come knocking. Other times it's just a single page, or two.


I don't understand why Thoreau has drawn such ire. The process to make a thing, and the thing itself, often are different. And the man never claimed to be a hermit. He kept three seats:  "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

We need Thoreau--perhaps more than ever. 

His work is a reminder that simplicity and solitude are important. That our internal lives are vital to our ability to live in a community. He does talk about withdrawing, but he also specifies it must be done in a way that is fair and just.

"Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind has stood his sentinels."

That sounds remarkably relevant to today's 24-7 news cycle. It's easy to feel you must be invested in the outrageous news du jour, that you are obligated as a member of society to be constantly outraged.  But Thoreau reminds us that this isn't true, particularly in this passage from his essay "Civil Disobedience:".

"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it thought no longer, not to give it practically his support."

And bear in mind, that's the opinion of a staunch abolitionist. For all Thoreau's critics, few will deny he was consistently and emphatically on the side of justice when the topic of slavery was discussed.

So if Thoreau wasn't a hermit living solely off the land, what was he? He explains it all in the early (and decidedly non-boring) pages. In particular, these two passages:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

and then ...

"My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles."

In Walden, I do not find either excessive claims or admonitions. What I see is an experiment. A struggle to balance the realities of a more advanced, modern, fast-paced society, against an internal pull towards solitude when the values of the individual and society do not align. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted on May 19, 2018 and filed under Books, Writing, Essay.