Skip to comments.Thoreau still speaks to buried teen in all of us
Posted on 05/06/2012 8:36:45 AM PDT by Borges
I can see it clearly: the American literature textbook from my sophomore year in high school, complete with faded red cover, frayed spine, and a list of students who had rifled through its pages in years past.
In it I discovered a kindred spirit, soul mate and best friend. His name was Henry David Thoreau, and he died 150 years ago today, at the age of 44.
I remember his first words to me:
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
They were powerful words to introduce to a teenager, words that spoke to the long-standing vocation of teens everywhere: to question, to challenge, to rebel!
Thoreau went on:
"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."
More teenage validation. I was hooked.
To me, Thoreau, who was born in 1817 in Concord, Mass., is one of the most important figures in American history.
Some folks change how people do things. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs come to mind. Others change how people think. Thoreau falls into this latter category, and his influence goes far beyond how quickly we travel (Thoreau was a passionate walker and perfected the "art of sauntering") or how easily our smartphones can map the route (Thoreau was an accomplished surveyor, too).
Thoreau's influence can be found in the inspiration his life and his writings provide to the world.
In 1845, at the age of 27, Thoreau set out on one of man's greatest experiments.
Building a small cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, on property owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau spent two years and two months living in nature and chronicling his observations. The resulting text, "Walden, or Life in the Woods," continues to inspire people and is considered by many the bible of the environmental movement.
Likewise, Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," written after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery, has inspired world-changers such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau was many things to many people, and sometimes he is too easily placed into bumper-sticker purgatory, his evocative and biting one-liners used to advance a particular cause or agenda. Thoreau the Environmentalist. Thoreau the Naturalist. Thoreau the Conscientious Objector. Thoreau the Transcendentalist. Thoreau the Abolitionist.
Thoreau was all these things, but he was much more, and to put labels on him is to limit his legacy. Above all, Thoreau was an uncompromising individual who valued life to such an extent that he spent his entire existence examining that life. In other words, he was a truth-seeker.
Truth-seeking comes easily to teenagers, and there is no better time to discover Thoreau. Somewhere along the line, though, that teenager too often stops seeking the truth, and by the time adulthood rolls around, conformity takes hold and truth-seeking becomes a less noble and more challenging endeavor.
It is then that the frayed American lit textbook needs to be opened one more time. Thoreau calls out from the pages, reminding the "grown-up" of the directive that so inspired many years before:
"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
Thoreau never let go of that urge to discover that there is indeed more than the pursuit of fame, fortune and the material possessions that often enslave us. Examine yourself, and follow the dreams found therein.
To the extent that we often spend our lives like hamsters spinning the wheel, traveling so far on the treadmill of life and yet discovering so little, Thoreau is the chanticleer calling us to wake up and discover the essence of life.
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he told me many years ago, providing a grace note to Socrates' famed admonition: "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Thoreau may be 150 years gone, but he continues to speak to the buried teenager in all of us. As we celebrate his life today, let us not forget to examine our own.
Thoreau was the first hippy of America. Like many hippies, he never grew up. His legacy is an anti-Christian environmentalism, which has been slowly undermining America for the last 40 years.
Daniel Boone was naturalists that understood and appreciated nature. Thoreau was like a 10-year-old camping in the back yard, who discovers an earth worm and thinks they have just made a scientific discovery.
Only people as sheltered and naive as Thoreau find his epiphanies noteworthy.
It was a good novel worth reading several times over a lifetime. If he started his 2 year experiment at age 27 he had no desire for sex. That may be where we all fail. He had no desire to procreate.
Don’t blame him for what’s been done with his legacy. He was not anti-industry at all and would not tolerate today’s Environmental wackos.
Have you read Walden? Thoreau had a great sense of humor about what he was doing and didn’t try to imbue it with any false grandeur. He was much smarter than all the people who have (mis)read him over the years.
I was going to make a joke about the Walden Pond exercise being a step up from making a fort of his mother's kitchen table, but you really put truth to words.
Please....There were millions of people in our country doing the same thing.
But none described it as beautifully or with as much wit.
I have no idea what teens this author is talking about, most teens today are brainwashed and conform to the liberalism they are taught.
I don’t think he would find much in common with modern greenies at all.
I personally understand his awe at nature. I’ve lived every day of my life with it and I still find myself awestruck by something in nature every single day.
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”
Thoreau was largely a dumbass. I could never understand what people saw in his “philosophy” which was little more than warmed over 19th century romanticism.
Couldn’t stand him when I was a teen. Can’t stand him now.
He was one of the first counter-culture environmental eccentrics in America. Environmental historian Donald Worster summarized his personal character very well, Henry Thoreau was not a respectable gentleman in the eyes of his neighbors, in part because New England had no tolerance for the idleness implied by unemployment, and in part because Thoreau had no regard for affluence or the trappings of respectability. Thoreau even spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau also hated what the Puritans did with their industry to the landscape of New England, and came up with a goofy so-called ecological scientific empiricism called “nature looking into nature” which reduces man to a mere animal. In reality, what he was espousing was a environmental existentialism, a ‘new’ philosophy of man and nature that was essentially reverting back to paganism. Thoreau is at the very heart of what is wrong with America today. He was the first anti-hero of America.
I prefer the reality of farmers helping each other, raising their families, establishing their local governments, and preparing the way for the future.
There were a lot of eccentrics of various stripes back then. Civil disobedience is an American tradition (that Thoreau codified). There is nothing wrong with it. Have you actually read Walden? Thoreau speaks admiringly of a train heard nearby. He’s no more to blame for contemporary Environmentalism than Nietzsche is for contemporary nihilism.
Everyday something for the mind on FR. Now I have to go up to the attic and root out "Walden Pond". It is a paper back. Though very happy with the comfort of Edison's inventions of light and warmth (and my Mini-Van). I did like Thoreau.
His little accounts still stick in my mind. How the small creatures survive at Walden. Something else though. The English veteran of Waterloo, A Colonel Quoyle (I think). Found dead in his cottage and a pack of playing cards littered on the floor. The chickens pecking around and "awaiting a fox". Time had caught up with him, surviving wars.
One more. The great steam engine at a halt, like Boanerges, stilled by human hand. Patiently waiting for a command. Now I have to get his last work on his travels which may have been partly in Canada.
America lucky to have a Thoreau.
We are all “living in nature.”
Beavers build dams. Wolves have lairs. Herd animals have the herd. Etc.
When we build nuclear power plants, install automatic dishwashers, and truck in palettes of clothing, we are living in nature. That is our nature. It is as natural to the human race as the aerie is to the eagle.
Very true. At the same time, Emerson and Thoreau were original, and were correct in identifying the American virtues of self-reliance and individual ownership with fidelity to the truth and moral responsibility. Many of the entrepreneurs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who were not hippies, but very self-disciplined men, quoted them frequently. Thoreau can be quite annoying and is justly parodieda subsidized romantic like all hippiesbut he was a good observer.
What's especially hilarious is that eccentrics keep reinventing human cultural movements. We who come after them assume the one we've heard of was the firsteven if the original guy knew perfectly well what his precedent was.
French Enlightenment types like Rousseau blazed Thoreau's intellectual wilderness a century earlier, asserting that the natural (primitive) man is the real oneimplying that civilized man is an intruder, not an authentic participant, in the world. The contrast between the hurly-burly of city life vs. the reverence that comes over us when we take a vacation at the sea, or take some time off to appreciate the farm or forest, is a staple of ancient Roman writing. Thoreau surely read these earlier writings.
The Cathars (Albigensians) who rebelled against Catholic teaching in France and Italy in the early Middle Ages were greenies in almost every sense. "Cathar" means "pure one." They believed man was bad and nature good. They believed in socialism, and rule by an elite who alone knew the truth. They said meat-eating was bad, and vegetarianism was the highest state. Marriage was bad, they said, and only adultery was good. These were also the views of the Manichees of St. Augustine's time, nearly a millennium earlier.
We can't make this s#$% up, in a sense, since some other idiot did, centuries before us.
Yes, I read Walden. And I’ll never get that time back. The mind of a navel gazing rich boy is best left unexplored.
Thoreau a genius? Please.
Taking time out of life to write a book about the wonders of living in a cabin, is about as imbued with false grandeur as one can get.
Had Thoreau taken on adult responsibilities, his incites would have been far more impactful. But then he would have realized that most everyone already understood those incites, making a book unnecessary.
It is most interesting that Thoreau had his naturalist epiphanies, while most of America still earned a living working under the sun on farms all day.
All depends on what you're being disobedient about.
I'm not sure Thoreau causes were noble.
You didn’t find it funny at all? It’s filled with jokes. Thoreau was a literary genius every step of the way - just reading his prose is a delight.
The point is that you don’t have to agree with his cause. I didn’t agree with Muhammad Ali’s cause (refusing to be drafted) but it was still deserving of respect.
Sometimes I’m too put off by the premise to enjoy the style.
Very smart and witty folk can still be horribly self-absorbed and naive.
Of course not. These are cases where the cause in question is entirely personal.
Not sure what you mean by that. When Thoreau go published his cause ceased to be personal.
In 1846, Thoreau visited Katahdin in Maine. True wilderness and woods. He didn't view it in the same light as his little cabin in the sunshine outside of Concord. He called it "grim and wild," "savage and dreary," fit only for "men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we."
Thoreau biographers Geral T. Blanchard and Roderick Nash say Thoreau was nearly hysterical from his experience with true wilderness.
Methinks I take pre-teen Scouts to places that would unnerve that man of the wilderness, Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau wasn’t self absorbed. He’s quite self deprecating. You’re confusing him with his environmentalist descendants.
Thoreau’s short essay was published in 1849 and understood to refer to opposing slavery. It was only after his death that it started to be reprinted and quoted for just about every cause you could think of.
If there is a teenager still buried in me, that wasn’t
killed by Vietnam, failed marriage, drugs, alcohol, or
too many years of democrat domination, he better
get the hell out while he still can.
In Walden, Thoreau makes very clear that ‘civilization’ is nearby. He made no claims about living in the wilderness.
He didn’t make any grandiose claims for it nor did he claim that everyone should do it. It was a personal recollection that has been philosophically and ideologically magnified after his death.
He was quite influential in the transcendental community and was not just an isolated, solitary figure.
The point is that his cause was not unjust and the philosophical precepts attributed to him are mostly false. I didn’t know you’re taking issue with the entire American transcendental movement. Do you also dislike Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott? Hawthorne was also tangentially involved.
After making much fuss over adjusting and re-adjusting their packs, they grab their water bottles and embark on their mile and a half "hike", along with thousands of others, on the well-worn stone-dust trails surrounding the "replica" of Thoreau's one-room cabin. Then it's back to the cars to dump the still brand-new backpacks (destined for eBay) and head to the various gift shops and bookstores where they spend hundreds of dollars on knick-knacks to show their friends back home that yes, they made the obligatory pilgrimage to Walden Pond. Then they slap the $6.95 Walden Pond decal on the back of their vehicles, in between OBX (Outer Banks) and MV (Martha's Vineyard), and head back to their city condos and brownstones where they cap off the day with a meal in the North End or maybe over in Cambridge.
Personally, I think Thoreau would be horrified to see the way his pond has been turned into a yuppified ticky-tacky tourist trap.
Now if you want to have a real "Thoreau" experience in the Concord/Carlisle area, there are dozens of great trails in this area that Thoreau walked that are all but forgotten about. One of my favorites is the 10-rod trail that runs from just off Route 4 in Carlisle to the Harvard-owned Estabrook Woods in Concord. I take my dog walking there all the time and I hardly see anybody out there because it's not "touristy" and there is real hiking involved.
Bravo! Worthy of Steyn or O’Rourke.
Very well said.
The point is that you implied that an individual should not be disrespected for their personal choice.
However, Thoreau was a public figure and influential so according to your standard one should therefore be allowed to view him negatively (which I do).
OK, tell me what it was that he was learning from living at Walden Pond, that the average mid 1800's farmer, hunter, or settler wasn't fully aware of.
Perhaps I am being too rough on the man, when it the legend that escapes me.
Thoreau took the consequences of his choices (which were not injurious to anyone). There is no reason to view him negatively unless you’re projecting on him how his followers have acted after his death. It’s the Nietzsche effect...an honorable man who’s had the misfortune of dim followers.
Thoreau’s contribution was a contemplative and (funny) brand of nature writing. He wasn’t trying to ‘teach’ anyone anything.
I have not read every word of Walden Pond, but yes, 25 years ago at the Evergreen State College, we read Walden Pond and you are the first person that I have ever heard suggest that modern environmentalism has little or no connection to Thoreau. Thoreau is the absolte poster boy of environmentalism.
Frankly, I've got no reason to view him positively.
You can’t control what people say about your after your death. Mary Wollstonecraft is the poster girl of the Feminist movement. Do you think she would find anything in common with the likes of Andrea Dworkin? For a long time they thought Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi...
You might be surprised.
A lot of our conception of pioneers comes from our reading romantic naturalism into people who could be quite grim and prosaic.
We take it for granted that people who were just trying to survive had all of the aesthetic emotions that we have thanks to Thoreau and writers like him.
How about the fact that he was a great writer?
While many modern environmentalists paint Thoreau as an anti-government libertarian free spirit, it must be pointed out that the American government of his day was very limited in its powers. It also openly espoused individual liberty and Manifest Destiny. In other words, to be a rebel against the limited constitutional powers of the American government suggests that Thoreau was not the libertarian or free individualist that many often make him out to be. He was protesting/rebelling against a limited government based on liberty and Judeo-Christian values.