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.
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.
I don’t believe him to have been a great writer. That’s your view.
English Professors view him as such. It’s not a view it’s a matter of scholarship. He’s part of the American Literary Canon.
I repeat...I do not believe him to have been a great writer. Sorry, I don't ascribe to all the beliefs of "English professors".
And, since that is my opinion as an individual (your standard expressed earlier) you will have to respect my view.
Who are you going to believe - Thoreau's own book, or what a bunch of college students and environmentalists remember about tough old H.D. Heck, he's almost Jim Bridger's first cousin in their eyes.
By the way, have you ever been to Author's Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord?
Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Broson Alcott, and Harriet Lothrop (who wrote under the nom de plume Margaret Sidney) are all buried in their family plots in an area about the size of my dining room and den combined. Thoreau's headstone either has "H.D" or "H.D.T" on it, that's all.
What flaws do you see in him as a writer? His prose is a model of clarity and wit and he did this in a manner quite different from the European notions of such.
Thoreau was the King of the Backyard Campers; he walked a mile or two to the local lakeshore and recorded his observations there, when he wasn’t walking into town to get a little R&R from the “wilderness.”
As such, he’s been the model for and best friend of anti-social Nature dilettantes for more than a hundred years.
One is left to wonder, however, whether he might not have had the same piercing insights sitting on the back porch.
“Its the Nietzsche effect...an honorable man whos had the misfortune of dim followers.”
Yeah, I’ve had a downturn in fortune since some in-laws moved in.
It's often that way, no?
I would say it’s the norm more often than not. I don’t even think Marx would approve of Stalin and Pol Pot.