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.