Henry David Thoreau- quite the subject, and, as I’ve discovered over the past months, not someone that can be explained easily, or understood simply. Henry Thoreau has been someone who has been studied numerous times in the century-and-a-half since his death. Scholars, philosophers, and students of theology have, all of them, studied his work over and over again, and have just began to tap the vast quarry of wisdom and insight that Henry Thoreau gave us. So, how was I supposed to understand all of his ideas? Perhaps a look at his life would give me a clearer view…
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Even as he grew, the ideas that inspired his later works became more and more solidified in his mind. Among those ideas, perhaps the most obviously re-occurring one was this- that we lived to well, and that to truly live with what we needed, we must live frugally. Thoreau felt that much of the work he saw around him was unnecessary.
“I am convinced,” he said, “both by faith and experience, that to maintain oneself on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime, if we live simply and wisely.”
Thoreau was also a firm believer in the principals of transcendentalism, and came to become one of the key figures in the Transcendentalist movement, in his later years. Thoreau, along with his good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to be defining figures of transcendentalism, which stemmed from the belief that knowledge transcended all bounds, and that society was becoming to robust, and immoral, and needed reform.
Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ published in 1854, clearly displays his feeling upon the matters of society, and it’s various ‘planes’ of expression. His book was written primarily during, and partially following a two year, two month, and two day stay upon the shores of Walden Pond, outside of Concord. The chapters included looks at, and ideas about the period’s economy, in particular. He also examined many things he saw around him, and related them to society. Some of these were Reading, Sounds, Solitude, Visitors, Higher Laws, Winter Animals, Spring, and Conclusions. It was one of the most impressive experiments of it’s time, and remains one of the greatest today.
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from my neighbor, in a house I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond...and earned my living by the labor of my own hands only,” Thoreau wrote at the beginning of Walden. Later he wrote, “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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary."
Thoreau was, what you might call an “armchair traveler,” in that he rarely left his home in Concord. This did not, however, reduce the influence of foreign philosophers upon him. Thoreau advocated a life that could be, perhaps, summed up into “go with the flow.” He quoted the Sheik Sadi of Shiroz’s ‘Flower Garden’- “Fix not thy heart on that which is transitory; for the Dijlah or Tigris will continue to flow through Baghdad after the race of Caliphs is extinct; if thy hand has plenty, be liberal as the date tree; but if it affords nothing to give away, be an azad, or free man, like the cypress.”
But now, my focus is not just on what Thoreau was saying in 'Walden,' but also what he wasn't. To truly understand Thoreau, you must, I believe, read 'lillius interspinus', or between the lines. You must look at what he seemed to feel. It is my belief that the brilliance of Thoreau's work stemmed from his ability to let the reader have 'free interpretation' of the texts. A person may come to a better understanding of a concept if their mind is allowed to form the connection on it's own, rather than by having someone else make that connection for them. At the same time, Thoreau's extreme views encourage the reader to form his or her own opinions. This concept will of course breed both positive and negative sentiments.
A good example of the negative sentiments can be found in Ira Brooker's article, "Giving the game away- Thoreau's intellectual imperialism and the marketing of Walden Pond." Brooker compares and contrasts 'Walden' with a television advertisement for an S.U.V.
Walden is not as much a tribute to Nature, as an attempt to record what America was sacrificing in the name of expansion, argues Brooker. However, Brooker also downplays the idea that Thoreau wanted balance. "A common misinterpretation," says Brooker "is that Thoreau's ideas suggest a balance between man and Nature." Instead, she believes that Thoreaus style suggests the idea of control, of a sort. "He casts Nature as a specifically female being," which Brooker feels taints the claim upon co-existence or human subservience, making Thoreau the dominatory invader.
"Thoreau has been accused of "creating a sentimental stance towards the land and it's creatures that masked and simultaneously erased the conquest and destruction of the 'wild' continent," says Louise Westling in her essay, "Thoreau's ambivelenc toward Mother Nature."
However imporant these sentiments are, though, their 'voices' cannot compare with that of Thoreaus own. His disgust is exceptionally clear throughout 'Walden.' He speaks often of societies mistakes. "A written word," he says "is the choicest of relics."
As one continues into 'Walden,' Thoreau's disdain for urban-industrialized life grows increasingly evident. Often, he speaks of society with scorn, and looks at it's expansion with great cynicism.
"Nations are posessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave behind. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? Once piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I love better to see stones in place."
Perhaps it was more the rate of expansion that he saw, rather than the fact of it. Thoreau was a naturalist, who believed in a sort of balance between urbanization, and the untamed worlds of the woods, meadows, and mountains. In the eyes of many scholars, Thoreau's ideas pushed for the exploration, and, most importantly, preservation of the wilds. "Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wilderness...We can never have enough nature."
In a way, Thoreau contradicts himself. He both advocates the exploration, but also emphasizes the value of the unexplored, and unknown. Perhaps the one solid thing that Thoreau felt, was the 'go with the flow' concept.
As an advocate of morality, Thoreau felt that paying taxes, specifically to support something you did not believe in, was wrong. There is a story, that Emerson passed by, and seeing his Thoreau behind bars for not paying war taxes asked him what he was doing in there. Thoreau replied simply, "What are you doing out there?" Out of this incident, came Thoreau's piece, 'Civil Disobedience.'
Thoreau, as you can see, was and is not an easy topic. Originally I had wished to examine the effects of his work, during his life, however there was, apparently, very little effect. And, I have learned that, to understand it's effect, you must understand his ideas, which, as you can tell, is no simple task. In truth, Thoreau's work was barely noticable, then. This did not discourage him, though. Thoreau felt that success was not determined by how much you made, or what other people though, but by your own feeling towards your work. "Those authors are successful who do not write to others, but make their own taste and judgment their audience."
On and above everything else, Thoreau wished to enjoy the truth of everything around him. He disliked the facade he saw in society, what he saw as living a lie.
"Be it life or death," he wrote "we crave only reality. If we really are dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in our extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."
In truth, perhaps 'Walden' was neither an argument against the urbanization, or a complaint against man. Perhaps 'Walden' was, in fact, a way of showing us how to life; to live without fear, hate, destruction of nature, and without excess. Thoreau's words, perhaps, meant that each person should live life to the fullest.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
So, what is it to understand Thoreau? To understand him, is to understand oneself. He taught, as much by letting the student lead, as by through lecture and example. Live every day to the fullest and value what you have.
Henry David Thoreau lived only 45 years, and he never was able to see his work appreciated. He never complained, though. What time he had, and what time any of us has, was good enough for Thoreau.
"Time is but a stream I go a-fishin in. I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. It's thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one."
- Brooker, Ira. "Giving the game away: Thoreau's intellectual imperialism, and the marketing of Walden Pond." The Midwest Quarterly.
January 1, 2004: Pg 173
- Thoreau, Henry David. "Walden." Published 1854.
- Von Frank, Albert J. "Transcendentalism." The Readers companion to American History. 1991. (Pg. no. unknown)