5/18/09 - henry david thoreau

In today's excerpt - Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), author of Walden and Civil Disobedience. For Americans, Thoreau has come to represent self-sufficient man living peacefully in the wilderness and communing with untrammeled nature, even though the hut he lived in for two years was only a few blocks from the city of Concord, and he took his dirty laundry home for his mother to wash. The Thoreau we now imagine is a priest of solitude and an icon of the modern-day green movement ... 

"But here's another Thoreau. Here's a Thoreau who lives in town, in the center city of Concord, which, while not quite the size of a city, even though it wants to be, is a large town. Here is the Thoreau who is born in town and, except for a few trips to the Maine and Massachusetts coast, except for a little less than a year in New York City, lives his entire life in his town. ... He comes back [from college at Harvard] to his hometown to discover that there are no jobs, a recession. He goes on the road, to Maine, and he can't find any jobs there either. Thoreau also returns to discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson—the most exciting intellectual and the most renowned intellectual reformer in America—is a neighbor. ... Thoreau moves to Emerson's house, takes care of Emerson's children, his carpentry, his yard work, his gardening, all the while doing other chores for other people around the village, the Transcendental handyman. Thoreau tries poetry, then essay writing, then edits the Transcendentalists' magazine, the Dial. In none of these endeavors does he manage to make much in the way of money. ... He moves to New York tries to establish himself as a successful freelance writer, but gets homesick and returns early to Concord.

"When he comes home, he decides to build himself a little house on the pond on the edge of town, about forty New York City blocks from the village center, on a woodlot owned by Emerson—a woodlot that is not so much woods, in the sense that we think of woods today, as it is a place where Emerson cuts the trees that each day heat his house as he writes away. Thoreau's friends visit, his neighbors and family come to the pond for picnics or to stop by for the watermelon party that Thoreau throws every year. ... 'Above all, he cherishes his manly self-sufficiency even though he carried his dirty laundry to Concord for his mother to wash.' ...

"Thoreau takes seven years to write and rewrite and rewrite his next book, ... Walden, his best-known work in America and, along with his essay on civil disobedience, one of the most famous works of American literature in the world. ... To call Thoreau a nature writer is more than limiting, given the way that we tend to think about nature writing; Thoreau writes about the whole world, and he writes of Walden Pond so as to change the world. ... Walden is a work that intended to revive America, a communal work that is forever pigeonholed as a reclusive one. And what is perhaps most surprising is that it's a comedy; it's an economic satire draped in the language of nature and farming and the self-help books of the day that shows the mass of economic men to be a bunch of unwitting saps. With some disdain, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to his Concord friend as 'a humorist.'

"Walden didn't sell. It didn't do as badly as Thoreau's first book, but it was no huge hit. ... Thus after Walden, Thoreau takes on writing as a kind of full-time avocation, working in his family's pencil factory, doing odd jobs while selling the occasional travel piece. He is a singer and a dancer. He plays the flute and likes to take his friends on moonlit walks and, despite his reputation, rarely seems to have gone on a camping trip alone. He is also a surveyor, helping house builders build, farmers settle their disputes. When people think of Thoreau, do they imagine all the time he spent in court, testifying to land boundaries?

"He dies at forty-four. ... He dies at home. His aunt asks him if he has made peace with God. He tells her he did not know that they had quarreled."


Robert Sullivan


The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2009 by Robert Sullivan


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