Thoreau’s Walden Revisited

Just ran into an old friend I haven’t seen in twenty years. Holy shit: twenty years. We spent some quality time together back in high school, and although he’s always been in the back of my mind, I haven’t bothered to get in touch. Not sure why, exactly—probably because neither of us is on Facebook. I’m speaking of Walden, son of one Henry David Thoreau.

Walden’s one of those books that’s problematic for many people. It’s a gadfly of a book, and it can seem pretentious and annoying to those with the proverbial bone to pick. Remember being inspired by it when I was younger, but just before I began re-reading it again recently I was worried that my accrued “wisdom” might tarnish its memory in my mind. So often what once delighted us now repulses us.

To those of a certain temperament, there’s something about modern life that grates. If you’re not one of those types, Walden will grate on you.

But I was fairly pleased upon re-reading it. Here’s my measure: the positive effect a book has on me is directly proportional to the desire I have to seek out any physical location associated with it. Pondering a pilgrimage to Walden Pond sometime soon.

Walden is an account of the author’s construction of and tenancy of a small cabin on the banks of the above-mentioned body of water, just outside the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Less a memoir than a series of essays on self-reliance, society, economics, education, and of course Nature, it can most accurately be regarded as a—or maybe even the—Bible of Independent Living.

Not uncoincidentally, Thoreau first began living at Walden Pond on the Fourth of July: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he says, “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.”

If these words don’t send a thrill up your spine—as they have the spines of many a reader since the book was first published in 1854—any discussion of Walden’s merits or demerits will most likely be lost on you. To those of a certain temperament, there’s something about modern life that grates. If you’re not one of those types, Walden will grate on you.

To skeptics, the book is a protracted holier-than-thou boast doused in syrupy philosophizing and unrealistic idealism. Many also take Thoreau to task because he only tried living “in the wild” for a couple years and even while he was there he regularly dined with his friends in town.

Thoreau addresses both of these criticisms in his book, but the one thing that is problematic for me personally is that sex and intimate companionship play no part in Walden. Was Thoreau asexual? Who knows. Hard to judge a denizen of the nineteenth-century by our standards. But I do sense in Thoreau’s embracement of solitariness a dash of cold, almost inhumane detachment—frigid aloofness of course being one of the main dangers of extreme independence.  

And, like most rhetoricians and philosophers, Thoreau never really lets us in on the drawbacks and/or the dark side to his enterprise. Loneliness is alluded to, but not dwelled on. Likewise, the angst that drives a man to forego the usual lifestyle and set himself apart is not apparent: all is confident serenity.

Those are the weaknesses of Walden. But now let us speak of its strengths. Walden firmly places the beauty and majesty of Nature at the center of life. Exactly where it should be. Since we humans are in fact animals and must subsist on organic materials and we additionally need relatively clean water and air to continue to live, Nature must be reckoned with, respected, and feared. And why not loved?

(An aside: the environmental movement has shot itself in the foot by focusing so much on global warming and carbon footprints. The Romantic love of Nature and wildness seems to be almost extinct amongst the younger generations—and that, I’m afraid, will have long-lasting consequences.)

Walden also emphasizes direct, immersive experience and close observation of what’s happening around us at this very moment. Thoreau minutely peruses the behavior of squirrels, ants, and owls, and muses on the chameleonality of the water in Walden Pond. Although sometimes tedious—especially when copiously describing the pond’s ice bubbles—Thoreau’s awareness of and scrutiny of physical reality should serve as a model. For the drinking up of physical reality is, really, the main point of life.

The scrutiny of one’s own lifestyle which Thoreau engages in is also admirable. As self-aware as we profess to be, we are anything but. Here we are awash in creature comforts and a plethora of products, yet we almost never think about what effect they have on our brains, habits, and environments.

Thoreau has serious qualms with “nice” clothes and dainty food and seeming staples such as sugar and coffee—says they build up unnecessary expenditures and responsibilities. Just what we he would say about our off-the-charts consumerism is hard to say.  Maybe he’d just vomit.

In Walden, Thoreau boils down and iterates the exact essence of independence: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The less you own, the more autonomous you are. The fewer details you have to fret about, the freer you are. That being said, it takes a special sort of person to fully enjoy or even desire that much freedom. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau complains, but what he fails to understand is that that’s exactly the way most folks prefer it.

For true independence is not some hidden gem or elusive Holy Grail that all acknowledge the value of but simply can’t find. Rather, we all know full well—either consciously or unconsciously—what the independent life entails and we flee from it full throttle. We instead seek to lose ourselves in some kind of Bizarro Nirvana of noise and information and busy-ness. Real independence, sadly, scares the shit out of us.

  • February 24, 2016