We’re not always up to speed at Traversing. We prefer to slow down our thinking, turning it more toward mulling, pondering, even a dollop or two of old-fashioned cogitating. Sometimes this slowness means we miss observances and even parties (drats!), like the ones that were held in various locales to celebrate Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday last July. But when we do miss folks’ big days, we always try to send a cheery “Happy Belated!” card to acknowledge our oversight and wish them godspeed.
So Henry, this card is for you. And given your towering presence in the literary and even spiritual life of our nation, I will go beyond the usual birthday niceties here to include an honest, but I think ultimately compassionate view of our relationship, your life, and the spirits that moved you in the brief time, a mere 44 years, that you walked—and walked and walked—upon this earth.
Let’s start with Thoreau’s impact.
A few months ago I came across a “New York Review of Books” article that reviewed no less than 10—TEN!!—books about Thoreau published in just the previous year. Of course, the authors were capitalizing on the 200th birthday observance, but there are plenty of very significant people turning 200 every year about whom there isn’t even one, much less 10, books written about them.
Personally, I’d settle for someone writing a tiny pamphlet about me, with a dozen copies run off at Kinko’s before they begin to molder in the attics of my surviving relatives.
Thoreau is one of those names that if you went out on the streets and asked the first 100 people you came across, “Do you recognize the name Henry David Thoreau?” I would lay money down that a substantial number would give you an answer in the ballpark of “writer/philosopher/didn’t he hang out at that Walden Pond?”
This is largely because “Walden” is a longtime staple of high school and college reading lists, right up there with “Moby Dick” and “The Great Gatsby” as iconic pieces of American literature.
Obviously, Thoreau’s life and work hit a chord in American culture that continues to reverberate to this day. More like plural “chords,” actually. But what were they?
Why have they had such enduring power?
For all his fleeing from the complications of the flesh, Thoreau sings such sensuous and rhapsodic notes about trees and weeds and leaves that we can view him as a kind of hedonist of nature.
And another question we’ll consider here: Is Thoreau an America hero? Should we hold him up as such when our kids come back from their lit class all jazzed up about this iconoclastic loner who worshipped nature? Who practically invented voluntary simplicity and thrift store chic? Who was a true-blue environmentalist before environmentalism got cool? Who basically turned his back on the prevailing mores of his culture?
Really, is it any wonder that he appeals so strongly to teenagers and young adults just beginning to separate themselves from authority?
Here comes Thoreau tromping through the woods with his “Walden” into their high school English class, saying this about his fellow residents in Concord:
“What does our Concord culture amount to? Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”
And this from his “Walden” essay, “Walking”:
“A town is saved not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.”
So: people are less worthy than some swamp at the edge of town! Music to a rebel’s ears!
“Solitude” is a word closely associated with Thoreau. It’s the title of another chapter in “Walden.” Thoreau craved solitude. He made almost a fetish of the fact that he loved and sought the comforts of his own company amidst plants and animals more than he did human beings. Or as he wrote:
“I find it wholesome to be alone a greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Once, when he was walking in the woods, he found himself suddenly desiring human companionship. But then a gentle rain started up and he began listening to the pattern of the drops. So he wrote off his loneliness as:
“…a slight insanity in my mood…as made the fancied advantages of human neighbors insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.”
Which led straight to this feeling:
“Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”
His friends, the pine needles. This is poetry and metaphor, of course. Highly romanticized. And no doubt of great consolation for a person who exhibited social awkwardness throughout his life.
And then there is his famous assertion, also in “Walden”:
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
That’s a rather withering critique of one’s fellow human beings. He no doubt included women in that summary judgment as well.
As much as Thoreau professed a love for nature, that love didn’t much include the natural phenomenon of women and the intimate relations a man might have with them.
Thoreau’s basic orientation toward such activity can be summed up in one word, I think: “Eeewwww.”
For all the gorgeous poetic observations in “Walden,” there is also this:
“We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled, like the worms which, even in life and death, occupy our bodies.”
Many modern scholars speculate that Thoreau was a repressed gay who buried his desires under a veneer of revulsion to erotic impulses. Or at the very least that he settled into a disinterested asexuality.
It’s true that he did propose to a woman once, in 1840, when he was 23 years old. And as it happened, his own brother had proposed to the same woman. One can only imagine what went through her mind in rejecting them both, while letting it be known that her father, a Unitarian minister, scoffed at the mere notion of dirt-poor Henry asking him for her hand.
That was the end of any overt interest in romance for Thoreau. When a while later another woman proposed to him, he couldn’t run away fast enough, telling his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I sent back as distinct a ‘no’ as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust this ‘no’ has succeeded. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career.”
A woman cottoning to him, and what he sees is a “foe.” What a card!
I suspect that Thoreau, like many writers, often made an overly emphatic case romanticizing his chosen subjects such as nature, solitude, and his own purported independence. Over-statement and rhapsody are parts of the romantic sensibility, after all.
Artists tend to feel things more deeply and express themselves more ardently than their more earth-bound peers. So if they swoon over leaves but still don’t quite know what to do with people, they will express those polarities more sharply than others.
Besides which, falling leaves are so much less complicated than living, breathing, perspiring human beings.
Thoreau’s famous independence and withdrawal from the hurly burly of life also has to be seen against such facts as this: Walden was actually on the edge of Concord, the nearby city to where he made frequent trips and from where many city dwellers came out to enjoy a stroll in the woods.
It’s not like he was marooned at a fire lookout on a remote mountain, getting resupplied by wagon once a month with the wagoneer his only human contact.
He lived at Walden only two years, and the whole time he was there, he regularly toted his dirty laundry to his mom’s house a couple of miles away. Yes, his mother washed and presumably folded her just-under-30-year-old, fiercely independent and unneedy son’s laundry…
Fair enough, though. Thoreau was a kind of poet, so we need to give him a sizable allotment of poetic license, peculiarity and indulgence if we are to fully appreciate his gifts.
Emerson and Thoreau’s frequent walking partner, Ellery Channing, a poet and nephew of the famous Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, both wrote much more about their deep regard for Thoreau than he ever wrote about them, though to be fair, perhaps this is as much a function of them outliving him by quite a few years as anything else.
But it’s hard to ignore in the totality of Thoreau’s writings that he was not exactly overflowing with regard for his fellow human beings. In a scathing article in the “New Yorker” a couple of years ago, the author leads off her piece with an episode in which Thoreau came across a recent shipwreck of Irish immigrants that left more than 20 people drowned.
After he had picked his way among dead women and children whom survivors were still busy identifying, Thoreau wrote in his journal that night:
“On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?”
That’s a rather troubling response to such a harrowing scene. It denotes a distancing, a kind of hard shell and self-protection from the mass of humanity. And from its pain.
What did consistently get Thoreau’s juices and pencils flowing were plants and animals, rocks and rivers. He certainly felt humans should be a part of and interact with that world, but much of his writing laments the fact that they rarely do. That their lives are too materialistic, too complex, too fast, too lost in trivialities.
And of course, we all know that is true, to varying degrees.
I doubt that anyone reading this doesn’t wrestle with Thoreau’s dictum to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” And to seek solitude.
Who doesn’t want to spend more time at the beach and river, fingering seashells and contemplating the ceaseless waves and tides?
But it should perhaps not go unsaid that staying single and childless all one’s life as Thoreau did makes “simplifying” quite a bit easier to accomplish.
For all his fleeing from the complications of the flesh, Thoreau sings such sensuous and rhapsodic notes about trees and weeds and leaves that we can view him as a kind of hedonist of nature. These lines of his say it:
“Rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”
Sounds a little drunk or high, doesn’t he? Or simply in love.
Where are we?? indeed!
Where he often was was outdoors, whenever he could get there.
A passage from his Journal, January, 1854:
“Why do the vast snow plains give us pleasure, the twilight of the bent and half-buried woods? Is not all there consonant with virtue, justice, purity, courage, magnanimity? Are we not cheered by the sight? And does not all this amount to the track of a higher life than the otter’s, a life which has not gone by and left a footprint merely, but is there with its beauty, its music, its perfume, its sweetness, to exhilarate and recreate us?”
One critic described Thoreau’s work as “a cache of love letters to nature…” Thoreau came to those love letters via meticulous observation. An accomplished naturalist, he looked and looked, lingered and peered, long and closely, so he could finally see into the deepest, most exalted realms of humanity and our relationship to all of creation.
He was, in many ways, a kind of Old Testament prophet, a bit crazed, drunk on God, which for him was represented by Nature.
When his Aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
Like all prophets, Thoreau felt himself at odds with prevailing norms, with the mass of humanity, even as he beseeched and implored and scolded that humanity to get on board with his program of slowing down, shedding our stuff, reveling in a simple walk or laying upon a log admiring the clouds.
Not working so darn much!
We should also not forget another prophetic quality of Thoreau that I have given short shrift to here: his calls for justice in abolishing slavery, for which he was an early, loud, and persistent voice.
Also, his emphatic defense of the sanctity of individual conscience. He elaborated that view in his seminal work, “Civil Disobedience,” which has had a profound and continuing effect on political philosophy and influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King a century later.
In debt to all that, we need give Thoreau a wide berth for his faults and neuroses. He was not a whole and integrated human being, but then no human being is. We are all half-formed, struggling up a mountain with our pockets full of rocks.
Thoreau’s kindred spirit and contemporary Walt Whitman said as much:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Thoreau was large, and he contained multitudes. And among them, right along with the neuroses, there flourished an acute wisdom, a mystic’s vision, a true seer’s penetration to the beauty of matter and the inviolability of individual, awakened human beings.
For that, we owe him an expression of deep gratitude, and not least, 200th birthday greetings, however belated they are.
From the Comments to the following Charles Ives modernist orchestral piece, “The Unanswered Question,” fitting Thoreau seemingly to the very “T” of his name:
Three things going on at once. The quiet strings you hear at the very beginning that continue throughout, Ives stated, represent the “silence of the Druids” who know everything and observe everything but say nothing. The strident and discordant trumpet solo represents the human being who asks “the perennial question of existence.” The woodwind quartet represents those who try to provide the answer, but fail to come up with a satisfactory one, and they grow more and more dissonant as they continue, representing disagreement and argument…eventually their dissonance is extreme and they give up. Charles Ives was attempting to express in music that unanswered question of life, “Why am I here?”
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. See more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tree near top of page by Andrew Hidas, https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas
Walden Pond tree photo by Rimager, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rmattlage/
Leaf photo by daBinsi, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dabinsi/
Woods photo by Sendito, https://www.flickr.com/photos/senditophoto/
Thoreau at age 39, daguerreotype by Benjamin Maxham