Tomorrow, our nation celebrates its 240th birthday, but July 4 also marks another American anniversary. On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, to start an experiment of sorts in simple living. The book he wrote chronicling his experiences — now simply titled “Walden” — has become one of the keystone classics of American literature.
Right now, I’m about halfway through my third reading of “Walden.” When I first read it back in college, I didn’t really think about it much at all. The book simply was another assigned text that I had to get through for a class. Sure, it has some great stuff in it, I thought back then, but I wondered exactly what made it an American classic.
My second read of the book was in graduate school. That time through, I remember wondering not so much about its place in American literature as about what “Walden” was. Certainly not a novel, the book escapes easy classification. Is it autobiography? Philosophy? A nature journal? A how-to manual? I finally just decided it was “creative non-fiction” and let it go at that. I may not have been able to describe the book, but I could sure describe its author. The one impression that stuck with me was “What an impossible hippie!”
Lots of people have been trying to describe the book’s author in the 162 years since its publication, and Thoreau remains as much an enigma now as he was then. His friend, the poet-essayist-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, thought Thoreau had no “ambition,” and remarked: “Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the novelist, famously said that Thoreau was “ugly as sin,” but continued, “His ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”
Wow! With friends like that …
Modern commentators haven’t been much clearer, in some ways. In the 21st century, the novelist John Updike summed up the prevailing attitude toward Thoreau when he said that he was “so vivid a protestor, so perfect a crank and hermit saint” that “Walden” “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” Thoreau and his “Walden” are forever victims of what people think they are instead of what they really are.
That’s a shame because both Thoreau and his book deserve better. Although we gained our political independence as a nation in 1776, Thoreau recognized that we were not really “free” in some senses nearly 70 years later when he wrote “Walden.” We had our political freedom from England; Thoreau urged us to declare our intellectual freedom.
Much of what Thoreau urged us to do is to free ourselves from mindless materialism, the endless pursuit of “more stuff” (as the later philosopher George Carlin termed it) and find some sort of true freedom in happiness. Thoreau noted early in “Walden” that “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”
His basic point still holds true — do we so much own our houses as our houses own us? In an era where people rent storage space to put their “stuff,” Thoreau does seem a prophet.
However, he is an impractical prophet. Simplifying one’s life is not so simple as he makes it sound. Yes, he built himself a house for about $650 in today’s money, but it was only 10 feet by 15 feet and constructed on his friend Emerson’s land. Could we get by with less “stuff?” Certainly. But Thoreau had some advantages that most people today do not, and his “simple life” was not as simple as some people think it was.
In 1939, the essayist and Thoreau enthusiast E.B. White took a trip to Concord to see Walden Pond. He wrote about seeing a woman mowing her lawn as he entered town and said, “It appears to me that the lawn was mowing the lady” before concluding “Concord hasn’t changed much.” Times have changed; people have not.
As mad as he makes me sometimes, Thoreau seems to be one of my quirky friends. Although I think half of what he says simply cannot be done, he has a sense of humor about it. I think he knew himself far better than all those who attempt to describe him do, including me.
I’m loving my third reading of “Walden.” I have been inspired enough to calculate the cost of a trip to see Walden Pond. Just to get there will cost me the same amount of money that he spent to build his house. I think I’ll just stay in Reece City.
Happy Fourth of July to everyone! Be safe!
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.