When I first read “Walden” as a teenager, I was fascinated both by Thoreau’s ideas and his singular use of the language. The book became my portal into a new world of thought and imagination. E.B. White called it “the best youth’s companion” written in America, and I found it not only companionable but delightfully uplifting.
Henry Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Mass., 200 years ago this month. As the world celebrates his life, I thought I would try to pay off part of an old debt by giving Thoreau a salute.
For decades after Thoreau’s death, “Walden” was, and perhaps still is, thought to be a book about nature. Actually, it is less about nature than it is about exploring the private world of our own being.
Thoreau marched to the sound of a different drummer. His fellow townsmen saw him as an idler who threw away his Harvard education for a life in the woods. Even Emerson, who should have known better, criticized him for his lack of ambition. But Thoreau had more ambition than any of them.
What he wanted most was to live an authentic life free from frivolous distractions. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “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.”
Two years later he left Walden Pond, because he said he had more lives to live and he couldn’t spend any more time on that one.
Self-confident and fiercely independent, Thoreau was a passionate defender of freedom. He spoke out against slavery and was actively involved in the underground railroad. He was thrown in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest of a government that condoned slavery.
Always holding himself to a higher standard, he criticized the materialism of the industrial age, saying money can’t buy one necessity of the soul. He was skeptical of the new inventions, describing them as “improved means to unimproved ends.”
What I found most appealing about Walden was its optimism. Condensed into a single year, the book was written as a movement toward spring and along with that movement came a corresponding odyssey of thought, carrying a message of hope and encouragement. It was a tonic for my mind and spirit.
“I did not propose to write an ode to dejection,” he wrote, “but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, if only to wake my neighbors up.”
Thoreau’s reputation has grown steadily through the years, and today “Walden” is recognized as a classic in American literature. The book has gained international acclaim, and since the second edition in 1862, it has never gone out of print.
Walden Pond has more than half a million visitors a year, many of which are Thoreau fans. One summer my friend Charlie Sullivan and I decided to join their ranks and make a pilgrimage there ourselves. Tagging along with us was my 10-year old son Mike, who did a good job pulling his weight. In fact, while out on the trail, we had trouble keeping up with him.
At Concord, we walked in the footsteps of Thoreau, canoed on the Concord River, hiked the trail around Walden Pond and lingered at Thoreau’s cabin site, which was marked by a cable strung over stone posts. Later we went on to climb Mount Katahdin in Maine, something Thoreau had done at a time when few people venture to climb it.
At Walden Pond, we camped one evening in Deep Cove where Thoreau built his cabin. It was our little act of civil disobedience, since overnight camping was not permitted. We wanted to set up the tent right on the cabin site but the ground there was too rocky, so we settled for a spot nearby.
It’s amazing how much a man can elevate the importance of a place just by living there two years and writing a book about it. But Thoreau had a knack for raising our consciousness. Looking out across the pond that evening, near the place where Thoreau built his cabin, I had a feeling of being more aware than usual. And that feeling was priceless.
If Thoreau were here today, he would be astonished to see that he is now held in such high regard and that “Walden” had become one of the most widely read books of the 19th century. But he still would be himself, taking his daily walk in the woods, making observations, criticizing our materialism and trying his best to live deliberately.
And no doubt he still would be crowing loud as ever, like a chanticleer in the morning, hoping to wake his neighbors up.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.