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The Indispensable Thoreau
He lived alone for two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond, but he was neither misanthropic nor solitary. Perhaps more than any other American writer, he can teach us how to live with ourselves.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Henry David Thoreau, who never earned much of a living or sustained a relationship with any woman that wasn’t brotherly—who lived mostly under his parents’ roof (and is buried simply as “Henry” in his father’s graveyard plot), who advocated one day’s work and six days “off” as the weekly round and was considered a bit of a fool in his hometown, sometimes even having to endure the nickname “Dolittle”—is probably the American writer who tells us best how to live comfortably with our most constant companion, ourselves. We find ourselves brought to life in Thoreau’s books if we too want to simplify our roster of obligations and clutter of habits and possessions, to be independent of wage-slave constrictions and social obiter dicta, and if we know that common sense and honesty do not always coincide with prevailing tastes and majority opinion. His masterpiece, Walden , is controversial because it goes against the grain of go-getterism, conventional social arrangements, and established religion. But when he went traveling, he became a more convivial man of letters, and particularly in the Maine woods, “far from mankind and election day,” he discovered so little to displease him that there’s no hint of churlishness or reclusiveness in his buoyant account, even on the eve of the Civil War, whose roiling approach profoundly disturbed him.
Born in 1817, Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, in his mid-forties, having kept a voluminous journal from the age of twenty but having published only a smattering of magazine articles and poems and two books, the first of them at his own expense. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers appeared in 1849 and sold only 219 copies in four years. Its failure commercially delayed for five years the scheduled appearance of Walden (1854), which then took five years to sell out a printing of 2,000 copies, priced at a dollar apiece. His fame—and two more marvelous books, The Maine Woods (1864) and Cape Cod (1865), edited by his sister Sophia and his friend Ellery Channing from manuscript versions and magazine pieces—was posthumous. Nevertheless, it’s easy to exaggerate Thoreau’s obscurity at the time of his death, which in no way equaled Herman Melville’s parched solitude, for instance, in the four decades after Moby Dick came out in 1851. These two great American Romantics were almost exact contemporaries, like their masterpieces, and neither’s achievement was recognized for the better part of a century. But Thoreau had had the good luck to be born in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was thrown into contact with many of the literary figures of the day, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became his mentor and champion, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and Orestes Brownson, and on a wider scene with such personages as John Brown, Walt Whitman, and Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune , who frequently tried to further his interests. Thoreau was an uningratiating, prickly man who quarreled with the most powerful magazine editors he dealt with, and whose ideas in those days seemed overly simple or prosaic and unfashionably straightforward. Lowell, Whitman, Henry James, Sr., and William Dean Howells, among others, were not impressed with him. But despite the small, fitful notice his work had received, his friends saw to it that Concord’s children were released from school to attend his funeral, two Boston newspapers ran admiring obituaries, and Emerson, perhaps the most influential intellectual in the country, eulogized him in The Atlantic Monthly .
As a young man at rather loose ends, Thoreau had lived for three years in Emerson’s house, and it was Emerson who bought and loaned him the land on the shore of WaIden Pond where he built a ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin and wrote the bulk of his first two books. During those busy twenty-six months (1845-47) he also made his first trip to the Maine woods, and spent a night in Concord’s jail, protesting paying taxes for the Mexican War, which was unpopular among educated New Englanders as being waged in the furtherance of slavery—an experience that produced his classic essay “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson’s kindnesses, patronage, and advocacy were of crucial importance to Thoreau’s career, and Thoreau made no substantial departure from Emerson’s Transcendental ideas as enunciated in the older’s man earlier, already famous essays like “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The Over-Soul.” It was not in the ideas but the expression of them that Thoreau surpassed his friend, with aphorisms such as “We are constantly invited to be what we are”; or “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; or “I have traveled a good deal in Concord”; or “The sun is but a morning star.” One might argue with each of these statements, but each is so succinct as to sum up an ordinary essay, and the manner in which he lived was succinct enough to reinforce every epigram he wrote. Planting beans next to his pondside cabin (“seven miles” of bean rows: he meant to be self-sufficient in beans, to make “the earth say beans instead of grass”), he can be reduced to the ineradicable simplicity of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone or Nathan Hale, Babe Ruth or Paul Revere, as a national archetype.