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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
But what has made him more imperishable was a deeper radicalism, nearly as pervasive as his love of nature. He was writing Walden during the height of the California gold rush and of the larger westering fever of hope and excitement, when the existence of the Oregon Trail seemed to represent an elixir of wealth and youth. But he merely dismissed the premises of trying to pile up money or of changing the scene of one’s efforts. It was exploring oneself that mattered, and witnessing each day at home. (The continent might scarcely have been settled if Thoreau’s priorities had held sway.) As one of a line of writers going back to Rousseau, he said, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well,” and like Walt Whitman, he devoted his life to presenting his enthusiasms, assuming that they had universal application. Neither a hermit nor a mystic of one of the stripes that have arisen in the extremism of our own day, he loved Homer and Chaucer, could translate French and Greek, invented a better lead for pencils, was a student of weather and water, and an excellent land surveyor. It was originality, not faddishness, that led him to take to the woods, grow his own food, read about Eastern religions, wax vehement against slavery and help in the Underground Railroad, advocate conscientious objection, explore the lore and character of Indians, and criticize the common man as well as political parties and establishment figures. He believed that the cost of a thing is the “amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it,” and in an age of worldwide exploration he readily belittled adventurerexplorers because he believed they were not properly mystified or exalted by conundrums closer to home. He was more of an ecologist than a taxonomist in an era when science was mostly confined to taxonomy, and at a time when the frontier was being gutted, he went into the woods, he said, as “chaplain to the hunters.”
It was originality, not faddishness, that led him to take to the woods, grow his own food, read about Eastern religions.
“Fire is the most tolerable third party,” Thoreau wrote, though his tiny cabin at Walden contained three chairs.
In school he had occasionally been called “The Judge,” yet one of the appealing paradoxes about Thoreau is how seldom this offish individualist and “solitary” lived or even traveled alone, how close he was to his family and chatty with his neighbors, how repeatedly and obstreperously he involved himself in public controversy. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is about a lark of a trip he enjoyed with his brother John, floating and ruminating in a fifteen-foot dory, when Henry was twenty-two. Cape Cod , although rather more somber, recounts his impressions while walking the beach and the scrublands on three brief, almost impromptu jaunts to the Cape ten or fifteen years later, twice in the company of Ellery Channing, when he was much concerned, in any case, with the plentiful anecdotes that he gleaned from the inhabitants. His journeys to Maine in 1846, 1853, and 1857 bracketed his walks on the Cape and were planned more ambitiously, as if carrying a heavier significance. They were strenuous warm-weather paddles and hikes made always with a paid guide and at least one additional companion—on. the first trip, altogether a party of six. Thoreau, as we read him, seems like a personable, vigorous Harvard graduate who, after trying to teach school and a stint in his father’s pencil-manufacturing business, had realized that his only wish was to become a writer and had set out to do so. As on the Cape, his professional purpose was to write thoughtful, descriptive essays for such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly and Putnam’s Monthly , not a seamlessly coherent masterpiece like Walden .
This is our most commonsensical Thoreau, and his Maine guides respected his aptitudes, utilized him in the rapids, on the carries, and at trailblazing, camping affably and volunteering as well as trading information with him. Thoreau, sleeping less and working harder than most of his companions, not only gathered a short glossary of Abnaki Indian words and compiled a list of birds and vegetation seen, but persuaded Joe Polis (the Indian that the sympathetic Emerson later says he “deserved”) to tell him numerous stories and bits of folklore, such as that the first moose was a whale that crawled up on the land with jellyfish for bowels. He even got Polis to sing. Cedar beer, hemlock tea, moose lips (a dish), wolf howls, cougar tracks, houses sixty miles apart, salmon eaten off a birchbark plate with a fork whittled from an alder twig: these were some of his delights.