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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
Transcendentalism was eclipsed by a century’s worth of literary realism in the aftermath of the Civil War, but not Thoreau. Most freewheeling essay writing in America on any subject derives from him, and that’s because he was exact, tactile, and practical in what he said, despite being a romantic. The twentieth century’s horrific wars didn’t crush the force of his sensibility for readers either, though one can argue with his aphorisms. Indeed, we’re “constantly invited to be what we are,” as he said. Yet for the rest of us the choice may embrace contradictory things: true-blue husband and yet romancer of women; indefatigable mother and yet a workaholic lawyer; lover of the city, but lover of the ocean. Thoreau never appears to have considered that anybody he was writing for might be any different from him—might want children, for instance, or might love sumptuous food and sensual alliances and volleys of conversation as well as piney woods and loons calling. “Fire is the most tolerable third party,” he wrote (though his tiny cabin at WaIden did contain three chairs). The rich salt crackling of hemlock needles was “like mustard to the ear.”
The death of his brother John from lockjaw in 1842 had propelled Henry into a nervous collapse with psychosomatic symptoms, and the execution of John Brown seventeen years later afflicted him similarly, so he was clearly a vulnerable man, not impervious to ordinary emotions. But he had few complicating cross-loyalties and gave no hostages to fortune. He believed that life was for exulting and for self-invention; and, walking out of doors about four hours a day (buttering his boots to waterproof them), using his “Realometer” on what he observed, or inspecting the beautiful patterns of fern leaves and of the rainbow tints of clamshells in the dark mud of rivers while smelling the “raspberry air,” he lived enviably. One reads Thoreau for his foxy grace and crystalline precision, his joyful inventories and resilient spirits. Like any good naturalist, he believed that human nature is part of nature, not set aside from it, and his attention did not intensify when he was looking at human behavior instead of at wind riffling a lake. He had consummate faith that integrity and direct speaking would carry the day —that if he spoke his mind it would turn out to be something fresh and forever. And nature repaid his faith by making that true.