Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoreau meets me

Recently, I wrote here on the tao and Laozi, touching briefly upon Thoreau. I wrote little, expecting to cover him for more fully in his own post, and I keep that promise to myself here.

I’m not sure how my initial affinity for Thoreau happened exactly. It may just be because when I was young my mommy told me that I was named after him – only he was Henry David and I was David Henry. He was actually David Henry first, but just switched the names' places at some point for some unknown reason.  It was only really half true.  My middle name, Henry, was technically after my deceased Aunt Henrietta. Still, it may have had an effect on me.

I say this because by the time I got around to reading him, I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as if I had pre-cognition of what I would read and I can’t otherwise figure out how the hell that happened. I do not remember exactly when I first read Walden and Civil Disobedience, his two classics, either. However, since everything I can’t remember in my life seems to have occurred in the 70s and 80s, I'll go with that.

Thoreau is tied for second on my list of greatest American writers after Lincoln and with Twain. Although any list I have is subject to violent changes, this one is relatively stable.

The following is a series of quotes from Thoreau together with my commentary on my own connection to his thoughts. I admit to hesitating a little at my cheekiness in invading his space, because where I struggle and re-write just to make myself plain, he seemed to effortlessly write plainly in a script that glowed with gemlike aphorisms and wisdom. Not the purple prose of Oscar Wilde, but in earthier tones quite as beautiful. Yet, it is worth it to do this, because I get to quote him in droves, and that just plain makes me happy even if I corrupt it by comparing his thoughts to my own.

Besides, as writing about himself was exactly what Thoreau did, I have no doubt he would expect me to do the same. With journals containing over a million words, he would have been a natural blogger, as he understood well the primary topic of most blogs and wrote unconscientiously of what he knew best, himself:

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

Living here in my little rural town, trying to arrange a somewhat simpler way of life than I am used to (much harder than you think) and always uncomfortable with many modern technologies (clearly not some aspects of the internet, but cell phones, digital cameras, pagers, voice mail, flat tv’s and the like) Thoreau’s words are more attractive to me than ever. In fact, he so closely mirrors my thoughts about so many things, I wonder sometimes if I was read him while sleeping in my crib.

He starts his great classic, Walden, like so:

WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.

So plain and simple, it brings a homey and earthy image to the mind immediately that seems so desireable to me. Yet, even still, his friends seemed as puzzled about his decision to live alone in the woods more than a century and a half ago as many of my friends do now about my move to a rural community far from CVS and multiplexes. I can’t tell you how often I have heard something like the following:

I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life . . . Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like.

I am as perplexed today at why some people were disapproving of my leaving a job that was pure misery for me, as Thoreau was at why his neighbors labored so hard for so little true satisfaction.

How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot!

. . .

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

. . .

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

. . .

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

And perhaps the most famous of them all, which I find myself quoting to those I come upon who are unhappy and paralyzed by indecision, while knowing fully what they want:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Thoreau wondered out loud why people, once set on a path, find it so hard to change their direction. I wondered this about myself for quite a while until I started thinking - if not now, when?

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.

. . .

In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.

I’m not so sure I agree with that last one, however well written. No doubt luck and happenstance has something to do with success. I also diverge from him in his following advice that our elders have little to offer us, but join him in believing that no advice, however venerable, need be worshipped as if it came down from a mountain.

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

This did not stop him from quoting his distant seniors of whom he knew much.

Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."

Although Thoreau thought each life an experiment, and that no other persons could guide you through yours with their own experiences, he also believed that if we could experience those lives uncensored and directly, no more valuable experience could be had.

What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instance? We should live through all ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, poetry, mythology! I know of no reading of anothers experience so startling and informing as this would be.

He was by nature a more enthusiastic iconoclast than Twain (whose “Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.” I wouldn't mind on my grave stone) and inspired anarchists and social reformers like King, Ghandi and Tolstoy alike:

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

Thoreau did not believe that obtaining possessions, wealth or luxuries led to a happy life.

What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations?

. . .

When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all- looking like an enormous well which had grown out of the nape of his neck- I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.

. . .

A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

Yet, despite that, his reluctance to obtain possessions had its limits. He no more wanted to do without the improvements of life that his time permitted than I want to do without good ole American plumbing, electricity or heat.

Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.

Thoreau found the desire for fashion inexplicable. I have found that many of my heroes share this quality.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.

. . .

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.

. . .

The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today.

He was, however, no misanthrope. He believed in mankind in an almost pollyannish manner.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

On page after page Thoreau personally calls to me, and but for a lack of courage and my being completely incompetent to fend for myself in the wilderness, I would take greater risks in lowering my so called “standard of living” further still and possibly greatly expanding my enjoyment of life. I find the following description more attractive than all the millions in the world (unless it could buy me all of the following, of course).

I went to the woods 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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

. . .

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Strolling through a used volume of Thoreau that I plucked from a box in the front of a used book store in order to get exact quotes, I am again struck with amazement at how so many of his pleasures are my pleasures, although I remembered it not, including a love of Homer. Here’s Thoreau on the classics.

[W]hat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. . . . No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. . . . The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. . . .

Mostly, I love Thoreau for his description of nature and wish I could dwell in it as he does, with thorough knowledge and complete lack of fear. I indulge myself with hikes and kayak trips, which I pitifully try to describe to others and always feel I have failed. He shared my love for these same pastimes and described them in a manner that fills one with exhilarating wonder. Where I might bumbling write to a friend – “It snowed yesterday. You should have seen it. It was so pretty” – Thoreau wrote:

On this morning of the Great Snow, perchance, which is still raging and chilling men's blood, I bear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog bank of their chilled breath, which announces that the cars are coming, without long delay, notwithstanding the veto of a New England northeast snow-storm, and I behold the plowmen covered with snow and rime, their heads peering, above the mould-board which is turning down other than daisies and the nests of field mice, like bowlders of the Sierra Nevada, that occupy an outside place in the universe.

Although famous now for his two major works, Thoreau actually wrote voluminously in his short life, including in a seemingly endless journal. He died during the civil war of respiratory complications from tuberculosis that had lingered for years.

There are multiple stories from Thoreau's last days and one wonders if he was trying to be quixotically or memorable. His aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God. He answered “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” Nearer death, he was asked whether he believed in the afterlife, and responded, “Oh, one world at a time.” His last words are reportedly “Now comes smooth sailing”, and then the enigmatic and more often reported “Moose” and “Indian”.

For fun and with great confidence, I now open my volume of Thoreau, select a page and paragraph at random and type the lines I see:

When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now tonight my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than I; or, if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes . . . .
Unfortunately for me, I know (and fear) I must soon find employment in the real and desperate world of work, most likely a 9-5 situation in an office, if anyone will have me, or suffer consequences more severe than I would like. I am not now and will never be quite ready to try the experiment Thoreau did. If I wanted to live one foot in this world and one in Thoreau's, I have no real choice. Were I to cut ties with the modern world, it would also cut ties with my daughter, my family and friends, the miracle of reading historical documents on the internet, flush toilets and reading at night. Those things I am just not willing to do without. Yet I must remember that Thoreau lived in his shack for only a little more than 2 years just a short walk to town and his mother’s house to which he would frequently go. I will be happy if I can stretch my own life in this rural community surrounded by natural parks and beauty for another year while enjoying all the modern comforts I seem to require, however meager they seem to others.

If I could somehow gently persuade those in the world who might gain from it to read Thoreau, I would. I have touched here upon only Walden and not his brilliant and inspirational short speech we call Civil Disobedience, his courageous literary defense of John Brown and abolition, his voluminous journals, or much about his life. Guided by my appreciation of anyone reading this far, I will not try your patience. But, if I have not persuaded you, I have persuaded myself to read Thoreau fully again, and, whenever possible, in a field or glen, by a lake, or sitting on my porch in a rainstorm.

I am giddy with anticipation. Giddy I tell you.


  1. You truly are becoming a giddy little fruit-fly. I share your enthusiasm for Mr. Thoreau, though I am a bit more tempered than you by his less than honest depiction of his circumstances. As you allude to, he was hardly in the "wilderness". Two miles from town, which he often visited, and a short walk from his mom's, do not a retreat from the real world make. However, he is a brilliant writer. Walden is one of the few books I have in more than one edition.

  2. Phew. I saw "Bear" and immediately thought "Uh oh," he's going to hit me for being "giddy" and my legion of typos. I feel relieved. One out of two isn't that bad.

    I don't know about his "less than honest" depiction. If you take everything he says, he isn't advising giving it all up, just some of it. And he never said he left Concord.

    Thanks for commenting, as always.

  3. Phew. I saw "Bear" and immediately thought "Uh oh," he's going to hit me for being "giddy" and my legion of typos. I feel relieved. One out of two isn't that bad.

    I don't know about his "less than honest" depiction. If you take everything he says, he isn't advising giving it all up, just some of it. And he never said he left Concord.

    Thanks for commenting, as always.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .