A crank for all seasons
200 years after his birth, the author of Walden is still an adolescant’s most congenial ally
Most thrilling of all is the man’s refusal to make nasty concessions even in the important matter of making a living.
“Every man looks at his woodpile with a kind of affection.” Henry David Thoreau, author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” wrote few more charming sentences. A man and his woodpile suggest a life of pleasurable striving in a homespun utopia — or so I imagined during an adolescence given over to the teachings of this 19th-century transcendental hippie.
Earlier this week, Thoreau turned 200 years old; even at this advanced age, he is still an adolescent’s most congenial ally. He did not keep pace with his companions, distrusted the advice of his elders, and defended tattooing as “not the hideous custom which it is called.” A chronic subversive, he spent two years in a woodland cabin composing reams of elegant dogma: Old deeds for old people and new deeds for young! Advance confidently in the direction of your dreams! Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.
Thoreau was my hero for years, but after acquiring a job, a mortgage, and a habit of wishing away the days between weekends, I remembered him, if at all, with affectionate contempt. But now that I am older than Thoreau was when he died, I find myself back at the little cabin, admiring its woodpile. The cabin’s intractable tenant, regarded by his neighbours in Concord as a failure and a crank, has become my mentor in late middle age.
I rediscovered Thoreau during a long, hard campaign against the dust in my living room. Plucking Walden from the shelf in mid-sweep, I opened it at random and read: “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”
Suddenly into the room stepped a sadeyed ghost, drubbing the air with dire warnings: You do not have the house, the house has you. What are you now but the tool of your tools, hedged round by excess, whilst your spirit lies smothered in trivialities. Simplify, simplify, simplify!
I snapped shut the book, snarling: “I’d like to see you simplify a lifetime of chores. During that cabin phase, didn’t you mooch all your meals off Emerson?” Impatiently, I waved the ghost away but he settled in with a little hum of inevitability.
Thoreau is a crank and a scold but my return to Walden Pond did not find him mouldering away in moth-eaten sentiment. Few writers are more timely, or so shatteringly direct.
“Whilst civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who inhabit them,” he says, then more sternly: “The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of the other.” Thoreau points to the shoddiness of our arrangements, decrying a frenetic world swarmed by insular experts: “The labouring man has not leisure enough for a true integrity ... He has not time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?”
Most thrilling of all, especially in these restless, nervous, bustling, trivial times (Thoreau’s description of the 19th century) is the man’s refusal to make nasty concessions even in the important matter of making a living. He did not expect a woodpile to gather up itself, but neither did he waste the best part of his day fetching and chopping: “If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.” Throughout his life, Thoreau remained alert for any signs of independent thought, a phenomenon so rare, he said, that he would any day walk 10 miles to see it.
So here I am again at Walden Pond. How bracing to have this uncompromising moral despot as a companion in late middle age when compromises are too easily excused. Life’s a glorious dare, says Thoreau; and the rules are fewer and less entrenched than we believe. He would have us renounce false assumptions about how the world ticks. The danger is that we will allow the world’s incessant, contrived demands to tick us away into our graves before we are born into our true selves.
At the end of the day, each of us should be able to regard our woodpile with a kind of affection.
Sometimes the words of this singular young man ring sadly across the years: “The finest qualities of our natures, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
A small pumpkin next to the headstone of 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass.