Author offers glimpse at Thoreau
On July 4, 1845, a 28-year-old essayist named Henry Thoreau moved into a single-room house on the shores of Lake Walden, Mass. It was only 60 square feet, with a stone chimney at one end, a door at the other, and a window in each of the long sides.
The house was large enough for Thoreau’s bed, writing table and not much else.
The house stood on land owned by Thoreau’s friend and mentor, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was constructed using borrowed tools. Both the land and tools were returned in better condition than Thoreau had found them.
Thoreau described his life at Walden Pond as an experiment. His account of his stay, Walden, is far more than a classic: It is a piece of American DNA, exerting an almost unconscious influence over the nation’s life.
Musicians from Dylan and the Band to Bon Iver have emulated his stay in the wilds. Novelists and painters from Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock to Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen have fled to semirural retreats.
There is also a darker side to Thoreau’s experiment. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, lived in an isolated cabin where he wrote political screeds and mailed bombs to U.S. universities.
Thoreau’s 1849 book, Resistance to Civil Government (popularly known as Civil Disobedience), is cited as an inspiration by both Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Thoreau’s politics encompass a fierce patriotism, a belief in small government and in freedom as a personal responsibility, as well as a environmentalism and an activist’s commitment to civil rights.
Michael Sims looks at Thoreau’s early life in order to frame a quite Michael Sims Bloomsbury narrow question: Why did Thoreau make his experiment at all? Why did he build his house by Walden Pond?
This may be too small-scale for a reader whose is more likely to ask “who?” rather than “why?” Nevertheless, Sims provides a way in to understanding Thoreau’s times.
Thoreau is associated with a love of the wilderness, but disliked the idea of endless expansion. Indeed, Walden Pond was on the edge of urban Concord.
He argued for a life of observation over restless toil. He is the godfather of anyone who believes in a shortened working week, and believed that a mind that was unconcerned with the natural world would drift into vanity.
As to why he went to Walden Pond, it seems simply that he was feeling down: Out of sorts and a local oddball. Yet the chief reason, like all aspiring writers, was that he needed something to write about.
Thoreau went to the woods for two years, two months and two days — and we are still living with the consequences.