Au­thor of­fers glimpse at Thoreau

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - NI­CHOLAS BLINCOE The Ad­ven­tures of Henry 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.

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