‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet des­per­a­tion’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Essay -

Two hun­dred years af­ter his birth, Henry David Thoreau’s ac­count of life in a hut can still teach us a les­son about the tyranny of real es­tate, says Ben­jamin Markovits Read­ing more than other classics, is a kind of wrestling match

In Au­gust 2008, three months be­fore Barack Obama won his first pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, my wife and I and our baby girl moved from London to Bos­ton, Mas­sachusetts. I say Bos­ton, but in fact we lived in Cam­bridge – in a ground-floor apart­ment just off Porter Square and down the road from Ray­mond Park where, it was ru­moured, Larry Bird used to come and shoot hoops, and where my daugh­ter learned to climb. She was al­most two when we ar­rived; she was al­most three when we left. Her first ac­cents were Amer­i­can.

That year has slowly changed colour in my mem­ory and imag­i­na­tion. At the time, we were still stuck in the in­ten­sity of early par­ent­hood. The apart­ment was dark and cramped. It snowed with­out thaw­ing for five months, so that park­ing our sec­ond-hand car meant find­ing an un­oc­cu­pied ramp of ice to drive up. The car it­self kept break­ing down, leav­ing us stranded on high­ways and in un­fa­mil­iar neigh­bour­hoods.

We had few friends and were liv­ing in a city we didn’t know and which, for my wife, rep­re­sented a for­eign coun­try. Our daugh­ter kept wak­ing at four or five in the morn­ing, and in the evening we couldn’t go out with­out the has­sle and ex­pense of a babysit­ter. The short win­ter days felt long. But now, at this dis­tance, the trap that seemed to have caught us works the other way around – the walls en­cir­cling that year won’t let us back in.

The best thing about liv­ing in Bos­ton, we used to say, is how easy it is to get out of Bos­ton. One of our favourite day trips in­volved driv­ing north and west 20 min­utes out of town and go­ing to Walden Pond, es­pe­cially in those first few months when the leaves were turn­ing – and later, in the spring, af­ter the thaw, when a muddy bit of shore­line be­came a beach, and kids splashed around in the shal­lows. The place still seemed to me a “work­ing” pond. Peo­ple swam in it (un­of­fi­cially) and walked around the edge – it takes about half an hour.

The hut that Henry David Thoreau built on the north­ern shore in 1845 is gone, but the replica in its place does the job. You can duck un­der the door­way and stand be­tween the win­dows (which cost him two dol­lars and forty-three cents, in­clud­ing glass) and stare at the bed, the stove, the table and the three chairs. For some­one whose rented rooms were cov­ered with plas­tic toys, the bare­ness of the place seemed al­most grand. It has ev­ery­thing you need, but not much room for kids.

About three min­utes away by car, just south of the woods, be­tween Walden and Flints Pond, is Gropius House, built by Wal­ter Gropius in 1938. We liked to visit it af­ter­wards: a white box, clev­erly dressed up in an­gles and set on a slop­ing, ex­pen­sive-look­ing lawn. In­side, you feel the ar­chi­tect’s care­ful at­ten­tion to or­di­nary life – the coat rack be­hind the twist­ing stairs, the built-in fur­ni­ture. There’s also a room for their daugh­ter, and the con­trast makes for part of the ap­peal: the moral sim­plic­ity of Thoreau’s house; the aes­thetic sim­plic­ity of Gropius’s – al­though the hut is pleas­ing to the eye as well, and there’s a mod­esty in mod­ernism, too.

“Most men ap­pear never to have con­sid­ered what a house is,” Thoreau writes in his 1854 book Walden, “and are ac­tu­ally though need­lessly poor all their lives be­cause they think that they must have such a one as their neigh­bours have.” Gropius would prob­a­bly have agreed.

And yet the hut and the house are also worlds apart. They rep­re­sent a choice, be­tween two kinds of am­bi­tion, two kinds of life. On a Satur­day af­ter­noon, driv­ing from one to the other, you can imag­ine your­self in the shoes of the Har­vard pro­fes­sor, work­ing at your desk in the wide-win­dowed study, and later, join­ing your stu­dents for din­ner, while they ad­mire the house you de­signed your­self… or in the shoes of the young Har­vard grad­u­ate, perched in front of the fire whose chim­ney you built with your own hands, “a mile from any neigh­bour”, on a hard chair, read­ing, while the night closes in and you can hear the loons calling over the lake.

These days, I’m back in London and fill up the gaps in a writer’s life and salary by teach­ing. One of my classes is a seminar on the great Amer­i­can novella. We start with The Scar­let Let­ter (not ex­actly a novella, but by Thoreau’s con­tem­po­rary and oc­ca­sional friend, Hawthorne), and work through Bartleby, the Scrivener (Melville), Ethan Frome ( Whar­ton), Hem­ing­way and Bel­low, to fin­ish with Pyn­chon’s The Cry­ing of Lot 49.

The picture these novels paint of Amer­i­can life is not a flat­ter­ing one, and much of what their char­ac­ters have to com­plain about, Thoreau talks about, too: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet des­per­a­tion.” It’s prob­a­bly the most fa­mous line in Walden and de­scribes Bartleby and Ethan Frome and Bel­low’s Tommy Wil­helm and even Pyn­chon’s Oedipa Maas pretty well.

Un­like the novels, how­ever, Walden tries to of­fer a so­lu­tion to the prob­lems they de­scribe – a care­fully planned and pre­cisely costed work­ing-out of Bartleby’s fa­mous motto “I pre­fer not to”. Walden is a book about what your life would look like, how you would fill your days, how your re­la­tion to the world would change, if you didn’t have to spend money on real es­tate. “The nec­es­saries of life for man in this cli­mate may, ac­cu­rately enough, be dis­trib­uted un­der the sev­eral heads of Food, Shel­ter, Clothing, and Fuel…”

For food, he rec­om­mends a veg­etable diet and tells you how to grow what you need. Fuel is eas­ily gath­ered and, if you don’t fol­low fash­ions, it shouldn’t be hard to acquire and main­tain a de­cent set of work­ing clothes. But shel­ter is re­ally what we spend our money on – in other words, it’s what we spend our lives on. And as soon as you get the need of a house off your back (“such a house as your neigh­bours have”), the world looks like a very dif­fer­ent place:

Worlds apart: the replica of Thoreau’s hut on the shores of Walden Pond, Mas­sachusetts, above; and, left, Gropius House, a short drive away

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