‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’
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