A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century - Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), to which we might add Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854) as a nation-stirring bestseller and Emerson's essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground - Walden has contributed most to America's present sense of itself.
In a time of informational overload, of clamorously inane and ubiquitous electronic entertainment, and of a fraught, globally challenged, ever more demanding workplace, the urge to build a cabin in the woods and thus reform, simplify, and cleanse one's life - "to front", in Thoreau's ringing verb, "only the essential facts of life" - remains strong. The holiday industry, so-called, thrives on it, and camper sales, and the weekend recourse to second homes in the northern forests or the western mountains, where the pollutions of industry and commerce are relatively light. "Simplify, simplify," Walden advises, and we try, even though a 21st-century attainment of a rustic, elemental simplicity entails considerable complications of budget and transport.
Thoreau would not scorn contemporary efforts to effect his gospel and follow his example. Walden aims at conversion, and Thoreau's polemical purpose gives it an energy and drive missing in the meanders of the sole other book he saw into publication during his short lifetime, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). A vigorous, humorous tone asserts itself at the outset of Walden:
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they did not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.
The circumstances, a malaise of drudgery and petty distraction in the society around him, are described, and his general wish "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived". However, he passes over a very practical motive: he wanted to be a writer and, like many another of like ambition, needed privacy, quiet, and a "broad margin" where his mind could roam.
He built a single-room cabin on his mentor Emerson's land, more than a mile south of Concord village, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1845, and moved in on July 4, declaring his own independence. In the next two years he completed a draft, later expanded, of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, based on a canoe trip he and his brother John had taken in 1839, as well as composing the first draft of Walden and a long essay on Thomas Carlyle, part of which he gave as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum in 1846. In July 1846 he refused to pay his accumulated town poll taxes, on the grounds that the national government condoned and protected slavery, and spent one night in jail, thus laying the basis for his celebrated essay, "Civil Disobedience". Later in that same year he travelled for the first time to Maine and wrote most of the essay "Ktaadn".
Thoreau was 27 when he took up residence in the cabin by Walden Pond; he had graduated from Harvard 19th in his class, tried teaching, helped his father in the family pencil business, did local odd jobs for a dollar a day, lived with the Emersons for two years as handyman and gardener, left Long Island after a brief spell of tutoring and testing the literary market, and, despite Emerson's sponsorship and a few poems and essays in the Transcendentalist quarterly The Dial, had made no mark. He emerged from the cabin in 1847 as essentially the Thoreau known to literary history.
His appearance was sufficiently arresting to have attracted a number of descriptions. The fastidious but not unfriendly Hawthorne, a sometime resident of Concord, described him in 1842 as "a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him... He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners... [He] seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilised men - an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood."
James Kendall Hosmer recalled how an older Thoreau "stood in the doorway with hair which looked as if it had been dressed with a pine-cone, inattentive grey eyes, hazy with far-away musings, an emphatic nose and dishevelled attire that bore signs of tramps in woods and swamps". His New Bedford disciple Daniel Ricketson recalled, as phrased by Thoreau's biographer Walter Harding, "the gentleness, humanity, and intelligence of Thoreau's blue eyes" and noted that "though his arms were long, his legs short, his hands and feet large, and his shoulders markedly sloping, he was strong and vigorous in his walk". His voice was impressive, even towards the end, when tuberculosis had weakened it. On his last journey, a rather desperate excursion to Minnesota for the possibly healing effects of its supposedly drier climate, the minister upon whom he called in Chicago, the Unitarian Robert Collyer, remembered:
"His words also were as distinct and true to the ear as those of a great singer... He would hesitate for an instant now and then, waiting for the right word, or would pause with a pathetic patience to master the trouble in his chest, but when he was through the sentence was perfect and entire, lacking nothing, and the word was so purely one with the man that when I read his books now and then I do not hear my own voice within my reading but the voice I heard that day."
How did Thoreau achieve his literary voice, which has worn better, to a modern ear, than Emerson's more fluent, worldly, and - to be expected from a former clergy-man - oratorical one? The mood of Thoreau is more interior; the eye is not on an audience but on a multitudinous world of sensation, seen and named with precision. Consider these sentences from near the beginning of A Week:
We glided noiselessly down the stream, occasionally driving a pickerel from the covert of the pads, or a bream from her nest, and the smaller bittern now and then sailed away on sluggish wings from some recess in the shore, or the larger lifted itself out of the long grass at our approach, and carried its precious legs away to deposit them in a place of safety. The tortoises also rapidly dropped into the water, as our boat ruffled the surface amid the willows breaking the reflections of the trees. The banks had passed the height of their beauty, and some of the brighter flowers showed by their faded tints that the season was verging towards the afternoon of the year; but this sombre tinge enhanced their sincerity, and in the still unabated heats they seemed like the mossy brink of some cool well.
All is limpid observation, gliding from one bittern to another, until the startling remark that fading colour enhanced the flowers' "sincerity", as if they have been pressing a case. The long paragraph goes on to enumerate, with the Latin names, the flowers of the Concord meadows, and ends with reminiscence of the mornings when the writer, on the water before sunrise, witnessed the sudden opening of water lilies to the touch of dawn sun, when "whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner".
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