I’ve had a rocky relationship with Henry David. Like everyone, I read excerpts of Walden in 10th grade American Lit and didn’t particularly enjoy it. Early in college I learned that he’d regularly visited and dined with his friend Emerson while living at Walden and wrote him off as a cheating hypocrite. Then as a senior, I took an ILS class on Civil Disobedience and appreciated what he had to say about using non-payment of taxes to make an adult statement of disagreement to his government.
I re-read Walden and found it funny and though provoking.
Thoreau gets a bad rap. When he’s admired its usually for things he didn’t exactly mean. Much more of the time he’s mocked or reviled for things he never actually said. People tend to think of him as a mad and pedantic hermit living an acetic life of solitude in a Unabomber style cabin. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Frighteningly Relevant Today
There is an almost creepy synchronicity between Thoreau’s time and ours. Then, as now, town centers were being gutted by urbanization and new modes of transportation (the train rather than the car at that time).
They also prized the house as a symbol of worldly success; that old ‘the house makes the man’ idea. His contemporaries even had a version of a “man cave” – a little get away house outside the main living area reserved for manly pursuits. The printing world was flooded with home décor and housekeeping magazines and books.
Then, as now, debt was a problem.
“I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour.”1
They didn’t have credit cards in Concord but people lived the high life and put it on their tab even then. Thoreau thought this was terrible, calling it a “mean and sneaking” sort of life.
Then, as now, oppressive mortgages were everywhere:
“On applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a dozen in the town who own their own farms free and clear. If you would know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the bank where they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him.”2
Thoreau used Walden to point out the inequity of this. He joked that living in a coffin sized box would be preferable to this constant indebtedness; at least it could be one’s own personal property – “many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.”3
What to do?
Thoreau went to the woods, not just to live deliberately, but to make a statement about modern life. America was changing very quickly during Thoreau’s life time and he wasn’t sure that it was changing in a good way. He watched his hometown of Concord transition from a bustling manufacturing town and agricultural center to a bedroom community for Boston, which could be reached by train. The transformation was similar to a sleepy little town being gutted by a new superstore going in by the highway exit.4
By writing about his time at Walden the way he did, Thoreau was spoofing a current trend – housekeeping manuals which told the reader in detail and with great authority how to run every aspect of their life. Unlike the typical manual, however Thoreau didn’t glorify housework as some sort of social means to an end or (as most of them did) promoting it as the female side of an equation which now included paid work outside the house for menfolk. He was trying to show that domesticity is for everyone. We all benefit by being hand- on about our daily lives.5 He was trying to reconnect work and play exactly at the time when everyone around him was trying to separate them.
The Real Thoreau
Contrary to his modern image, Thoreau wasn’t just a dilettante writer living in the woods. He couldn’t afford to be. He was at various times a school teacher, surveyor, manager of his family’s pencil factory and babysitter, handyman, and de facto secretary for his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ultimately he had faith that people could figure out how to do things the right way:
“But mans capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.”6