Once upon a time… during the year 1845, to be more precise, Henry David Thoreau — following the excellent advice of his best friend, poet Ellery Channing — set off to build himself a tiny house in a quiet spot near Walden Pond, in his home state of Massachusetts.
He intended to stay there alone and live in harmony with nature, wishing to experience the stripped-down essence of life, and to accomplish some serious writing.
Fulfilling his intentions, Thoreau wrote a little book called Walden, about his experiment of conducting life in a simple, natural, and self-reliant manner. He advised his readers to simply, and to reduce whenever possible. In America’s current sad economic state, and in our modern, wasteful and multi-tasking culture, this is good advice indeed. However, I suspect it to be something that happens more often through necessity than as a result of philosophical design.
In my high school Literature class, this account of simple living was required reading. Interestingly, I don’t remember all the volumes I was asked to read for school, but I do remember this one. Looking back now, I recall that as I read through the book, I observed Thoreau’s timeless wisdom and his clear practicality — but I also found Walden to be one of the most (ironically) long-winded and boring things I had ever read in my life, up to that time. Many of the included details felt completely unnecessary to me. For example, I did not yearn to know the price of the lumber he used to build the house, but I think he devoted an entire page to it.
I have very recently been thinking of giving Walden a second look, a second chance to win me over. I enjoyed some of Thoreau’s other material, and in fact I found his essay Civil Disobedience particularly inspiring. I wonder if perhaps Walden might resonate more with me, now that I have more life experience. What does a teenager know about solitude, simplicity, and frugality? Answer: Not very much!
Now, instead of being a teenager myself, I am a parent of one teenager and two preteens. Life has changed, or to be more accurate, I have been changed by life. I certainly spend far more time thinking about simplicity now than I did when I was younger, and I even write about it. I regularly search for ways to make life simpler and more efficient, not to mention less expensive. Sometimes I even use up my free time in pursuit of creative ways to create more free time. I admit, there may be something wrong with my math in that equation…
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote in Walden.
So true. How many details are frittering our lives away? This statement may be more true now than when it was originally written. Personally, I feel pretty frittered. How about you? So you can understand why I started thinking, “Hey, maybe old Henry David Thoreau wasn’t so dull after all!”
The man was called worse things than boring during his lifetime, I have learned.
If you look up Thoreau on Wikipedia as I did, you will find an early photograph of him (an 1856 daguerreotype) that suggests he looked a bit like Ellen Degeneres with a neck-beard. There are also some quotes to be found from Thoreau’s contemporaries, many of them very emphatically calling him “ugly.” I would like to note here that the image in which Thoreau seems to resemble Ellen Degeneres is by far the most flattering image of him that I have seen.
Although Thoreau was not as popular in his lifetime as he has posthumously become, some supported his writings and his actions. One of his more notable benefactors was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who befriended Thoreau and took him home to tutor his children and perform other helpful tasks while living with the Emerson family. Emerson employed him for years, spoke well of him, and also made available to him the land on which he lived for more than two years while writing Walden.
Others were not as generous as Emerson, and certainly not as friendly.
Robert Louis Stevenson considered Thoreau to be a “skulker“, and suggested he was not only very ugly, but also effeminate, anti-social, and humorless!
I suspect that Stevenson had a personal grudge against Thoreau, as the majority of quotes about him are more positive, save for the general consensus that he was ugly. Thoreau’s lifestyle choices were unconventional enough that a few other writers believed it would be more appropriate for him to get a job and act like a civilized person, instead of living alone in the woods like a savage heathen — but many others seemed to find his thoughts interesting.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This quote from Walden suggests that Thoreau understood the negative perception others had of him, and was more concerned with being true to himself than with improving his public image.
In reality, whether or not Thoreau was ugly, whether or not he stepped to the music of a different drummer, he was neither lazy nor savage. He studied at Harvard university for some years and spent much of his adult life working in his family’s pencil factory, where he involved himself in upgrading and modernizing the facility. I found this last piece of information surprising. I am having difficulty envisioning Thoreau working in a factory of any kind, after reading his work.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. “
~ Henry David Thoreau (from Walden, 1854)
I don’t think he was a skulker at all. I think he was a dreamer.
Thoreau has long been a famous success, praised by many writers and other great minds. His writings have influenced important leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., his works have been assigned in public schools, and his philosophies are quoted across the internet.
Take that, Robert Louis Stevenson!!
The quotes and information summarized above (along with further information) may be found on these pages:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (life, critiques of)
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (further quotes by, and quotes about)
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walden (Walden quotes)