Source of book: I own this.
One of the reasons I decided to read this book when I did was that some friends got me a copy of Walden Two by B. F. Skinner, and I figured I should read the original first. Like most American high schoolers, I read excerpts in my teens, and learned some basics about the Transcendentalists. Of course, since I was homeschooled using Fundie curriculum, a lot of the “information” about the movement was just propaganda about how the Transcendentalists lost their way by forsaking Fundie theology (and Capitalism) and getting into Unitarianism, Eastern influences (and Feminism and Environmentalism.) It would have been helpful to have seen the more complete picture - namely, the reaction to the Industrial Revolution and Calvinism, the egalitarian impulse, and the connection to Kant. In retrospect, it is pretty clear, reading between the lines, that the beef with Transcendentalism went beyond theology - although that was a factor, particularly given the Calvinist commitments of most branches of Fundiedom. Fundie discomfort with the Transcendentalists was primarily cultural. Fundies still harbor a lot of sympathy for the eras of slavery, manifest destiny, and Jim Crow, so the Transcendentalist causes of Abolition, Feminism, justice for Native Americans, workers’ rights, and so on run counter to the ideal Fundie societies of the past.
The Transcendentalists, thus, are one of the original Social Justice reformers in the American tradition, as well as the forerunners of all the environmentalists that would come later. In those senses, I find I have a lot in common with them. There is a lot to like about the ideals that Thoreau stood for and fought for, along with Emerson. Walden also contains some great passages, wonderful descriptions of nature, and interesting philosophical musings.
The 19th Century and weird whiskers...
That said, I find Thoreau personally irritating for a number of reasons. When he gets philosophical, his writing gets more turgid and opaque and repetitive, and often ends up using a lot of words to say virtually nothing of substance. Even as he relied on others to support him, he advocated for a “do little to no work” approach that really only worked for a privileged person. I rather dislike asceticism in general, so his love for tasteless food, disdain of beverages other than water, his lack of interest in books beyond a narrow range, his ambivalence about other humans, and his dismissal of sex as animalistic grated on me. (Thoreau was likely asexual. While there has been plenty of speculation based on his writings, his actual life seems to have been devoid of actual sexual or romantic relationships. Unfortunately, unlike fellow asexual Henry James, he seems to have mostly looked down on his more sexual fellow humans.)
Oh, and the dude is a shameless and smug morning person, and well, blah to that.
When it comes to nature writers, I very much preferred reading John Muir, Wendell Berry, or Loren Eiseley. Or, for that matter, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Oliver. That said, there was good in this book, and I am glad I read it. If nothing else, it gives crucial background information on one of the most influential movements in 19th Century America.
Let’s start with arguably his most famous quote from the book:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped by unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
On the one hand, Thoreau is on to something here. On the other, dude, maybe you should hang with some ordinary folk and play some...whatever they called soccer back then. You might see people having fun, not just fighting off despair.
Perhaps as famous, and also the heart of the book, is this passage.
I went to the woods because I wished 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 it came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life; to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it prove to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Also both amusing and, honestly, unexpected, was this passage, proving Jack Weinberg wasn’t the first to express distrust of older people. His observations seem particularly on point in our present cultural moment.
It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What every body echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new...Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost...Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me any thing, to the purpose.
There is a lot to unpack in this one. First, I completely agree that it is never too late to give up our prejudices. In fact, people who wish to grow need to actively fight their prejudices their entire lives. We need to test ideas, whether they are old or new. Ideas considered “venerable” all too often just turn out to be defenses of an unjust status quo. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what I have seen from most of my parents’ generation. Instead of growing and changing in a positive way, so many have retreated into racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in response to a changing world. They have rejected evidence and embraced insane conspiracy theories. Thoreau makes a fascinating statement here on that as well: sometimes age hasn’t profited from experience, but lost the good it had. It has ossified, not grown. One of my personal sorrows of my last decade and a half has been to realize that I cannot go to those I once trusted for advice. I won’t get anything of value or use anymore, just a lecture to return to the old ways, which would, in practice, mean the rejection of my wife and children, who do not fit in a 1950s or 1850s world. Like politics, it is recycled platitudes from a past that no longer exists - if it ever did.
Speaking of that, later, when Thoreau builds his chimney out of used bricks, he notes that old sayings tend to stick around, whether true or not.
The mortar on them was fifty years old, and was said to be still growing harder; but this is one of those saying which men love to repeat whether they are true or not. Such sayings themselves grow harder and adhere more firmly with age, and it would take many blows with a trowel to clean an old wiseacre of them.
I mean seriously. If I had a dollar for every worn out 1980s political cliche (most of which aren’t true) I have had thrown at me lately as if they were an actual policy argument rather than a slogan...
Thoreau goes on to ridicule materialism, and the expression of “virtue” by display of wealth. Three lines here are great.
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.
Even in our democratic New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect. But they who yield such respect, numerous as they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to them.
Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.
Thoreau hits on some universal truths here. We may give lip service to “the clothes don’t make the man,” but in practice, we Americans tend to worship wealth, and ascribe virtue to what is mere privilege. And, of course, fashion. I bet that dates back to the first time a human put on a skin to keep warm.
Thoreau himself, though, is not immune to weird prejudices. I mentioned above being particularly irritated at his assumption that being a morning person equals virtue. For example:
That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he as yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way...All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.”
Yeah, yeah. Bully for you. I do my best work later in the day, thank you very much. And many of my most memorable events have been afternoon, sunset, or even after dark. I’ll get up early to go hike, or for something time critical. But I don’t have to like it.
I also have to take issue with Thoreau’s view of the elixirs of the gods.
I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!
What the hell, Thoreau? Coffee raises the hopes of a morning, not dashes them! And a cold evening with a hot cup of tea? He totally lost me in this passage. And I am one who likes water plenty.
I literally take a French Press camping with me. It's glorious.
I also found Thoreau’s belief that only the Greek classics were worth reading to be annoying. Yeah, I know, he is of his time and place, and the “classical education” was a sign of wealth and class. But, as much as I enjoy old books, I do not believe it is necessary to be able to read Homer in the original to be educated or thoughtful. And, for that matter, Thoreau read more broadly than he argued for. For example, classics of Eastern thought make appearances in Walden quite often. And, how about this observation?
Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture.
That has been one of my arguments with Fundies, who believe that God only spoke to one small group of people, and that their own religious tradition is the only One True Truth™. Even as a matter of basic logic this seems absurd, let alone in the light of their own deity’s reminder that “The time will come when all will worship in spirit and in truth” in response to a question of which sect was correct.
Thoreau was definitely an introvert. I can sympathize with him in this, even though I am definitely a more social introvert than he was. I liked his observation of quiet conversation.
If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.
There are a few people I know well enough that we can literally sit in silence for hours without feeling either awkward or unconnected.
Thoreau also made a pointed observation about, ahem, the United States, which seems ever more on point.
The gross feeder is a man in the larvae state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.
While the US has good points, we seem to be in a state of conspicuous and indiscriminate gluttony, devouring everything whether it is good for us or not, consuming and consuming without a thought for the future. As Thoreau puts it, just like a caterpillar, whose only goal in life is to ingest.
The best passages in the book were definitely the nature descriptions. The “pond” itself (actually a decent sized lake) is beautiful in real life, and Thoreau’s enthusiasm for its beauty comes through in his writing. It is when he describes, rather than when he lectures, that he writes the best. There are far too many good descriptions to quote, but I thought his account of how thaws produced leaf-like patterns in the sand and soil to be particularly good. The musing on the relationship of the inorganic and the living is good.
The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit, - not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.
I’ll end with one of my favorite nature passages, one which expresses my own feeling.
We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
It is pretty hard to top that as an expression of why I need my time in the wilderness.