Happy 200th birthday to the man who played the flute in the woods, called spiderwebs the handkerchiefs of fairies, and hosted ‘twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies,’ in his cabin at the edge of Walden Pond. It’s been some years since I actually read any of Thoreau’s work, but a ramble back into ‘Walking,’ one of my favourite essays, reminds me at once of why I admire him, and what continues to confuse me about him.
I’ve come to the unsatisfactory conclusion that, regardless of his merit on balance, Thoreau’s main accomplishment and flaw is that he wrote too much. Between the journals, the essays, and the books, he seems to have written down everything that ever came into his head. He wrote some brilliant passages, and he wrote some absurd and untenable ramblings. Everything he writes at any given point can be contradicted by antyhing else he may have written, before or after it. The delightful image of Thoreau hosting an unanticipated crowd in his tiny cabin is as important as the quieter one of the hermit in the woods. Both may have been real at various times in those two years on the pond. Both were doubtless real in the author’s mind.
As a writer of nature, capable of combining the scientific and the picturesque, he has rarely been equalled, and his approach helped to inspire scientist-writers such as Rachel Carson. Perhaps that is where Thoreau remains most beloved, and most relevant. He sought not only to preserve nature, but to understand it, and to encourage others towards the outdoors and the observation of the world around them. It is an idea that the academic world still struggles with — the place of human emotion, an individual connection with the natural world, in the supposedly detached study of it. It is a question with which most people still grapple, as well — the place of humanity in nature.
The love of wildness that Thoreau espouses is perhaps best expressed in the essay ‘Walking,’ the source for one of the more famous quotes on the subject, but also the source of the observation that ‘there are enough champions of civilization.’ At a guess, I would say Thoreau wrote that in a cheerful, carefree mood, not the misanthropic fog in which he is often depicted, but not overly sociable, either. He speaks for wildness instead of society because society has its supporters already, while wildness is regarded as an oddity at best. Such a measured phrase can be found in Thoreau, alongside the more passionate declarations; he was possessed of the capacity for reflection, if he is better remembered for his firm convictions.
Even Thoreau admitted, at times, the limitations of his philosophy. ‘Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither,’ he remarks in ‘Walking,’ and this innocuous observation holds true for many parts of his work, and his overall thinking. There is uncertainty in all human endeavours. He is more the ‘parcel of vain strivings’ than the moral authority and teacher, even at his most insistent. This frustrates the modern reader, searching for answers, and finding instead an individual at odds with himself. One of the hardest lessons for a reader to learn is that an author may have brilliant insights, and yet not always be right.
On the subject of the bicentenary, Rafia Zakaria notes that ‘Thoreau and his famous book are relevant to America now, but less as a lifestyle guide and more as an exploration of the approximate nature of truth’ (‘In Thoreau’s Footsteps: My Journey to Walden for the Bicentennial of the Original De-Clutterer,’ The Guardian). Perhaps the main wisdom to be gleaned from Thoreau is that we must not be afraid of our contradictions — searching for truths in nature is as difficult as it is among our fellow beings — frustrations are inevitable and patient observation is essential. Whatever else one may say about him, life would be much duller without the Thoreaus of the world, those who write incessantly, and look at things, and ask questions, and demand that we do better, but who are never sure even in their most elated moments of what better actually means or would require. Inspiration, revolution, exaltation; I may have been governed by better advisors than Thoreau in my lifetime, but I would not like to do without him, either.
There are a fair few accusations one can level at Thoreau: hypocrisy (one of which we are all, in varying degrees, guilty), misanthropy (probably true, if inconsistently), dependence on others (see hypocrisy), and immaturity (true and not always a bad thing). I would not defend him from all of these, even if I could, as it’s only fair that he received his share of criticism, being remarkably intelligent and therefore remarkably fallible in proportion. I read him during my undergrad studies, primarily, and he appealed to the passionate, idealistic, floundering, confused student, keen to be so sure of something that I could hold fast to it through any adversity. Thoreau was tremendously good at that, and if I didn’t always follow his economic arguments, and thought he got carried away with himself at times, it did not rob him of power. It is his restlessness, despite never leaving Massachusetts, that is most relatable, and he reads as a person constantly seeking the indefinable, on occasion happy, never satisfied. This, I would argue, accounts for much of his continuing popularity, as does his boldness in attempting to live as he preached. What of it, if there are contradictions? His method of living (in theory or practice) was never applicable to the vast majority of people, but neither are most theoretical lifestyles, and for all his moral judgments, he kept enough company, even with those who drank tea and coffee. His friends traveled, he did not; his work can be read as an interesting counterpoint to the equally electrifying travelogues of the era.
Like most people, he is more approachable with his contemporaries, who recognised and shared his complexities. Emerson was alternately frustrated and supportive; Louisa May Alcott’s childhood admiration turned into more measured respect, and Nathaniel Hawthorne seems hardly to have known what to make of him. I would like to know what Abba Alcott thought, but I doubt that any such record exists. Heard among their voices, Thoreau’s sounds more relatable, and more powerful, than it does alone. 19th-century New England was a full and exciting place, and Thoreau was an ill-fitting, awkward part of that. He continues to speak to us, and much of what he has to say is valuable, and much else can be consigned to the waves of history, which is probably what he would have wanted anyway.