Henry David Thoreau might appear to be very ill-adapted for the modern West – but his writing contains some striking lessons for the modern world.
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” urges American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854), his account of living frugally in a log cabin near Concord, Massachusetts. “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
This imperative in Thoreau towards contraction rather than expansion made enemies of those in his period who were committed to America’s dizzying industrial and technological progress: “I prefer walking on two legs,” Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier sniffily remarked. And if Thoreau’s contemporaries sometimes recoiled in distaste from his radical downsizing, even greater resistance to his work might be anticipated from readers in our own moment.
Thoreau, born 200 years ago on July 12 1817, appears at first glance strikingly ill-adapted for the modern West. While it has long been fashionable to assert that, were he alive now, Shakespeare would seamlessly have tweaked his creative mode and written for EastEnders, few would make comparable predictions of Thoreau’s success in the contemporary mediascape. The only Twittersphere to interest him would be that occupied by blue-jays and redstarts. Impossible to imagine, also, is him uploading to Instagram photos of his cabin at Walden, or of Maine woodlands and Cape Cod beaches (subjects of two other major books).
Even the slowly dribbling “news feed” of mid-19th-century New England was seemingly too much for Thoreau, experienced as irritation to the point of pain. “For my part, I could easily live without the post-office,” he writes in Walden, seemingly excusing himself from circuits of worldly communication in order to retreat more effectively into the contemplative mode he practises by his Massachusetts pond. A tendency in Thoreau towards inwardness or self-reliance looks startlingly out of kilter with our networked world. From Walden, again: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Here is the transcendentalist appearing withdrawn, anti-social, even potentially sociopathic.
But if there may be something off-putting about Thoreau’s work for contemporary readers, there are also elements that should invigorate. The occasion of his bicentenary prompts us to identify several ways in which he continues to speak eloquently to us. For his critique of commodity culture and his sensitivity to environmental degradation, Thoreau has in fact never been more indispensable than he is now.
Dazzled by gold
One of the most damning portraits in Walden is of the ruthlessly acquisitive farmer Flint, “who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him”. Flint is mesmerised, too, by “the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent.” How can this not resonate at a time when the US president himself is dazzled almost to blindness by the gold dripping off each interior surface of Trump Tower?
There is a shimmering appeal to consumer products to which Thoreau is remarkably unresponsive. Few people, perhaps, will want to emulate him in the degree to which he gives up money, goods, stuff. But when he urges Walden’s reader to “cultivate poverty like a garden herb”, his own class privilege goes unquestioned. What about all those for whom poverty is fate, not lifestyle choice?
Nevertheless, Thoreau’s acute observations in Walden of how people are imprisoned or suffocated by their commodities throw down a challenge to us. Perhaps, he writes, “a man is not required to bury himself [in] superfluous property”? Thoreau is thus the laureate of decluttering, helping us to imagine alternatives to our beguilement by consumer experience.
Turning to the woods
“Nature excels in the least things,” writes Thoreau in an essay titled “Huckleberries”. His own writing is similarly fine-grained in its attention to ecological detail. If he was parsimonious in domestic economy, he was prodigal in descriptions of nature, spending words extravagantly. Think, say, of the journal entry for his 34th birthday in 1851, when he evokes a skunk on a “bare garden hill”, a “foolish robin” and a “lightning bug [with its] greenish light”. Such moments valuably reawaken us to the sights and textures of our natural world, giving this potentially some traction against its erasure in favour – Trumpishly – of an oil pipeline or golf course.
For if there is a poetics of nature in Thoreau, there is always also a politics. His sensuous zoology and botany strikes “a counter-establishment stance”, as US literary critic Lawrence Buell puts it.
But this is not to say that in his work Thoreau retreats complacently into the woods. Consider a moment in the essay “A Yankee in Canada” when the reddening leaves remind him of an American genocide then still in progress: “An Indian warfare was waged through the forest.” Arboreal description gives way, by a sudden change of focus, to sardonic political commentary.
The passage is characteristic of the social engagement of Thoreau’s writing. In reading his work as he turns 200, we do not, after all, find simply a regressive or detached figure. Rather, we encounter a writer who frequently provides us with valuable intellectual and rhetorical resources to take into our ongoing struggles in the world.