When I took my trip to Massachusetts last month, I knew I'd visit Walden Pond while in Concord, so I downloaded a copy of Henry David Thoreau's 1854 classic,"Walden."As I am working my way toward greater material simplicity, I was pulled by his intention: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Who can't resonate to the wish "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
? I really, really wanted to like this book.
The irony of a gift shop at Walden made me cringe. Plastic water bottles, keychains, refrigerator magnets and t-shirts emblazoned with "Simplify." Yeah. Thoreau would be spinning in his grave. But I was also aware of his own hypocrisy about self-sufficiency - like that fact that he was able to live free on the land at Walden Pond because his buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson owned it. That he accepted many gifts and ate Sunday dinners back at home. That he had his mother doing his laundry, for pity's sake. He was 28 when he took on this experiment, and surely old enough to fully take care of himself?
The pond now has a walking path that winds its way through the woods and around the shore. It's easy to see the appeal of living here and watching the changing seasons and fun to read his fascination with all that he observed. I was struck by the intensity of his dislike for "brute" appetites and his unforgiving rules about life. He might roast up the occasional woodchuck or eat for days from a pot of unadorned beans, "But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will poison you. It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery."
Oh Thoreau, rich cookery is a delight and not something to be feared. As I did some reading, I also see that he never had any romantic relationships and seemed disinterested in sex. Asexual? Closeted gay? Socially awkward? I do see that he is described as homely and was apparently completely out of touch with what is appealing to women. He wore a "neckbeard" (chin and jaw clean-shaven, and a mass of hair on the neck. Ick!) and believed that many women found the style attractive. No. No no no. His friend Louisa May Alcott once said his facial hair, "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity."
The cabin is long gone, but the original site is marked off. There is much to be admired about the man and it's sad to think that he died at 44, an age that now seems far too young to me. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist and refused to pay taxes because of the governmental support of slavery. His ideas on civil disobedience inspired Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a tireless observer of the minutia of life and endlessly intrigued by nature.
But he also wrote in a way that could be dreadfully boring at times and also condescending about other people. He spends time with a French-Canadian trapper who is uneducated and seems to view him as a delightful but primitive form of human. And although I fully appreciate his point about not really needing fancy clothing, big houses, and excess material goods, does he have to be so patronizing about it? It's hard not to come away from the book feeling like he's a bit of a pompous ass. He talks about the need to have intellectual conversations outside his cabin because of the inconvenience of too little space when he and a guest wanted to "Utter the big thoughts in big words."
Oh dear Lord. When I read that, I head the song, "Big Time" in my head:
"The place where I come from is a small town.
They think so small
They use small words.
But not me, I'm smarter than that
I worked it out.
I've been stretching my mouth
To let those big words come right out."
Thoreau's daily view those two years surely lends itself to a love of the natural world and spiritual growth. And that is the gem buried within the hot air and tedious detail of his book. "We must learn to reawaken and keep awake, and not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep."
I remember having to read that book in high school and thinking it was the most dreadfully boring piece of literature on the planet. And this from someone who loved most of the classics. I have just never had much patience for people who overthink things. They tend to suck the joy out of life!ReplyDelete
Peter Gabriel? Now you're talking!
Somehow, none of my many lit classes included this book. I don't mind people who think deeply, but I don't care for people who think the have a lock on the Truth.Delete
But isn't that a great song? So beautifully sarcastic!
maybe part of simplicity is realizing that we are all interconnected and that we were never meant to live life on our own...walden is def not the easiest book to digest...ReplyDelete
We are social animals, there's no escaping that. I think it's what draws us to blogging.Delete
WOW...excellent review and feedback on Thoreau's book. I loved how you weaved your words through the photos as if taking a journey through his life!ReplyDelete
It was so interesting to read about his hypocrisy about self-sufficiency.
"He talks about the need to have intellectual conversations outside his cabin because of the inconvenience of too little space when he and a guest wanted to "Utter the big thoughts in big words." Oh dear Lord. When I read that, I head the song, "Big Time" in my head."
OMG...I LOVED that!!!!
Again, great book review. I found it fascinating.
I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was interesting for me to go looking for more information about the guy to try to make sense of his world view. And I really loved walking around that pond on my own. It may be that a solitary visit is the best way to see the place.Delete
I haven't read that book in such a long time. This makes me somewhat curious to read it again, being more aware, as an adult, how easy it is for someone in love with an idea they've had to become superior about it.ReplyDelete
I have read some posts by a friend who is caught up in the fire of her own ideas, to the exclusion of any feedback. It's a misleading place to be.Delete
For me, a Big Question is not covered:ReplyDelete
Are there any fish in the pond?
Yes, he talks a lot about the fish.Delete
What an interesting and beautifully written post. Thoreau may be the literary example of having to kiss a lot of toads before you find the handsome prince, in that one must wade through a lot of self-serving b.s. to glean the diamonds hiding among it. I loved the last sentence. Amen, indeed!ReplyDelete
Thank you. And I think you're right - it's a little like panning for gold.Delete
I've never read the book but it's true enough that it's easy to aspire to simplicity, much harder to actually realise it. There are so many things that purely out of habit we see as essential to our daily life. Like gifts and Sunday dinners. In any case I think compassion and generosity are much more important than simplicity.ReplyDelete
As for the neckbeard, ick indeed. Who would want to kiss a hairy neck?
I think the idea that we all own too much unnecessary crap is, without a doubt, true. I also think there are ways to say that that don't belittle others.Delete
And beats me - it just sounds repugnant.
What a great review! I have never read the entire book, just dipped in and out and have read some wonderful quotes. After this I probably won't move it to the top of the list! Pompous ass indeed...The Halls of Academe must be shaken to their foundations!ReplyDelete
Oh and ditto on the neck beard "ick!"
There are some truly wonderful ideas in the book and words to live by. Just not all of them!Delete
Doesn't it seem like a neck beard would be the worst pf all worlds in terms of facial hair. Seems like it would just result in a sweaty, prickly neck.
I admit to persevering and reading it all many moons ago. It did get me thinking but I was quite aware at the time of how privileged he was (wombless) and supported by mom and wealthy buddies.ReplyDelete
I remember, while reflecting on many of his thoughts: Easy for you to say...which spoiled it a little for me...
I really had to force myself to read through to the end. It was a slog! And yes, I often have that thought when I read about very priveleged people espousing some way of life.Delete
I don't think I've read any of his writings since high school. Funny (sad?) that he had his mother doing his laundry.ReplyDelete
I think men rarely took care of themselves back then - it was either a mother or a wife doing the work.Delete
I always enjoy the snippets people quote out of Walden, but I only made it about ten pages in before I gave up.ReplyDelete
What's really ironic is that he seems to think he WAS being totally independent as he has his mother wash his laundry. A sign of the times, I suspect.
Just knowing the snippets you've already heard the best of it. And yes, I think men relied on women more than they wanted to admit.Delete
I read this back in the Dark Ages during my high school years and never knew his mother did his laundry or cooked him Sunday dinners. I remember finding the book a bit dry but the message of simplicity was one I took to heart although it took me a while to work out how to put that in my own life.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this post.
The underlying message is a wonderful one, isn't it? Just so hard to wade through.Delete
if i were giving an award for best variety in a blog, you would get the top spot, cs. xoReplyDelete
i've never read thoreau--oh i probably did because i majored in english but it must have taken second place to playing whist in the college basement.
i was gone at the laundry fact. now that's great self sufficiency---your Mom does your laundry.
i have been to walden pond a zillion times and i love it for its simplicity and for it's swimming hole
I guess I get bored with myself if I don't blog about an array of things. Maybe themes just don't suit me?Delete
And yes, the pond and woods around it are lovely and serene.
I'll give the book a go... but can't promise I won't through it in the sea half way through. Jus' sayin' ;)ReplyDelete
Oh, I'm sure not recommending it! This post is like the cliff notes for Walden!Delete
Never read it but from your review he sounds like spoiled brat. Just sayin'.ReplyDelete
I think he was a bit. Privileged and self-absorbed. But also on the right track with things like slavery.Delete
I read Walden for the first time in 2001 after my retirement. I thought that it was highly over rated for its artistic merit as well as its content. As you have pointed out, there were a lot of contradictions. To be fair because some others in my circle of reading friends felt otherwise and so I read it again last year and literally had to plod through it. I have not changed my mind.ReplyDelete
Now I know why I am now unattached as my beard is most assuredly deflecting amorous advances and preserves my virtue in perpetuity.
If he could have followed his own advice and stripped away the unnecessary, it might have been more readable.Delete
Ha! The beard as a protective device!
Him and I would not get along. I'm way too materialistic and I enjoy worldly pleasures and foods way too much to even consider giving them up. Plus, I can't grow anything other than a patchy beard.ReplyDelete
Though, if I have my Mother do my laundry until I'm 28 we might have something in common.
His was a short-term experiment in giving things up, and worthwhile as a mindfulness exercise. But I'm a believer in balance. (And my 19 year od son does his own laundry.)Delete
I was forced to read this book.ReplyDelete
And I've also been there.
Aren't educational Road Trips awesome?
Your pics and recollections are top notch Doc.
Have a Great 4th of July...Galen
It was more of a pleasure trip, but I read the book mostly after I visited. Happy 4th to you, too.Delete
So glad you got to visit. I hope to visit someday.ReplyDelete
It's a peaceful little place.Delete
I LOVE YOU! You nailed it. I...hated...Thoreau's voice in that book. Condescending as hell, socially inept, snobby. But he did say beautiful (along with boring) things. My biggest problem was there seemed so much artificial about the experiment. So much performance. I knew a college kid who took War and Peace on a vacation to Mexico with other college students, and announced he would not speak until he'd finished it. Pretentious,look how smart I am, crap. Very Thoreau. (And I'm selling short all the good stuff about his work but when a voice is that annoying I have a hard time getting past it).ReplyDelete
Thanks!! I alos get tripped up by an annoying voice - it's hard for me to stick with it enough to see the good.Delete
I'd say the War and Peace kid was doing everyone a favor by taking a vow of silence!
I never thought about the hypocrisy he lived, very interesting. And seriously, the neck beard is a definite no-no.ReplyDelete
I wonder if any of his friends every let him know that style was unappealing?Delete
Oh my goodness, you're perspective on Walden is hilarious and telling! I like a little scruff but a neck beard is a deal breaker.ReplyDelete
Scruff is okay and can even be sexier. But neck beard - no!Delete