A chance remark led me back to Walden. I was urging revolution on a harassed friend and rummaged in my memory for Thoreau’s remark about living boldly. The line was on the tip of my tongue but would not leave it. I picked up my copy of Walden and began browsing the many passages I had underlined. I read them, smashed all over again by how wonderful they are. “Smashed” is a word my Bulgarian neighbor uses for when she is bouleversée by how good something is. This is not of course how most Americans use the word, but I think she uses it fine, so I’m borrowing it.
Everyone has a favorite book. I’ve many favorites, so many I can’t choose but one. But Walden would definitely be among them. It wins my vote for the great American novel. Never mind it’s not a novel; I still elect it. It’s much better than Huckleberry Finn, which is often chosen despite being in my view a good adventure tale for boys (Pace, Mark Twain fans). I love and admire The Great Gatsby, another frequent nominee, but Walden is unique in a way I think these other contenders are not. For one thing, it is noble. We do not live in an aristocratic culture, but Thoreau makes all of us noblemen who read him. How many other books turn a cabin into a palace, or a crank (arguably) into a sage? One puts down Thoreau inspired, resolved to live more deliberately and more authentically, but most of all resolved to live. He reminds us that too often we don’t. I’m not ordinarily a fan of nature. It is dangerous, for one thing. It is full of bugs, for another. But I read Thoreau, and I’m ready for the woods. Above all, he reminds me of my own nature. That I have one, that it should be respected, that it should be cherished.
“I desire that there may be as many different people in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” To this, he adds one sentence later. “It is by a mathematical point only that we are kept wise, as the sailor or the fugitive keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.”
Thoreau makes me think about what my true course is. The exhilarating thing about him is that he does not have a destination in mind for me. Many people want the best for you, but they have an opinion on what your best should be. Thoreau does not. He is a liberator, wanting your freedom as much as his and warning you that you entrust your destiny to others at your peril. “Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”
Nature, writ both large and small, is Thoreau’s topic, and what a large theme that is, encompassing the change of seasons on Walden Pond, his bean field, the animals in winter, the vagaries of humankind, the absurd conventions of society, his own multitudinous nature..
“I should not talk about myself so much were there anybody else I knew as well,” he excuses himself. “Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
The man who coined the phrase about listening to a different drummer clearly did. Part of the pleasure of reading Walden is watching an ornery idealist do battle with conformism. Thoreau took unpopular stances in his time, stances that are not any more popular in ours. Read him on philanthropy (he’s agin it), chastity (he’s for it), progress (it ain’t happening), company (why bother?). He may not persuade you to live on rye and Indian meal, flee the farm, forsake fashion, or give up traveling, but you’ll be at least half won over by the astuteness of his criticisms. Nobody skewers respectability as well as Thoreau. Though one can’t imagine him in a monastery (he’s too American, too Protestant for that), he’s a monk who would have us all living in hermit caves supping on honey and locusts and whatever greens we could find in Nature.
“As long as possible, live free and uncommitted,” Thoreau counsels. That goes for fashion, furniture, real estate, work, social life, and, one suspects, marriage.
A true iconoclast, Thoreau is religious to the core. He is a spiritual writer above all else. Walden is a constant invitation to contemplate ourselves, our universe, our God, the purposes we serve, the laws we live by. “Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us,” he writes.
As an author, he’s thrilling, subversive and sublime, penning some of the most beautiful writing in our literature. Pick up any page of Walden and a striking phrase or thought jumps off the page and demands to be considered. Part of this is what he writes about – our ordinary lives which he exhorts us to live in extraordinary ways. Part of it is his eloquence. His language is stirring, grand, soaring. Some writers invite you to sit with them; some to walk with them, some to dream with them. Thoreau makes you want to march with him. He is not a militarist – the last thing from it – but a preacher with a commanding voice and an ardent, martial spirit. A man famous for loving quiet, he is the John Philip Sousa of Nature poets. Walden is a clarion call to shake the slumber from your eyes, the dust from your feet, and stride off into the uncharted seas of your own interior.
There is never a bad time to read Walden, but summer, when people go outdoors, is an ideal time. It’s not reading for a crowded beach, but a deserted one would be ideal, and even a semicrowded one will work. Where I live, many people head to a lake or go north for their vacations. Growing up, my father spent his summers on the shores of Lake Michigan. After chores in the morning, he and his friend Dutton were free all day. They swam, roamed the woods, went fishing, picked blueberries and blackberries, did whatever boys do in the wild. I never understood how my father could be so nostalgic for those summers, which he declared the grandest experience of his life. Reading Walden I begin to understand why that was for him an enchanted spell of time. “Shall I go to heaven, or a-fishing?” Thoreau writes. Though he tells us he has put aside the fishing pole and rifle, he understands the appeal of both. Often it is in the forest that a boy is introduced to the most original part of himself, he writes.
The most original part of ourselves is the prize, the beginning of perfection. If you’re headed for the lake, the shore, the mountains or the woods this summer, take along a copy of Walden. You won’t be sorry.