To mark Henry David Thoreau’s birth on this day in 1817, Sally Minogue reflects on the continuing influence of 'Walden'.

 A while ago I attended, at the Bleddfa Centre in Wales [http://www.bleddfacentre.org/], a talk by Satish Kumar, [https://www.resurgence.org/satish-kumar/], long-time peace activist, who in the 1960s walked from his native India to Europe and to America, visiting key leaders, to support Bertrand Russell’s stand against nuclear arms. He walked without money or goods and depended on the goodwill of those he met on the way. Kumar has more recently been an active environmentalist. As I listened to him (now in his 80s) exhorting us to go back to the soil, to use our hands, to act locally and in terms of our small communities – I thought of Henry David Thoreau and Walden. Thoreau espoused a way of life and a philosophy which set in motion a whole train of ideas and actions, principally in America, from the fundamentalist self-sufficient back to the land movement to the less appealing self-defensive back to the gun movement – both still powerful in the present-day United States. Thoreau would not necessarily have supported the right to bear arms – but it is one logical extension of his philosophy of moral individualism.

What Thoreau did was simple. Here is how he puts it in the opening sentences of Walden:

I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labour of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. (3)

That is the premise of Walden. Yet from it has grown an enormous movement and sphere of influence, which Thoreau certainly could not have imagined. Satish Kumar is only one incumbent of that great movement, himself drawing on a line of thinking from Mahatma Ghandi (who was influenced more by Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience). Ghandi likewise influenced Martin Luther King – whom Satish Kumar met on the American leg of his peace walk.

The paradox of Thoreau’s Walden is that what it extols and exhorts is a withdrawal from civilisation into the close contemplation of nature and the self within local confines. Yet we know about his central thinking only because Thoreau wrote about it. Many a man or woman has withdrawn into the woods and lived a life of contemplation, but if that contemplation has been silent, we do not know of it. Thoreau’s achievement has been to make palpable through writing a set of values in which, taken to their logical conclusion, writing itself, with its economic apparatus of production and distribution, would be extinguished – or would at any rate remain private. Thoreau lived at Walden pond just over two years; the rest of the time he wrote about it.

Some critics have charged Thoreau with hypocrisy in this respect, noting that during his sojourn in his self-built cabin he sometimes went home to Concord for dinner. Those critics have probably never lived in such a cabin. But the key defence of Thoreau here is that it is precisely the writing about it that made his act of living meaningful for others. Perhaps, even, the act of writing made it meaningful to himself. In that sense, writing is another form of doing.

Thoreau was part of the Transcendentalist movement which had its roots in his own home town, Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson, also living in Concord, was his friend and mentor, and leased him rent-free the land on which he built his hut. Emerson was the fount of Transcendentalist ideas (an excellent account of these is given in Henry Claridge’s Introduction to the Wordsworth edition of Walden). [See also https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/transcendentalism/] For Thoreau, those ideas resolved themselves in a profound localism, an emphasis on the communication between the individual and nature, and, whilst always remembering that nature was a manifestation of the divine, a concentration on small observations of the natural world whilst maintaining a sense that these were also revealing of something greater – something rapturous:

We might try to live our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! (8-9)

The wonderful thing here is that Thoreau thinks of the sun not just as ripening his beans but at the same time illumining ‘a system of earths like ours’. What a leap of the imagination to see, in the mid-nineteenth century, that there might be other earths like ours, with the sun shining on them, and furthermore that there might be ‘distant and different beings’ in those other parts of the universe. It is this large-scale imagination that also allowed Thoreau to see the enormity of slavery. He was, certainly, embedded in an abolitionist culture. But he stuck his neck out far further than necessary, helping with the Underground Railroad which had Concord as one of its stops, and speaking in support of John Brown after he had led an attack on the federal armoury at Harper’s Row, Virginia, intending to lead an armed slave uprising. Brown was sentenced to death by hanging, and Thoreau delivered his defence between his arrest and his execution. His support of Brown was out of kilter with received opinion, even within the abolitionist community, many of whom regarded Brown as too extreme. (Both ‘Slavery in Massachusetts’ and ‘A Plea for John Brown’ are included in the Wordsworth edition of Walden.)

Thoreau is then paradoxical: he withdraws into the wild, but is politically engaged as an active abolitionist. At the centre of his thinking is the view that the individual can in certain circumstances properly and morally oppose the state – the sort of individualism which can feed both the far left and the far right. Most of all, Thoreau, whose family made its living through the production and sale of pencils, hates the lure of gold, as he sees it running through his own society – what would become the power of capital. In the first episode of the recent Sky Atlantic series, The Deuce [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4998350/], set in 1970s New York, the prostitute Eileen ‘Candy’ Merrell stands on the street and taunts her would-be pimp and announces herself triumphantly to her would-be client, braying ‘Money! Money! Money!’ It is a statement of faith in the urban, capitalist world of the American street and it celebrates another version of individualism, in which the body itself can be sold for profit. The Deuce does not endorse this view but reveals its inherent power to corrupt. Thoreau saw the American gold rush in the same way:

That so many are ready to get their living by the lottery of gold-digging without contributing any value to society ... It makes God to be a moneyed gentleman who scatters a handful of pennies to see mankind scramble for them. Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell. (Journal entry, February 1st, 1852)

He had a similar view of the recent technology of the telegraph – that, while it enabled one state to talk to another with an immediacy not before known – what did they have to say? The twitterati might have a think about that.  

What Thoreau himself had to say was sufficiently full of matter to be read and re-read, to be taken in many directions, to be interpreted newly with each generation and shift of context.Those interpretations have been multiple, various and sometimes contradictory; but Thoreau has always found an audience. Currently, his incarnation is as an environmentalist, which is fitting since at its best his writing is close to the earth even as he looks far beyond it. His most famous words – that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ (7) – might seem like a counsel of despair. But in Walden Thoreau offers an antidote to despair. His texts are intended to better the lot of that ‘mass of men’ and give them – us – the means to a well-lived life to set against the tug of that desperation.

At the heart of that is the natural, the local, the constant:

Of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. ... Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their styes by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. (150)


‘All the change is in me.’ This is first and last Thoreau’s philosophy: all it takes is a look up to the night sky; a look down to the water, and the swallow’s skim on its surface; a hand in the soil – and a hand to each other.


Thoreau has spawned as many critical and biographical accounts as he has had reincarnations. In his bicentenary year, The New York Review of Books, August 17th, 2017 had an excellent wide-ranging article by Robert Pogue Harrison on Thoreau and the most recent accounts of his work.  

Image: Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts

Sally Minogue

Previous/Next Posts