Postmortem: Walden


Around 1845, Henry David Thoreau went into the woods and built a small house for himself by Walden Pond (Concord, Massachusetts). He lived simply, frugally, and mostly alone, and then he wrote a book about it. His publisher having rejected Ramblings of a Bitter Man Beside a Pond, he settled on the title of Walden.

I’m very torn about this book.

It’s littered with many profound insights…scattered among long chapters of interminable boredom. It contains deep wisdom…if you can pick it out from the vast sea of his crotchety blathering. It seems to me that a misanthrope wrote a book about the essential goodness of humanity, and Walden is what we got.

The quotes I’ve scattered throughout this post were among my favorite parts of the book. They should give you a flavor of the good bits. I’ll spare you the longer, more soporific sections.

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.

Let’s get to specifics.

First, I should be clear that Walden was and is an important book, the work of a gifted mind, the kind of book that rewards the reader for his time. I say this because I’m about to criticize it a lot, and I don’t want you to think that I don’t respect it. I do. It’s just that it also makes me very angry.

Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.

Walden is known for expressing a love of nature, of self-reliance, of economy, of the insight that can spring from silence and solitude. I’m 100% on board with all that, and it’s that sympathy with the core ideals which got me through the more difficult parts.

But Thoreau also (in my opinion) lets these ideas run away with him, which leads him to start spouting a lot of bullshit.

For instance, he says that he doesn’t read the newspaper, and he makes it clear that the trivial deeds of his fellow men are far less interesting than the comings and goings of the squirrels outside his house. Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree with this feeling, this idea that much of what we worry about is trivial, that nature is beautiful and too often unnoticed. But there’s also a great deal in the newspaper that does matter, because it can lead to joy or suffering for a lot of people. And if you stop caring about that, then in my opinion, you have left the path of real philosophy.

Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.

Thoreau seems to give in to his romantic side too often. I don’t mean romantic love – I believe he got through the whole book without recognizing such a thing exists – but rather, he lets his feelings guide him too much. He romanticizes the idea of hunting animals, going on about the harmony of man with nature, the nobility of the circle of life. I hate stuff like this, because he says it having experienced only the good side of the aforementioned circle: hunting and eating animals. One wonders how much nobility he would find in being devoured by wolves himself, or in watching them eat his sister.

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

It’s the same in his section about charity. He’s lukewarm on the idea of charity, preferring the ideal of self-reliance. Again, I’m all for self-reliance when it’s possible, but he seems to have no concept that sometimes, some people simply need help. So here we have a well-off white man in the era of slavery explaining that we shouldn’t trouble ourselves in the affairs of the world or try too hard to give to those in need. You’ll excuse me if I detect a whiff of hypocrisy there.

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

I could go on, but I’ve rambled long enough already. In between the parts that put me to sleep and the parts that made me want to throw the book across the room, Walden was really quite beautiful – as the quotes indicate.

Read it if you can.


3 responses to “Postmortem: Walden

  1. Walden is on one of my would like to read lists. Unfortunately for Thoreau – or not because the dead might not experience minor setbacks – it is on my would like to read if I see a copy in the library when I do not have a big stack of other books already list.

    However, your review has moved it up the list; another few commentaries from people whose opinion on thought/prose I consider might move it as far as remembering to check the catalogue when I am at the library.

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