Victor Nuovo: Thoreau at Walden Pond

Editor’s note: This is the 35th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.

American civilization would be much diminished if Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) had not gone to live “alone, in the woods,” by the shore of Walden Pond, for two years, two months and two days, in a house built by himself, subsisting on simple fare: fish, wild fruits and beans and other vegetables grown in a garden that he planted and tended. 

He did not go simply to be alone. Thoreau was a writer and he wanted to be in a quiet place to finish writing a book. The book he completed was “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” But his experiences there provided the substance of a second book, “Walden.” Like his contemporary, Walt Whitman (1819–92), he wrote about himself, because, he confessed, there was nothing else that he knew better to write about than about himself and his experiences.  

One must be clear, Thoreau was not motivated by any inflated sense of his own importance, or by the vain belief that others would want to read his story — which is the cause of too many books written today and too much talk clogging the airwaves. There is not the slightest strain of narcissism in his writing, and readers of “A Week” or “Walden” quickly discover that they contain much more than an account of the solitary adventures of Henry David Thoreau. Both books, indeed all his writings, are profound discourses about existence.  And he felt the need to write.

One might ask, why did he feel this need to write?  But what makes anyone a writer? I don’t know. But I believe that writing is more than a vocation that one can take or leave; it is rather like a compulsion, and like other irresistible impulses that we all know, it yields feelings of great satisfaction and fulfillment and joy. Besides, the will to write is not an unimportant impulse, for without written words we would have no lasting civilization to speak of — no record of having lived that future ages might decipher and understand and learn from. The ages would have no meaning or perspective, and life no purpose. 

Thoreau draws an interesting distinction between the spoken and the written word, between the orator and the writer. The orator “yields to the inspiration of the moment, and speaks to the mob,” but the writer, undistracted by crowds, “speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” In this respect, the so-called social media, Facebook and Twitter and suchlike, are not writing, rather they should be classed with oratory, bombast or dribble, mere talk. The theme of “Walden” is civilization, and it is addressed to the ages.

The significance of the day when he began to live at Walden Pond, July 4, 1845, has been generally noted. It has been supposed that Thoreau chose this day to assert his independence as an individual against that of the nation. Thoreau dismissed this. He attached little if any importance to symbols and even less to himself. For him, the Fourth of July was just another day and he, just another individual dwelling in the land. Yet, intentional or not, the thought is illuminating. 

Thoreau went to Walden Pond in search of truth, of a higher law transcending his mere existence or that of the nation. He went in the belief that this law would provide meaning and substance to himself and to the nation. This higher law had been the principle on which the nation had been founded, promising freedom and equality and justice for all. Yet, soon after its founding, the nation lost sight of this principle, if indeed it ever had it clearly in view — for from its beginning our nation sold its birthright to the cruel practices of slavery, as it now has to the vulgarities of commercialism and consumerism and fashion. He believed that the remedy for these ills existed only in will of the virtue of the citizen, for only by this could a nation be restored, and only citizens, acting as free persons, could possess it. Civic virtue is not a property that we inherit at birth, it must be clarified and understood and reasserted.

It was for these purposes, which are in essence political, that Thoreau went to live along at Walden Pond and practiced the profession of a writer. 

But, first things first! Human existence is grounded in nature and depends upon it for its sustenance. Just “as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction,” so it is incumbent on human beings to rediscover their essential needs, and sources meet them, and having discovered them, to practice using them prudently, respectfully, and never wastefully. The longest chapter of “Walden” is devoted to economy, and one is reminded of a former campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” Thoreau’s notion of the economy is very different and more basic than the latter, which was shallow and wrong-headed in any case. We are, after all, like all other plants and animals, creatures of nature, and we must concern ourselves above all with what we need to subsist and to try to secure them. Instead, we follow fashion, rather than necessity. Our manner of life is in all respects à la mode, whether it pertain to food, clothing, shelter, means of conveyance or entertainment. Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond to rid himself of fashion, which was flourishing all about him.

He went there for an even higher purpose, to discover what Immanuel Kant described as his “invisible self,” his personality, his moral identity, which only reveals itself to anyone when the trappings of fashion have fallen away, when it stands unadorned before us. So, he carried with him not only household things, but armed himself with books and paper and pencils. And he wrote in the voice of that moral self:

“I do not propose an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

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“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is nearest to life itself.”

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