I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Last Monday afternoon I asked you to help me name the greatest American book of all time. There’ve been many replies, and the (serious) suggestions include, in order, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain, The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Pragmatism by William James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The World According to Garp by John Irving, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Madame Rosa by Romain Gary (which makes no sense since Romain Gary was French), To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Federalist Papers, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Baby and Child Care br Dr. Spock, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.
I’m surprised that nobody but me mentioned Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I also thought there’d be more support for The Book of Mormon, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But that’s fine with me, because it happens that several people did mention the book I believe to be the greatest by a citizen or resident of the United States of America: Walden, or Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau and published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.
We each have our own favorites, of course. But I’ll stake a guess — for whatever these guesses may be worth — that future literary historians will consider this book to have the highest stature of any book published in my country so far. I can’t tell you everything I want to say about Walden here today, but here are three things that I find exceptional about this book.
You may have to slow your body speed down a bit to catch Henry Thoreau’s wavelength, but once you do there is no denying the pure delight found in these words. No other writer — not even my beloved Henry James — crafts sentences sharper than those you’ll find in Walden.
Thoreau was a social reformer with a distinct philosophy, but nobody might have ever cared about his philosophy if he didn’t crystallize it with such artistry and skill. A Harvard graduate and obsessive reader, he learned from the best of the brilliant “New England Transcendentalists” who were his older friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, and he eventually developed a voice richer than any of theirs, richer even than that of his more famous friend and hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. High-toned, alive to all the human senses, Thoreau’s prose presents an attitude that combines humorous warmth with merciless sarcasm. Sarcasm is certainly the top note in Walden, a book designed to attack the mores of polite New England society. Here he is, for instance, on the subject of clothing:
Kings and Queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dress-maker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer’s character, until we hesitate to lay them aside, without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this, — who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman’s legs, they can be mended, but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloon’s, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last.
Thoreau’s writing style is too thick and fanciful for some, but I find he has no equal. Often his imagination carries him towards connections or metaphors no other writer could possibly find. In Walden every small human transaction, such as the borrowing of an axe, is examined for meaning:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.
Other times Thoreau becomes downright poetic, or else he shouts “Simplicity! Simplicity!” His voice takes getting used to, but so does his moral message, and they are each a perfect match for each other. Not for nothing is the first chapter of Walden called “Economy”.
The Audacity of the Experiment
There’s a mistaken belief that Walden is a book about nature. It is incidentally so, but this does not describe the book’s essential aim.
Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau’s goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don’t believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau’s purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson’s property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It’s certainly to Emerson’s credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).
Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live “like a savage” in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It’s like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.
Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
This is one of the bleaker (though most well-known) passages in what is generally an optimistic book of philosophy and observation. Which brings us to the third exceptional characteristic of this book.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was fascinated with Buddhism and other eastern religions, and in fact his basic message — “Simplicity! Simplicity!” — is consistent with the deepest philosophies of the Buddhist religion. Thoreau believed that Americans consumed too much, worked too hard and enjoyed too little. His diatribes against the ingrained American culture of hard labor and grave responsibility make up some of the most memorable passages in this book:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattles and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. What made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?
When he was not occupying himself as a writer, a natural scientist and a critic of social mores, Henry Thoreau worked fervently for the Abolitionist cause (as, of course, most of the New England Transcendentalists did). Slavery was the hot issue of the day — the American Civil War began seven years after Walden was published — and Thoreau’s other famous “publicity stunt” was to get thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes, on the grounds that he chose not to support an economic system that tolerated slavery. Many decades later and halfway across the world, the writings and life story of Henry David Thoreau would inspire Mohandas Gandhi to begin a massive public campaign for self-determination among colonized peoples that remains one of the most successful social protest movements of all time. Decades later again, the same thread of civil disobedience was picked up by Martin Luther King back in Thoreau’s United States of America. Now, even more decades have passed but our nation and world remain highly confused. Perhaps we all need to pick up this thread once more.
Literary judgements are subjective, but it is perhaps only because I so badly want people to read Walden that I feel compelled to name it as the greatest American book. I should also mention that I don’t particularly agree with those who find Thoreau a uniquely American writer. Some critics have said that his personal individualism and love of open space make him a representative of the American soul, but I think that most Americans — and most people in the world — could stand to appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau a lot more than they currently do.
But Walden is essentially an optimistic book — the last line tells us:
The sun is but a morning star.
And there is plenty of hope that someday a large number of people may read and be inspired by this wonderful book.