Big Thinking: Thoreau and the Economy

In several posts between now and the end of the 2008 USA Presidential election on November 4, LitKicks is going to attempt a new meme, a new venture. How can we use the wisdom of classic literature to help illuminate the tough issues of the day? Many of us feel cowed by our surreal, hectic public dialogue, the never-ending “day’s news”, which we puzzle over and discuss with each other so often — but with so little satisfaction. The news has us in a defensive crouch all too often lately, and in our shock and disgust we quickly react but sometimes forget to pause and think. The purpose of this LitKicks series is to examine one hot topical issue at a time through the viewpoint of one particular great writer, and to get your comments and ideas at the end of each post.

We’ll start with undoubtedly the hottest issue of today: America’s financial crisis, brought on by the inflation of mortgage-backed securities, now destined to be “solved” with a $700 billion bailout by the U.S. government. For commentary on this, our special guest is Mr. Henry David Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts.

The economy, in the broadest sense of the word, is a major theme in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who taught himself how to survive by establishing a harmonious but minimalistic private relationship with nature. The first chapter of his Walden, a memoir regarded by some as the greatest American book of all time, is called “Economy”.

Here’s a rather amazing paragraph from this chapter that depicts Thoreau’s approach to business. It also includes one of the longest sentences I’ve ever read:

I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time — often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; — to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the tendencies of trade and civilization — taking advantage of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; — charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier — there is the untold fate of La Prouse; — universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man — such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.

It’s a funny thing that Thoreau advocates extreme economy in life, but luxuriates in words. Regardless, his constant argument throughout Walden is that an enlightened and happy person will remain highly attuned and responsive to his environment, and will avoid the traps of wealth, greed, competition and possession. Elsewhere in “Economy”, the book’s first chapter, Thoreau brags about how inexpensively he is able to live, and lists all the costs he incurred in building his cabin by Walden Pond (“Boards: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards … Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00 … Laths: $1.25 … Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43”). He prided himself on spending little, working little and earning little, and he considered his hardworking Massachusetts neighbors to be no more free than the African-American slaves of the South (Thoreau, like the other New England Transcendentalists, was also an ardent opponent of American slavery).

Thoreau was also a master of sarcasm, and it’s easy to imagine how he would respond to anyone who complained of losing a home during today’s housing crisis:

Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.

But Thoreau would reserve even harsher advice for the lenders, bankers and businessmen who turned money lending into a source of obscene profit while leading our nation’s finances over a cliff. He felt that popular American capitalism and materialism had humiliated and emasculated our society, and felt that working Americans lived as virtual slaves to their employers and debtors. For these reasons, I think it’s safe to say that if Henry David Thoreau were alive today he would strongly advocate a return to financial simplicity and away from the culture of debt, and would definitely not support the $700 billion Wall Street/Main Street bailout that our government is debating right now.

Nor, however, would he despair for our future. Some shrink at reading Walden, a thorny but deliriously happy book about nature and society, but it does seem like a good text for anyone who’d like to think more deeply about what it means to have an economy, and what economy means to each of us. The book counsels creativity, hope and courage in times of change:

I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.

What do you think?

(photo on top of page by Steven Arat, who has many great photos of Concord, Massachusetts)

11 Responses

  1. Thoreau knew, before the
    Thoreau knew, before the Beatles, that money couldn’t buy him love

  2. In 1991, my wife and I bought
    In 1991, my wife and I bought a modest little house with a big yard. We got a decent, fixed interest rate. By 2004, some of our neighbors were selling their houses for twice what they paid for them. They urged us to sell, too, but we like our house, and why sell one house just to turn around and buy a more expensive one somewhere else?

    Now, several of those other houses stand empty. Some have become rentals, but people often move in for a few months and then leave, sometimes skipping out on the last months rent.

    We’re happy with our home. OF course, as I’ve mentioned before, there is the problem of the garden gnomes, creeping around in the back yard at night, but I blame myself for putting beer out for them.

  3. I always wonder when
    I always wonder when traveling in other countries less affluent than our own what the people would think of Thoreau. The people living in southern Mexico and the Zapatista villages and indigenous towns; what would they think of this slightly misanthropic American man living in the woods and bragging about how little money he spent building his hut. I wish I could ask them, but unfortunately no one living in the right position would have ever read Thoreau.

    Thoreau was one of the first writers I truly loved. I read the transcendentalists growing up in Colorado, on camping trips and everywhere else. I wore out many books and gave away many more, and this post reminds me that I should probably reread it every year or two, just to get the unseen side of the story.

    I remember reading the Edward Abbey story in Down the River called “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” about a run he made down the Green River in Utah while wrestling with the idea of Thoreau. I don’t have the book anymore, but I found a quote from it online:

    “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism–with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America–the more poignant, strong, and appealing becomes Thoreau’s demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its own life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile of home. Or in its own stretch of the river.”

    Abbey doesn’t agree with everything Thoreau wrote, but there is no doubt that he was a great influence, not just on Abbey, but on thinkers everywhere. He wrote presciently on warmongering and urbanization, about the government and economics, and about the unnecessarily complicated life we increasingly lead. But Thoreau would not have voted for any of these candidates, not McCain, Obama, Nader, Barr, none of them. One would hope that his legacy is civil disobedience. That during wars and times of trouble people will heed his words:

    “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

  4. I remember at the end of the
    I remember at the end of the 1980’s – after the 1987 market crash and the 1989 market crash, there was a movement that I at the time called “The New Simplicity”. There were quite a few newsletters – remember newsletters? – about how to live simply, how to get out of debt, etc. My favorite title was the “Use Less Stuff” newsletter. It was basically about how to live without using all of the encumbrances of a consumer society: don’t own a car if you can do it, bring a re-usable sack to the grocery store, stuff like that. As a former hippie, I loved these newsletters, and I took them to heart. I paid off my mortgage, for example. It gave me the feeling of being a sort of secret revolutionary.

    Of course, all of this stuff is right out of Thoreau. And it applies today too. But by the end of the 90’s, the dot-com boom came along, and a lot of the newsletters folded up, or, Jerry Rubin-like, morphed into internet capitalists.

    But I never really got back on the consumer bandwagon. If you have to buy something, for example, you can go on Craig’s List and find all kinds of stuff at half the price of what you would pay in the store. If Thoreau were alive today, he wouldn’t sell stuff on e-bay, but he would buy and sell via Craig’s List.

    Thoreau liked to live in the country, but for many of us this is not possible. However, cities are a good alternative. Cheap, effecient mass transport and local markets and shops make it possible to get by without a car, which creates debt and pollution. Things are not so spread out in cities, making bicycle transport a good option. Need green space – most cities have nice parks. Or take the train out to the country once in a while. I think that Thoreau would spill much satiric ink describing our suburbs, our sprawl, and our McMansions in the middle of nowhere.

    The incredible prosperity of the US in the last 50 years was fueled by debt. But where are we headed? I think the current credit crunch is just the tip of the iceberg. Want to be a secret Thoreauian revolutionary? Pay off all your credit cards and then don’t use them any more, or pay them off at the end of the month, even better, because you get an interest free loan that way. Pay off your mortgage. Sell your car. If you lower you debt you won’t have to work so hard, nor will you be so worried about losing your job. Buy good, second hand stuff. Don’t buy that gigantic TV you’ve been thinking about, read a book instead. Or go to the movies. Or the theatre.

    This is something that Thoreau might have espoused. There is so much money in the American economy now that people in affluent communities throw perfectly good stuff in the garbage just because they bought a new model and can’t be bothered with selling or donating it.

    The Federal Government is not going to encourage thrift. Look what Bush said after 9/11 – go out and spend, it’s your patriotic duty. But if the American people took their own economies in hand, we could make a major change in this country.

  5. The first thing I would like
    The first thing I would like to do is to doff my hat (if I had one) to Levi Asher. I think it is great the way he thinks of these things to say and these ways of saying them. He is very talented, Levi, it seems to me, not that I know him. But on readin the stuff that he writes I think to myself ‘could I write that?’ and the answer is always no. Yeah, so thanks.

    To add to the debate I would simply ask if anyone has seen Nigel, because he owes me £480 rent plus £14 for his share of the tv license.

    It is a hard life and the money is going away sometimes. Continue to try.

  6. Levi,


    Synchronicity (perhaps). My most recent posts at Wisdom of the West ask, by implication, whether Palin/McCain = Echo/Narcissus. Indeed, there is much to be learned from the ancient, mythic wisdoms and applied to the present.

    Jim H.

  7. This is unrelated Levi, but I
    This is unrelated Levi, but I thought you might be interested in it. Especially considering your (apt and just, in my opinion) criticisms of the current-run of electronic book devices:

    It’d seem this fellow will be living for a month in a Sony storefront, using that time to read as many books as he can (he’s a speedreader) using the Sony Reader-thingy.

    For every page he reads, I guess a school will get an “eBook classics library.”

    I don’t know how I feel about it. Seems kind of a “hokey” away to get folks interestead in something already as amazing as reading.

    But then again, we have to remember that books are up against so much, these days. So maybe this is a good thing.

    Also, looks like leaked pics of the new Amazon Kindle (such an awful name) are starting to pop up:

    I will refuse to buy any of these machines until they promise me that they will SMELL like a book does. So, so good.

  8. I am reading Zinn’s People’s
    I am reading Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, paperback, and on the cover it says a million have been sold.
    I read Karl Marx’s early manuscripts which were kept out of publication for years by the Soviets. John Kenneth Galbraith’s economic history is very readable. All of the above aren’t literary classics as in the sense Thoreau’s writing is considered but they all should be taught in some version in middle school to give Americans a correct worldview. Correct worldview sounds Orwellian but I never thought I would live in such a surreal America as I do now.
    As for consumerism, didn’t Kerouac say that you own too much if you own a rug?

  9. Warren, I never heard of that
    Warren, I never heard of that Kerouac line before but it is a great one (and Kerouac was certainly into Thoreau).

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!