Guest Column: Happy 200th Birthday, Henry David Thoreau
“Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” – Henry David Thoreau.
Maybe a hectic lifestyle has prevented you from marking it on your calendar; but July 12 is the bicentennial of the birth of essayist, poet, abolitionist, philosopher, naturalist, surveyor and historian Henry David Thoreau.
Many of you may have only dim, foggy memories of high school American Literature discussions of this Concord, Massachusetts native and Harvard College graduate. If so, you probably think the “transcendental movement” had something to do with either (A) driving a golden spike at Promontory, Utah or (B) translating a Greek tragedy about dietary fiber.
One of Thoreau’s two most famous books is “Walden, or Life In The Woods,” which recounts the author’s two-year experiment with living the simple life in a small house he had built near Walden Pond. (Of course, this adventure has been memorialized via Walden Puddle in the “Doonesbury” comic strip.)
As my son Gideon points out, people are mistaken when they think that Thoreau was a total hermit during his stay at Walden. He entertained many visitors, although I have to wonder about the quality of the games he used to entertain them. (“I spy with my little eye … um, er … wish I hadn’t simplified my belongings QUITE so much.”)
Both during and after his stay, Thoreau was fascinated with the study of flora and fauna. He was a proponent of conserving natural resources on private land and of preserving wilderness as public land. However, he was NOT particularly fond of the messenger-pigeons that constantly interrupted his mealtime with handbills stating that he had won a free home security system.
Thoreau’s other main book was “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau’s ideas were ignored by many of his contemporaries, but some of the biggest movers and shakers of the 20th century were fans. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were inspired by “Civil Disobedience.”
Good thing they didn’t draw their inspiration from competing 19th century authors. We might have had proclamations such as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was a display of passive resistance against British troops, it was a long line to get Winston Churchill’s autograph …” and “I have been to the mountaintop … and I have seen 15 men on the dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
“Civil Disobedience” has been highly influential in recent years, even if some disobedience hasn’t been particularly, well, civil. (“Aw, c’mon, officer – I burned the innocent bystander’s car before any little kids could see all the F-words I spray-painted on it.”)
From approximately 1980 to 2000, I kept a detailed journal, so I am impressed that Thoreau recorded 2 million words during his lifetime. This feat is marred only by the fact that the journals end with “If you are one of my REAL friends, you will make longhand copies of this and share it with 10 other people.”
Thoreau realized that too many people are afraid of being alone with their own thoughts and analyzing the truly worthwhile things in life. Pay homage to him with a little introspection.
But don’t let your mind drift to his entertainment options. (“Wait! I can do shadow puppets of a squirrel water-skiing. Although it sort of just sinks into Walden Pond …”)