Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is an iconic Yankee manifesto. I am a Yankee, yet I had never read it. I opened it expecting a clarification of our American spirit, like reading Walt Whitman. As a memoirist, I found a similarity between his book and my own; man/woman goes into unfamiliar territory with the express intention of re-inventing him/herself, and along the way, comments on the principles, practices, religions, and habits of the world around him/her. Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I have lived to seventy-six, Thoreau died at forty-five. Our lives have played out in different eras, but I shared his aspirations and looked forward to reading the book.
One section of Thoreau’s work is his clear, accurate, prescient, and poetic descriptions of Nature. In the final chapters, he describes Walden Pond in winter and spring, and the animals, human and otherwise, visiting it. His clear and reverent style approaches the poetic. In his descriptions, he uses words no longer used today: fluviatile, purlin, helve, fictril, firkin, tafferel, kittlybenders, trumpery, glaucous, and trig, as in “some trig, compact-looking man.” And more. Today’s vocabulary will sometimes be opaque to a reader in the year 2196, as far ahead of us as Walden is behind us.
Thoreau was born to a family of modest means, but rose in status through his education at Harvard, where there was a heavy emphasis on ancient Latin and Greek. He expresses sympathy for those who have not read Homer in the original Greek, and refers to classical gods and heros, (Antaeus, the Coenides, and so on) unlikely to be recognized today. There is a whiff of arrogance in his sympathy, since most of his contemporaries did not ascend to a classical education, making knowledge of Greek was marker of the elite.
The more familiar section of Walden is the intimate rendering of his own life and the lives of the souls around him, and his commentary thereupon. These parts contain most of the efficient, well-turned quotes that remain bywords today, such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or “In the long run men hit only what they aim at, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high,” or “…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” One of his consistent strains is “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” There is no clearer vision of simplicity than “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.
Reading Walden reminded me, as I was riding my bicycle in Sea Ranch, California, that when Thoreau wrote in the 1840s he didn’t even have a bicycle. He describes a rainy climate, and the modern umbrella wasn’t invented until 1852. Photography was in its infancy, and the radio, internal combustion engine, and electric light bulb were decades away from common use. The railroad was brand new, spewing noise and oily dust onto previously peaceful landscapes while adding needed mobility—Thoreau recognized the dichotomy. Today, it would be rare that a reader would find herself walking home through a pitch dark forest “when my feet felt the path which my eyes could not see” (no flashlights). Even the weather was different; there was reliably thick snow on the ground and eighteen inches of ice on the pond from November until the end of March or early April.
Thoreau has a detached, ironic sense of humor. In the village, he sees “a row of …worthies, either sitting on a ladder sunning themselves…with a voluptuous expression, or else leaning against a barn with their hands in their pockets, like caryatides, as if to prop it up.” He wonders “how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.” He views Man as simply another part of Nature, “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly or a humble-bee[sic]. I am no more lonely than a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house.” He observes that some men toil for years “in order that they may live,—that is, keep comfortably warm,—and die in New England at last. The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course à la mode.”
For its style, for its clarity, for its individuality, even today, almost a hundred and eighty years later, the Well Read Person has Walden on their bookshelf.
So I was surprised at my anger when I read it.
Ah, what woman would not have loved to sit at the edge of the pond of an evening, listening to the frogs, watching the clouds, until the evening took her back inside. What African American man would not have loved to build himself a little shelter out of the logs he found on his property (Thoreau didn’t own his lot, it was lent to him by Ralph Waldo Emerson), hoe his beans to feed only one, and content himself sitting inside by the fire when the wind and snow were howling outside. (Toward the end of the book, Thoreau writes about a few solitary Black men and women, some of them former slaves, who did set themselves up near Walden, but they did not have the luxury of knowing that at any point where the going got tough, they could return to a nice big house in town.) What poor man wouldn’t have loved to have choices—shall I buy Farmer Jones’s little farm, thus consigning myself to a jail of schedules, mortgages, and chores, or buy a little house in town which would constrain me slightly less, but still burden me with all those bothersome people who want to talk to me all the time.
Yes, dear readers, Walden could only have been written by a Harvard-educated white man of at least modest means, never by a woman, never ever would a woman have had the experiences necessary to write Walden. Hester Prynne could have used that little cottage on Walden Pond. When trying to escape persecution, she says, “Backwards to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes; but onward too! Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step! until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched, to one where thou mayest still be happy!” (Hawthorne and Thoreau knew each other through Emerson.)
Can you imagine Hester or any other woman of her time saying that she commonly did not feed people who came to her home? Thoreau writes, “…and if any ever went away disappointed or hungry from my house when they found me at home, they may depend upon it that I sympathized with them at least.” LOL. Even today, when cooking is sometimes viewed as anti-feminist (I have known my fair share of women who view it as such), a hostess would feel sheepish if guests arriving at dinnertime left without being fed.
In order to understand Walden the reader must look at what is not there. His confident superiority lies in part in the fact, unremarked in the book, that there were no women at Harvard, where he went to school, no female ministers, few women educated in his hallowed Greek and Latin. None but a miniscule number of women in his world were allowed the peace and quiet of a summer’s evening without having to cook dinner for somebody else, and tend to the children and grandchildren.
He does not speak disrespectfully of the women who have cameo appearances in Walden, but shows no appreciation of the fact that even the most brilliant women of his time depended on men for their well being. The suffragettes relied on men like Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for support. They could not work in the professions, had no property of their own, their fortunes were handled by their husbands, and their prestige flowed from either a husband or a father.
Since men were so necessary to the welfare of women, they had a weightier responsibility for them than they do today, when a woman can support herself. In 1776, around sixty years before Walden, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” While Mr. Thoreau has advice aplenty for others, he could have used a dose of the “Laidies Rebelion.”
One might excuse his obliviousness because most people around him were oblivious. But he was no ordinary man. He was as well informed and well educated a man as any of his time. He reminds us of his erudition and hipness by quoting the Bhagavad Gita, native American lore, poetry, and numerous Greeks and Romans. And he was mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson who said women should receive their “one half of the world,” their “full rights of all kinds, —to education, to employment, to equal laws of property, equal rights in marriage, in the exercise of the professions, and of suffrage.” The first convention of feminists, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton among others, was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. The controversies regarding suffrage and other rights were raging while he was writing Walden. He complains that “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” Any person who wants to call himself a philosopher and preach to others about how they should live their lives, especially one who claims to be striving to see the world through others’ eyes, renounces his title by ignoring “one half of the world.”
The closest Thoreau comes to expressing his opinions about “the Laidies” is his pathetic treatise on maintaining the purity of the human body, by which he means chastity. Having been raised a Christian Scientist, I recognized the same spirit in the words “Chastity is the cement of civilization” in the chapter on Marriage in the Science & Health. Purer manure was never spread upon our intellects.
Thoreau quotes Confucius at the outset, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” He seems not to know that the people he so demeans for being servants to their mortgages, families, and businesses are the very people from whom he gets the support he needs to live on Walden Pond. On a lark, he plants, and sells, some produce. He says ,”I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.” Good for him. He says that if his house burned, or his crops failed, he “should have been nearly as well off as before,” oblivious of what this would mean to a man who depended upon his crops for his living without a patron, Emerson, to fall back on.
This gifted young writer’s philosophy is that the good life, the best life, is as an unencumbered, chaste bachelor, living in poverty.
Given his propensity for telling other people what to do, his remarks about his own nature are revealing. He writes, “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.” Are those words any different than those of an evangelical preacher, just without the word “God?” He loves “a broad margin to my life,” and bully for him. Not many people have that margin.
I valued Walden for its honesty, simplicity, poetry, Thoreau’s prescient and meticulous parsing of Nature, and far-reaching intellect, and I condemn it for its bone-headed ignorance of facts clearly within his purview, his entitled egotism, his juvenile dismissal of the chores of life such as cooking, farming, working, and raising children, and his failure to create a world where a man could live for all his life not just a year or two. He is a pretender to the philosopher’s throne.
I cannot help but wonder what Emerson saw in this young man—perhaps he saw promise, knowing that such a searching and brilliant mind must have no recourse but to include in his beneficence that one half and more of humanity that he ignored in Walden. But Thoreau died in his mid-forties.
Most damning, in my view, is his plea: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages…I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.” He might have taken the trouble to look at the world through the eyes of the freed slave he writes about whose plot of walnut trees was taken from him by a white man, virtually any woman he happened to run into, and the visiting wanderers who worked harder than he would ever want to. He had a “broad margin;” they did not.