Thursday, July 12, 2012

Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau
It is the birthday of writer Henry David Thoreau (1817), who is most famous for building a small hut in the woods on borrowed property, living in it for two years, studying himself and nature, and writing what he learned. His book became Walden; on Life in the Woods (1854).

Thoreau's treatise on self-sufficiency, simple living and personal independence wasn't particularly well received in his lifetime, though his popularity has increased in recent decades. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier sniffed that he seemed to want mankind to lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought it hideous that Thoreau didn't have a regular job and wanted to live like an Indian among civilized men. Robert Louis Stevenson found his desire to live apart from society unmanly.

George Eliot, also a contemporary, was critical of Thoreau's critics, charging that they were narrow minded and lacked imagination. Later writers admired him. Poet Robert Frost said Walden surpassed all American writing. John Updike, noting his popularity among the back-to-naturists, preservationists and anti-government, anti-business contingents, called Thoreau "so perfect a crank and hermit saint."

Though he specifically said he did not advocate anarchy, his writing suggesting the best government was no government led famous anarchist Emma Goldman to write that Thoreau was "the greatest American anarchist." Indeed, Thoreau wrote: "That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have."

Thoreau's disposition toward civil disobedience is well known. Opposed to the Mexican-American War and slavery, he refused to pay his poll tax for six years, and was jailed because of it. He left jail reluctantly when he aunt paid his taxes.

In his two-year, two-month and two-day experiment, Thoreau lived on land owned by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose home he had lived, serving as editorial assistant, tutor for Emerson's children, gardener and all-round handyman. Emerson served as a mentor, encouraging Thoreau to write and to keep a journal. He did, and produced Walden.

"I went to the woods," Thoreau wrote in Walden, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what I had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."

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