The compulsive need for any sort of consumable cultural content has been a primary concern for many of us in these weeks since the informal shut down of society. Few are beyond the simple passive pleasures of binging TV shows or random videos brought to us by an algorithm. Those of us who so easily surrender to the pleasures and challenges of books may eventually make our way back to Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 Walden; Or, Life in the Woods,. It’s a classic narrative in which one man tells the story of his two years, two months, two days in a Concord, Massachusetts cabin.
Thoreau (and his primary patron Ralph Waldo Emerson) have been painted equally as self-centered and heroes of the environmental movement that blossoms annually with each Earth Day. Even those who can only take the Eagles Don Henley in small doses cannot ignore Thoreau’s importance for the environmental movement.
Is Walden best understood as a primary back-to-nature text, or can it provide a deeper meaning for a quarantined world? We can easily see it as a bible for transcendentalism and Emersonian self-reliance. Thoreau entered the Concord woods near Walden Pond, built his cabin, and spent his time carefully accounting for everything he observed: the field, village, ponds, winter animals, and the changing seasons. People have implicitly tried to replicate the romantic longing of a man trying to connect with his surroundings through understanding the natural cycle of life and death or writing a madman manifesto against a world that had done them wrong.
Thoreau cannot be completely blamed for the occasional madness that followed in his wake. That effect is strictly on us. What’s less celebrated and deserves more consideration is how Thoreau dealt with solitude in Walden. Consider this classic line within the first few pages. It might be our lives before quarantine, now, or sometime in the future:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Later, Thoreau comes off as an insolent effete intellectual when he declares:
“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
It’s a startlingly sharp declaration so early in the book. Where is he going with it? Is he setting up some sort of generational divide? He speaks of luxuries as “…hindrances to mankind.” He tells us that his purpose for embarking on this journey of isolation is to simply “…transact some private business with the fewest obstacles…” and the modern reader would be stretching incredulity to consider that this endeavor was purely idealistic and romantic. Thoreau wanted to be alone. He writes:
“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.”
What does that mean? Is he operating (as he claims) from a sense of duty? Much of Walden can be a chore to read, as is the case with many texts from the mid-19th century. Most of us first encountered it in high school and probably abandoned it as soon as possible, like a marriage of convenience arranged purely for reasons of respectability and appearance. The chore of staying with this text, however, pays off more often than not, especially when he reminds us that we need to stay awake “…by an infinite expectation of the dawn…”
A few pages later, when he tells us we are “….determined to starve before we are hungry” we hear the foundations of a Bob Dylan line over a century later about those not busy being born are busy dying. The romantic lonely idealist and the legendary voice of a generation always share the same DNA.
Walden is about isolation, restoration, and recuperation from social life that, even in the mid-19th century, could be too much for someone cravingg peace. Readers familiar with Concord only from the many film versions of Thoreau contemporary, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, will probably not be surprised to know much of it doesn’t seem to have changed since her time and Thoreau’s. Alcott might not have seemed to be an explicit transcendentalist like Emerson and Thoreau, but her father Bronson certainly traveled in that philosophical path. Readers wouldn’t have to make too great a leap of logic to conclude that Thoreau’s adamant cry to live in a world outside his small village was shared by other thinkers at that time:
“I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced…”
It’s this dichotomy that still makes Walden so relevant for us today, quarantine or not. We’ve grown tired of our surroundings and wish to run with a different crowd, but we still gravitate towards solitude when we hear its siren song. In the “Solitude” chapter, Thoreau tells us he has never felt lonesome except for a time when he felt the essential need for “…the near neighborhood of man…” He ponders these ideas for a few lines until he accepts that he is never alone while in nature. “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”
Is he a hopeless romantic here, or is the text more nuanced? Surprisingly, the modern reader is more likely to find a realistic balance between idealism and pragmatism. He writes that society is “…commonly too cheap.” He has more company than he needs in the quiet mornings of his house, and he notes that he is no less lonely than the loons, or the sun, or a nearby brook. It seems a little defensive, but his sentiments are clear. Thoreau would go into town “…to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there…” He sought out human company when and where and how it would best suit his purposes, but he was equally at home in his thoughts.
“I wonder what the world is doing now,” he writes in an imagined dialogue between a hermit and a poet. It’s a line that lingers for all of us who have the luxury to stay home during these days of seclusion, watching a slice of the world outside our windows. Thoreau entered Walden Woods voluntarily. He built his cabin and kept careful records of his surroundings. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” he writes. “…Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live….” He equates the well-worn surface of the earth, covered by footprints of humanity, with the equally worn paths the mind travels.
Henry David Thoreau has served many purposes for many generations over the years. He died in 1862, not yet 45 years old, while his society at the time was falling apart from a Civil War and almost 60 years before the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918. He was an environmentalist, author of a text (“Civil Disobedience”) that would have a major influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a chronicler of everything he could see in his immediate surroundings.
We didn’t voluntarily enter our metaphorical quarantine cabins to wait out the immediate danger. Still, we can voluntarily choose to learn from Walden some lessons about how to maintain our perspective and equilibrium until that day we can leave the woods and re-enter the world.