Democracy Dies in Darkness

Books | Perspective

Why I still love Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’

By Ron Charles

July 12, 2017 at 9:24 AM

This week marks Henry David Thoreau's 200th birthday, a bicentennial that emphasizes just how briefly the writer lived. He died before he was 45, but "Walden" is immortal.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," Thoreau writes, "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."

Except for a couple of more explicitly religious works, "Walden" is my favorite book, one I'd want with me on a desert island surrounded by pond water. I also might haul along my cherished copy of Thoreau's journal, a giant two-volume edition of a 14-volume version. (No, it's not abridged; this feat of compression is accomplished by reproducing four small pages on each leaf. And there's no index, which encourages happy wandering.) I bought the set at a bookstore in Concord, Mass., decades ago for $60 cash — remembering Thoreau's warning that "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." I've never regretted it.

As a teenager, "Walden" electrified me, giving voice to my febrile self-righteousness. Raised on the Gospels and the metaphysical aphorisms of Mary Baker Eddy, I regarded Thoreau's book as a loamy version of "Science and Health." I swear, it seemed to glow every time I reached that last climactic paragraph: "Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

Thoreau's zealous rejection of conventionality is especially designed for young misfits who hear a different drummer. His transcendental sentences encourage people struggling to reconceive the oppressive order of the world in a way that lets them imagine they're above it all. As I grew older, though, I began to understand that Thoreau's claim that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" was not social criticism but personal confession.

As a high school teacher and college professor, I read "Walden" with my students again and again. Many of them thought it was a slog, though I suspect some of them weren't actually reading it (suggesting that even the SparkNotes were a slog). For a few of these years, I was teaching at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, the same school where a future star named Jon Hamm was teaching drama, so the competition for ardor was fairly intense. Some students felt Thoreau sounded arrogant. Others were disgusted — as only young people can be — that Thoreau misrepresented himself and his time in the cabin. (He had far more company than he describes; he sometimes went home for meals; etc.)

But every year, two or three of my students caught fire reading "Walden." Ignoring the autobiographical elisions, they resonated to the book's insistence that we mustn't settle for the spirit-sapping path society has laid out for us. I saw these young people copying into their journals the same rousing passages I had once copied into mine:

"If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

I'm a lot closer to retirement than graduation, but those lines still strike me as revelations.

This month, Thoreau is the subject of a major new biography by Laura Dassow Walls. Our reviewer, Michael Sims, calls her book a "masterpiece that the gadfly of youthful America deserves." (My own knowledge of Thoreau's life is based on Robert Richardson's 1986 biography "Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.")

I haven't reread "Walden" in over a decade, but news of this new biography makes me realize that it's time I went back to the woods, deliberately.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.

Read more:

Review: 'Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls'


Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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