Early in “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau drops one of his frequent bombshells: “I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live.”
Although originally published in 1854, “Walden” is as applicable today as it was more than 160 years ago. It’s safe to say Americans today work more, borrow more, and spend more freely and foolishly than the people of any other industrialized nation; in some ways, they may also be the most desperate people in the world — desperate to give their souls the real sustenance they need.
Thoreau hoped to jolt his readers into the realization that they were living a hand-to-mouth existence, driven to this not by necessity but by its evil twin, luxury. Their clothes had little to do with preservation of body heat or protection from the elements; their meals were often exercises in gastronomic overindulgence; perhaps worst of all, the cost of maintaining their dwelling places chained them to a plot of ground not unlike a waiting grave. This forced people to “lead lives of quiet desperation,” the key word in that formulation being “quiet,” for their desperation was their little secret. They preferred to smile through their misery lest a neighbor notice how difficult it was for them to make ends meet.
Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond was motivated by a desire “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.”
His experiment at Walden Pond necessitated the construction of a dwelling. This involved hewing timber, digging a cellar hole, disassembling an abandoned shanty and carting the salvaged lumber to the cabin site. The work began in March 1845 and was done by the Fourth of July. The only other thing Thoreau added was a chimney before winter set in. The entire cost of the project, “not counting the work, all of which was done by myself,” came to 28 dollars and 12 1 /2 cents.
Today’s tiny-house movement is driven by many of the same concerns that prompted Thoreau to take up residence at Walden Pond. As writer Alec Wilkinson notes in the New Yorker, “the rhetoric of modern tiny-house living begins with the assertion that big houses, aside from being wasteful and environmentally noxious, are debtors’ prisons. Their owners work in order to afford them, and when they actually occupy them they’re anxious.” Tiny housers must also consider what constitutes a necessity, whether furnishings, utilities, clothing or even food. But tiny-house owner Mary Murphy writes in Communities magazine that this “helps prevent habitual engagement with the consumer economy,” which in Thoreau’s view threatened a man’s very soul in addition to his pocketbook.
Thoreau’s many critics, both in 1854 and today, typically attack the man rather than his book — and there’s no question Thoreau was peculiar and ornery enough on occasion to supply his detractors with ammunition. He was and is routinely condemned as a crank, an escapist, a cheapskate, an egotist and a tax evader. Not surprisingly, tiny housers deal with some of the very same criticism. They’ve been accused of being recluses or elitists, of wanting to force everyone to live in tiny houses — and of being cranks, cheapskates and tax evaders.
When the status quo is questioned, there’s a good chance a lively opposition will soon rear its head. Questions going to the heart of mindless conformity are often treated with disdain. Although people are likely to embrace change when it’s driven by technology, they are typically less agreeable when it strikes at the heart of their complacency. This is because they are economically as well as emotionally invested in that complacency. To suggest that they should do something in a different way is to suggest that they’ve been doing something wrong all along, and most Americans don’t like being wrong.
What Thoreau and the tiny-house movement can help us see is how we can simplify our needs and in the process reap benefits that enhance our quality of life. Reducing the size and number of monthly bills will obviously grow your bank account balance, but it can also help you recalibrate the way you perceive necessity. Thoreau didn’t argue that everyone should live in a small cabin, and (most) tiny housers aren’t guilty of that, either. The point is to use what you need rather than consume what you can afford. Scale down rather than add on. Simplify rather than complicate. The soul needs a resting place, but it should be a cozy nook, not a bigger house in a better Zip code.
Diguette is a member of the English faculty at the Dunwoody campus of Georgia State University.
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