[July 12th marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five texts and contexts for Thoreau, leading up to a weekend post on three ways we can remember and celebrate this unique and influential American on his 200th.]
On two new frames for reading and understanding Thoreau’s most famous project.
On July 4th, 1845, just eight days shy of his 28th birthday, Thoreau embarked on the two-year experiment that would become one of the most famous living experiences (probably the single most famous such experience, in fact) in all of American history. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the one-year, condensed, narrative version of that experience which he would publish nearly a decade later as Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) is what we collectively remember so well. Indeed, the relationship between the lived experience at Walden and the autobiographical text of Walden has become one of the central areas of study for Thoreau biographers and scholars, and is certainly an interesting (if perhaps overstated, since of course any and all life writing involves shifts from the experiences to the written versions) aspect of the text to consider. But on Thoreau’s 200th birthday, I wanted to gift him and us all with a couple other, somewhat less common frames through which to read and analyze both the sojourn at Walden and the text that it produced.
For one thing, I think it’d be pretty interesting to see both Walden projects as offering individualized examples of the period’s ubiquitous social movements. I don’t mean the utopian experiments such as Brook Farm or Oneida, although of course those make for interesting comparisons as well. No, I’m talking about the era’s more grounded social movements, from the Abolitionist Movement to which Thoreau himself was becoming connected in precisely this moment (as I detailed in Monday’s civil disobedience post) to the national Women’s Movement that would truly launch at Seneca Falls almost exactly a year after Thoreau finished his time at Walden. While of course Thoreau’s Walden project was both undertaken by himself and emphasized the importance of solitude, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be linked to such broader social movements, a link that (again) Thoreau’s subsequent addresses on civil disobedience and slavery in Massachusetts would make clear. And within the book we have passages like Chapter 2’s justifiably famous critique of capitalism and labor exploitation (using the metaphor of “sleepers” to describe the workers who have given their lives to build the period’s new railroad lines), sections that might seem quite distinct from other aspects of the text until and unless we see the text as a whole as a form of social protest and activism.
At the same time that the Walden projects can thus be seen as profoundly social and communal, I would argue that they also represent a particularly individual life stage: what has in recent years come to be described as the “quarter-life crisis.” Thoreau as the narrator of Walden can come across as so confident (annoyingly so, at times) in his accumulated experiences and perspective that it’s difficult to remember (although it also makes sense if we consider the confidence of youth) that his two years at the cabin took place before his 30th birthday. If we reexamine one of the book’s other most famous passages (also from Chapter 2) through this lens, it looks quite a bit different: “I went to the woods because I wished 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.” Although this passage certainly links to Thoreau’s preachy goals (his desire “to wake up my neighbors”), in it we also see a young man unsure of both his own perspective and whether this project will contribute to it (as reflected by the complex negative frames of “see if I could not learn” and “not … discover that I had not lived”). Reading Walden as a memoir of quarter-life crisis helps humanize Thoreau, and helps us understand that his philosophical discoveries here are as much his own as for the audience to whom he then wants to preach that gospel.
Next Thoreau post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Thoreau responses you’d share?
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