In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).
He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).
Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).
But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].
Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty