As a Great Indoorsman, for most of my life I’d ignored the work of Henry David Thoreau. I owned a copy of Walden, but never read it. In 2015, the New Yorker published a “Why do people even like Thoreau?” piece with the subtle title, “Pond Scum,” and I felt validated in my ignorance.
Then, last year, Levi Stahl started raving about Laura Walls’ biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, and I got him to send me an advance copy. The book blew my mind — it’s one of those perfect bios that’s intensely researched but highly enjoyable to read. (I read it so much my wife made me put sticky notes over Thoreau’s “creepy” eyes.) The Thoreau rendered by Walls is fully human, and the book is really a perfectly-timed portrait of an American trying to keep his soul in chaotic times.
A dip into Henry David Thoreau’s journals paints a portrait of a plant-loving man who is overeducated, underemployed, upset about politics, and living with his parents—he sounds exactly like one of my fellow millennials!
I set out on a daily reading of the abridged journal in the fall last year, and just recently lapped myself. (I’m still going, re-reading, and finding new passages to underline.) If you follow this blog, you know I’ve blogged at least a dozen times in the past year about my reading.
As a writer, there are two basic instructions I take from the journals:
1) Take long walks. Get out. Try to arrange your life in a way that you can get out for longer than you even think you can.
2) Go home and write in your journal about what you saw and heard and felt and thought about.
Repeat as necessary. (And when you’ve written enough, go back and pilfer your journals for good material to publish.)
I still haven’t read Walden or his other books (I’ve read a few essays), but his journals have had a huge (unexpected) impact on my life in the past year. He seems to me one of those authors who gets judged by the fact that his disciples (annoyingly) steal the wrong message from him. For me, it’s not: go live on the land out in the woods, it’s: How can you live deliberately? How can you be part of the world in a way you can live with?
He also, in his haughtiness, sort of doomed himself to cries of hypocrisy. (In response to people who say, “But his mom did his laundry!” Walls responds, “No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry.”)
Yeah, he could be a prick, he was wrong about quite a bit, and I doubt we’d even get along if we met, but he’s been a constant companion to me in the past year. He’s taught me to walk, walk, walk, to look more closely at everything, to love the seasons, and to not let your inner life be destroyed by the status quo or the awful actions of your country.
I love him.