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Saturday, August 15th, 2009
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Walden and Civil Disobedience (Penguin American Library)

by Henry David Thoreau

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life..."

A review by Doug Brown

One of the bookseller e-newsletters that I receive is called Shelf Awareness. They have a regular feature where they ask authors a set list of questions, one of which is to name a book they've faked reading. You know the ones; those books that you can talk about as if you've read them, because you basically know what they're about. Walden certainly qualifies; most people know it is about Thoreau going off and living in the woods for a couple of years. But Walden rewards actual reading, an endeavor I recommend.

As many critics have pointed out, Thoreau didn't really go off into the wilderness. The land on the banks of Walden Pond on which he squatted and built a crude cabin was within walking distance of Concord, and train tracks were only half a kilometer away. He wasn't much of a woodsman; one reason he wasn't too welcome in Concord proper is the previous year he and a friend had inadvertently started a forest fire that burned 300 acres (they were trying to cook fish they had caught). Knowing this, I began Walden from a slightly hostile position, expecting to find in Thoreau a dilettante environmentalist with little knowledge or grasp of nature. However, I am happy to report my prejudice was incorrect; the man had much more to him than that. The turns of seasons are evocatively framed in the reader's mind, as are the yearly changes in the flora and fauna.

He does like showing off his education, so you'll need an annotated version if you want to appreciate all the esoteric classical, historical, and mythological references he constantly tosses off. I had no idea who, what, or where Augean stables, Deucalion, Hanno, La Perouse, or Parcae were. Those are just pulled from the first quarter of the first chapter. Fortunately the Penguin Classics version defines them all in endnotes, but sometimes the willful obscurity of the references was a bit trying.

However, all that is swept aside when you come upon the passages where Thoreau's reputation as an observer of humanity and nature derives from. Here are a few excerpts:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

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.

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men.

This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.

I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to what music he hears, however measured or far away.


This was the origin of the "different drummer" phrase, now a common cliche. In addition to the observations of nature (human and wild), we also get a look at life in 1845-6 in the U.S. The war with Mexico was on, and Thoreau mentions the martial bands in the local towns, jingoistically drumming up men to go fight. We get an exact reckoning of what all the components of the cabin cost ($28.12 1/2); later, we get the detailed costs and profits of Thoreau's garden. In winter, ice cutting was a big business on the pond, with the ice shipped off to the warmer parts of the world as a luxury item ("Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well"). We see what folks in New England were doing to get by on the land, in a time when the nation was so young that the Revolutionary War was still called the "Revolution of '75" (the war started in Concord in 1775, so that is how Thoreau referred to it).

This was another book that I read as part of my classics year project, and another one I'm glad I did. For biologists there is a lot of data on seasonality and behavior of various critters, many of which are identified by scientific name. For geographers, Thoreau undertook a sounding of the pond, providing depths across two transects in the mid-1840s (deepest point 102 feet, virtually unchanged today). He also provides dates of thaws for several years, for comparison to today's data. But for me the best reason for reading Walden is Thoreau's eloquence in describing why people like me like to go off alone and quietly watch snakes and birds and water. He clearly didn't care for people too much, and the feeling among the citizens of Concord appears to have largely been mutual. His self-imposed isolation, however, produced a gem of a book that is still largely relevant today.


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