Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Thoreau is Still Relevant

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

It was a happy coincidence that the same week my classes were reading a chapter about Orange County-based television programs (like The OC and The Real Housewives of Orange County), I happened to be reading Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, or Life in the Woods.  As we discussed the rampant materialism and consumerism of these television shows, there was, running through my mind like streams of living water, the words of Thoreau: "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."  As we watched clips of the "Real Housewives" arguing about designer hand bags, within their gated communities of wealth, there arose the image in my mind of a lone man, in a New England woods, planting beans in a small garden, observing the changing of the seasons, and writing, alone, by lamplight, one of the great masterpieces of American literature.  In today's contemporary, consumerist America, I wold argue that Thoreau's Walden is as relevant and important as ever.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there nearly all his life.  He was an educated man, having attended Harvard, and acquainting himself with prominent literary figures of his day, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.  As an over-educated young man, Henry struggled to find a career that satisfied him.  He worked as a teacher, a land surveyer, a day laborer, a pencil-maker, a lecturer.  He also wrote in his journal obsessively and read voraciously, everything from Greek and Roman classics to contemporary novels.  Ultimately, he abandoned the notion of securing "a good career."  According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "His whole life, after the period of uncertainty about an occupation in his early manhood, became a calculated refusal to live by the materialistic values of the neighbors who provided him with a microcosm of the world.  By simplifying his needs--an affront to what was already a consumerist society devoted to arousing 'artificial wants'--he succeeded, with minimal compromises, in living his life, rather than wasting it, as he saw, in earning a living."

Thoreau's most fruitful years were spent, as he writes, "in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself on the shore of Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts."  He lived there for over two years conducting, as he called it, "an experiment in living."  He grew his own food, mended his own clothes, and spent his time roaming the woods, thinking, writing, and living.  Thoreau saw that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," toiling away for someone else's benefit.  He considered the notion of "spending the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it" to be contrary to human flourishing.  He sought instead "to live deliberately…and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."  Thus, he went to the woods and lived on his own terms, and gave the world a masterpiece, born out of his own experience.

So why is Thoreau relevant to modern American society?  He provides us with an alternative way to think about our lives.  Instead of toiling in "quiet desperation," never truly following the deep impulses of our heart, he showed that it is possible, and quite cheap actually, to follow our dreams, whatever they may be.  Most of the things we think we need (a car, a nice house, fashionable clothing, the latest electronic gadget) we do not actually need.  All we really need is food and shelter, and these things can be got cheaply.  The rest is up to us.

Thoreau is relevant because he was an early environmentalist, not just in theory, but in practice.  In modern, industrialized societies, people become disconnected from the natural world, and become complicit in its exploitation and pollution, simply by the products we consume and the way we live our lives.  Thoreau urges us to return to nature, to place ourselves back in the natural world of which we are a part.  This involves adopting a radically simpler and slower pace of life than we have become accustomed to.  Modern society and industry continue to seriously harm the earth, and Thoreau challenges us to disengage from the evil machine, and listen again to the wind, and the birds, and the seasons.

But wait, you might argue, all that sounds nice and dandy, but its just not practical.  Well, guess what, Thoreau did it!  For Thoreau, a philosophy detached from practical life was useless.  Thus, he put his philosophy to the test and lived it…and so can we, each in our own way.  If nothing else, Thoreau's Walden is an exhortation to stop, slow down, examine our lives, and see how we might live more authentically, beautifully, and more in accord with nature.


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