One of the things that I am grateful for this Thanksgiving is the fact that I am fortunate enough to teach Henry David Thoreau every fall, particularly this 200th year since the great American author’s birth.
Most of my students at City College have lived, worked, and struggled more than your average college student and, consequently, Thoreau’s call to avoid a life of “quiet desperation” speaks to them more profoundly than it might to other students from different circumstances. Simply put, they are in a college English class reading literature because they have chosen to be there. Running against the grain of all the siren calls for a more market-based education driven by efficiency and expediency, many of my students have decided that what moves them most is to read and think and to live a life they hope will be more meaningful because of it.
Hence, before my students even get to this great old courage teacher, they have chosen to live “deliberately” as Thoreau put it. And that, of course, is one of the central lessons that Thoreau still teaches us: that we can insist on choices and that those choices really matter. They have moral consequences. They make us who we are.
In the fine new biography, Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls reminds us of how Thoreau:
[I]nsists that the choices we make create our environment, both political and natural—all the choices, even the least and most seemingly trivial. The sum of those choices is weighed on the scales of the planet itself, a planet that is, like Walden Pond, sensitive and alive, quick to measure the least change and register it in sound and form.
As Walls takes us through his life in this essential biography, we learn many new things about Thoreau the Hindu-influenced mystic, inventor, educator, natural scientist, walker, writer, and human being profoundly dedicated to the discipline of living. We see how the young man who came to find “alienation oddly liberating” learned courage from the example and voice of Fredric Douglas, helped fugitive slaves, assisted those fleeing the law for aiding John Brown, was molded by the strong women in his family, bucked up against religious dogma, visited with the dispossessed workers on the social margins of Concord in shacks near his own by Walden Pond, and never ceased searching for the right way to live as an individual and a citizen.
Because of his thorough engagement with the world, Walls tells us:
Thoreau was a haunted man. He and everyone he knew were all implicated: the evil of slavery, the damnation of the Indian, the global traffic in animal parts, the debasement of nature, the enclosure of the ancient commons—the threads of the modern global economy were spinning him and everyone around him into a dehumanizing web of destruction.
As a result, Thoreau forcefully rejected the hegemonic pieties of his age and proclaimed in Walden, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Hence, what one needed was not more civility but more civil disobedience. When the world’s gone wrong, it is, Thoreau insisted, our duty to resist rather than accommodate ourselves to it.
And Thoreau’s sense of ethical obligation to others extended beyond the social and political to the larger context in which we live — nature:
Life at Walden Pond helped him understand how deeply humans are related to nonhumans as well, whether animals used for labor or food, trees used for lumber, wild fishes destroyed by dams, or whole ecosystems, forests and river meadows . . . Extending one’s ethical community to the nonhuman world was, in 1849, novel, shocking, ridiculous. But Thoreau would give the rest of his life to this revolutionary insight. What he worked out in writing “Resistance to Civil Government” became not only the foundation of his political philosophy but also the gateway to his environmental ethics.
Thus when he went to the woods to discover that he was inextricably connected to all that is, Thoreau came back with both great joy and solace as well as a deep sense of mission. One of the things that makes Walls’ portrait of him so important for us today is that she aptly notes that Thoreau was not writing in a time when the pristine wilderness was yet untouched, but at “the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch in America.” The railroad along with the cresting wave of new technologies and industrial innovations in America were just beginning to change the climate and transform nature itself.
In this way, Thoreau speaks to us quite directly as a man who saw democracy in crisis and the future of the natural world as he knew it threatened. He railed at the lack of wisdom he saw from his neighbors and at his angriest, his thoughts were “murder to the state.”
But, as Walls reminds us, his fury was driven by a deep love for the greater self. As he approached his death from tuberculosis in his early forties, Thoreau was moved not by bitterness but gratitude. On one of his last days he made sure to tell a friend and neighbor, “This is a beautiful world but soon I shall see one that is fairer. I have so loved nature.” Perhaps this is because he knew that nature counsels us that “in the midst of death we are in life.”
So if we live deliberately, we strive to not just sleepwalk through life, unaware that there is any choice left but to be truly awake and alive, ready to own our own lives, our time, our country.
Thank you, Mr. Thoreau.