Monday 29 October 2018

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"I'm struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations..."

Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is currently working on her second adult novel. The Key to Flambards was published this month by David Fickling Books.

The word Walden has come to mean a great deal: the rejection of materialism; a retreat from society into natural surroundings; a search for uncomplicated contentment. This much I knew without having read Thoreau's book (Walden, or, Life in the Woods, to give its full original title), but at last I have, and am struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations. 

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau went to live in woods near Concord, Massachusetts, building a single-room cabin on land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. "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." He stayed there for two years, two months and two days, later recording the experience as the journal of a single year.

Thoreau and his anti-establishment ideals found new relevance in the 1960s. He was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that they financed slavery and the US - Mexico war, later writing an essay, On Civil Disobedience, which not only influenced Martin Luther King and Gandhi but echoed through anti-Vietnam War protests and the flouting of authority in the hippie era. The 60s, too, saw a revived interest in transcendentalism, a movement to which Emerson introduced Thoreau and which stressed individualism and intuition rather than adherence to religious doctrines and rituals.

In Buddhist fashion (he is greatly influenced by Indian spiritual writings) Thoreau explains how we clutter ourselves with possessions and responsibilities to the extent that we prevent ourselves from enjoying what we have. Rejecting the work ethic that's a central component of the American Dream, he says "we have become the slave-drivers of ourselves", and writes of the "seemingly wealthy, but most 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." Productivity and economic growth are often seen as intrinsically desirable, but at what cost? Today we should certainly add: at what cost to the environment, as well as to ourselves?

Thoreau records details of his diet and plant husbandry, claiming that only thirty or forty days' work in a year were needed to support himself. Although not strictly vegetarian - he regularly caught and ate fish from the lake - he wrote, "I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food." In hunting and fishing, he finds "something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh ... when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially ... It cost more than it came to." He sees a future in which the human race no longer eats animals, which is certainly pertinent today: it's becoming clear that the planet simply cannot sustain meat-eating as the norm in the affluent countries of the world.

Some of the most beautiful writing in Walden describes the waters of the lake at various times of year, and the birds and animals who inhabit it. Thoreau's deep interest in the natural world led to the making of detailed observations of what we now call ecosystems - long before ecology became a distinct scientific discipline. In particular, he was interested in how forestry regenerates after individual trees have been destroyed by fire; his notes on this have proved to be of lasting worth. Another area in which he was a forerunner of today's concerns is in identifying the mental health benefits of exposure to the natural world. "I have been anxious to improve the nick of time ... to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment." This "living in the moment" is the essence of mindfulness.

Walden was not and is not to everyone's taste. Thoreau has been derided for merely playing at self-sufficiency, regularly returning to his mother with his laundry; Bill Bryson dismissed him as "inestimably priggish and tiresome".  E.B. White, quoted by John Updike in a new introduction, was an admirer, but conceded that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if "all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected". (And, I might add, classics scholars - the text is liberally scattered with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology.) The tone can be preachy, and he is given to making the same point several times, as in the chapter on Economy. Thoreau can be patronising, as in his famous pronouncement that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To a modern ear he is misogynistic, rarely mentioning women.

But I'll forgive him all that, because it seems to me that Walden speaks as clearly to our time as it did to its own - possibly even more so.

Walden is published by Empire Books.


Gwen Grant said...

Thanks for this, Linda. It sent me looking for his Meditations which, of course, is hiding on my bookshelves. A lovely review.

Sally Prue said...

Thanks for this, Linda. I now know infinitely more about Thoreau than I did ten minutes ago. He's clearly a fascinating character, and I shall explore further.