Thoreau, His Journal, and Walden Pond
A recent essay by Holland Cotter in the New York Times calling attention to the Thoreau exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Cotter is the co-chief art critic for the Times. Numerous photos and illustrations mark the show.
Henry David Thoreau was a magnificent American, an environmentalist long before the word was coined.
His life was sadly short–1817-1862—dying early of tuberculosis. Yet he had a tremendous impact. His ever-lasting connection to Walden Pond near Concord, Mass., still brings a constant stream of pilgrims to the pond–like this columnist years ago.
Thoreau was a rare spirit in America: a nature-lover, bird-watcher, strenuous hike, land surveyor, diarist, essayist, and lecturer. And, he was in the great American tradition of dissent.
In “Walden” he noted that “public opinion is a weak tyrant when compared with our own private opinion.” In “Civil Disobedience” he declared “there is little virtue in the action of masses of men.” He added that if the law “requires you to be an agent of injustice then I say break the law.”
Holland Cotter rightly calls him “a model of resistance.”
He certainly was. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau asked: “Must the citizen ever for a moment resign his conscience to the legislator?” His answer was thunderous “NO!”
At the exhibit, two photographs of Thoreau show what he looked like. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Concord neighbor, called him “ugly as sin.” Not true. But always it’s the soul and spirit that count, not the appearance of someone.
Another treasure at the exhibition is Thoreau’s slant-top desk. He bought the desk shortly after graduating from Harvard.
“The desk served as a reading table,” Cotter writes. “He was a perpetual student, poring over Hindu scripture, ornithological guides, and philosophical tracts.”
The books were borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, his neighbor, friend, and mentor. It was Emerson who introduced him to Transcendentalism, a rising above material things to the spiritual.
But he was no recluse. He spent time with people, often seeking them out. He was a favorite of children with whom he spent much time.
“His sympathies were with the outcast and downtrodden: the Irish laborers shunted to the outskirts of Concord and the disposed of American Indians he met on his travels,” Cotter notes.
“But his love for the human race deteriorated as he watched with alarm and disgust as industrial wealth created a new socio-economic elite and U.S. imperialist appetite grew.”
ANGERED BY SLAVE ACT
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, mandating a return of runaway slaves to their owners, turned Thoreau into an activist.
He spent a night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. A wonderful story is told of Emerson visiting him in jail. Emerson asked: “What are you doing in there, Henry?” Thoreau replied: “What are you doing out there, Waldo?” A man with Thoreau’s conscience would have been in jail too.
Activist Thoreau delivered an angry anti-slavery speech while sharing a stage with Sojourner Truth, a female African-American abolitionist. He spoke in defense of John Brown, a white abolitionist, angering people who thought the speech treasonous.
“He could not have been tried by his peers because his peers did not exist,” Thoreau wrote in “A Plea for John Brown.”
Brown presciently knew that Civil War was the only way to solve “the Negro question.” In his essay “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau asked: “What is it to be free from King George and continue as the slaves of King Prejudice?”
From his book on “Walden”:
“I love a broad margin to my life…sitting in undisturbed solitude and stillness while the birds sing around me or flit noiselessly in my house.”
“I never fastened my door by day or night, not even when I spent a fortnight in Maine. And yet my house was respected as if guarded by soldiers. The only thing taken was a volume of Homer.”
“There were days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry…for I was rich, not in money, but in sunny hours and summer days.”
“Every man looks at his woodpile with affection. Wood warms me twice. Once when I am splitting it and again when the wood is on the fire.”
“The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring. The marsh hawk, sailing low over the meadow, is seeking the first life that awakens…I heard the rattling sound of a kingfisher…to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and meadow lark lurk and hear the booming of the snipe.”
Thoreau was one of a kind.
Jake Highton was also one of a kind. The former journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and longtime Sparks Tribune columnist died earlier this month. This is his last column, and he will be missed.