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Walden's Ripple Effect

One hundred fifty years after its publication, Henry David Thoreau's meditation remains the ultimate self-help book

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"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."

On the fourth of July, 1845, a month and a half after Sir John Franklin set out from London with the ships Erebus and Terror to find the Northwest Passage, Henry David Thoreau set out from the family home in Concord, Massachusetts, to take up residence at nearby Walden Pond to find himself. He was not yet 28. He had a degree from HarvardCollege, he had tried teaching and failed, and he possessed some skill in surveying. He had almost no money, but he had friends, by far the most valuable of whom was his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau had built himself a 10- by 15-foot cabin with secondhand lumber on shoreline property at Walden owned by Emerson.

Thoreau lived at the pond for two years, two months and two days. His idea was to conduct an experiment in simple living, to lead a life according to nature and to determine the real necessities of life. "It would be some advantage," he wrote, "to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization." Walden, published 150 years ago this month, is Thoreau's report on this modest—almost backyard—experiment in getting back to basics.

The book is conceded to be a masterpiece and figures on every list of essentially American books, but in this day and age, we may legitimately wonder whether Thoreau's experiment in plain living has any meaning at all for a generation weaned on cellphones, the Internet and Nintendo.

I know that when I first tried to read Walden, at age 15, Thoreau did not speak to my condition or to my life goals, which were, at the time, to get a car and meet girls. Nor is he exactly easy to read: his sentences are not always as clear as "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and he can irritate a reader when he turns on him: "It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live." Finding this on page three of Walden, I put the book down.

I did not wake up to Thoreau until I was 40, though I had by then been teaching him, in an empty, pro forma way, for 15 years. One day, I found myself rereading Thoreau's essay "Walking," in which he tells about going to see two panoramas, one of the RhineRiver and its storied castles, the other of the Mississippi. (A panorama is a long roll of painted canvas slowly wound from one roll to another across a stage before an audience, a sort of precursor of the movies.) Looking at the unadorned Mississippi panorama, he writes, "I saw that this was a Rhine stream of a different kind; that the foundations of castles were yet to be laid, and the famous bridges were yet to be thrown over the stream; and I felt that this was the Heroic Age itself, though we know it not, for the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men."

Though I had read and taught this essay many times, I now saw it, for the first time, not as a text, but as a truth. Just as Thoreau was startled to discover that his era, the 1840s and 1850s, was as heroic as the Middle Ages, so he had startled me into the realization that I walk in the same natural world that Thoreau did. Like that essay, Walden is a self-help book, perhaps the ultimate self-help book, urging us to show up for our own lives, to have the courage to find our own convictions and to try to live them out.

As soon as I understood that Thoreau was talking directly to me, the mythic Thoreau, the hermit of Walden Pond, the echo of Emerson, the isolated and lonely figure from America's rural past vanished from view. In his place stood a writer of immense humanity, vitality and humor.

Thoreau is a man of terrific intensity. We become aware of this through his passionate insistence on seeing—a "habit of attention" he once said he possessed to such a degree that it fatigued his senses. We all look at the same things, but some see more than others. "A single gentle rain," Thoreau observes in his chapter on spring, "makes the grass many shades greener."

Allied to his acuity of sight, his granting to every object a "separate intention of the eye," is Thoreau's great learning. Yes, he required a four-hour walk every day to keep in good spirits. But he also spent four hours or more every day at his desk, reading and writing. He read Virgil, Goethe, Linnaeus, Darwin and Ruskin. He read travel books, the classics, botany, zoology, philosophy, politics and economics. He was, in critic Edward Davidson's nice phrase, a chain reader. Like Pliny the Elder, who read or had himself read to every leisure hour, even in the bath, Thoreau apparently found no book so bad it couldn't be used in some fashion.

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