Walt Whitman, one of America’s greatest poets, an openly gay man, and a giant figure in American literature in the 19th Century, wrote the following in the preface to his 1855 edition of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass:
“This is what you shall do. Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and the crazy. Devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or any number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and the young and with mothers of families…. Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your soul.”
Whitman was a contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, and this little excerpt sums up pretty well Thoreau’s philosophy and way of life. (In fact this passage was also a favorite of Edward Abbey.) This was a most extraordinary life even as it was very quiet, uneventful for the most part, and hardly a paradigm of what we would call “success.” Thoreau has had many, many interpreters and “misinterpreters” over the years, and so it continues to this day. There is a contemporary new study of Thoreau that supposedly “demystifies” the image. First there is the image of Thoreau the solitary–well, he lived in his cabin at Walden only for a couple of years and it was an easy walk from town. In fact he brought his laundry to his mother for her to do every week. Some hermit! Then there is the image of Thoreau the self-sufficient man. Well, he mooched off his friends quite a bit. When he refused to pay his tax in protest of the Mexican-American War, he was thrown into jail, but his friend Emerson paid the tax and got him out of jail after only one day. And so on it goes. Critics love to point out inconsistensies in Thoreau’s life and thought. Already Emerson anticipated that when he said pertaining to Thoreau: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
But no matter what the critics or the demystifyers say this very unassuming man was extraordinarily influential on giant, prophetic figures like Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and a host of lesser activists for justice, truth and a radically different way of life. He is also the generally acknowledged “grandfather” of the modern environmental movement. Anyone with any sense of the value of wild nature has been in one way or another under the influence of Thoreau whether they realize it or not. Finally he still continues to this day to inspire people who want to simplify their lives and live by values other than what our society promotes.
What is it that made him so influential? Perhaps it was his very direct and insightful way of saying what was right in front of everyone’s faces. He spoke the truth with simplicity and clarity. Perhaps it was his uncanny vision and discernment. He lived at the very beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States and when advances in technology such as the railroad and the telegraph were just beginning to mesmerize the general public. Yet Thoreau spoke sharply against this attitude. No, he was not a simplistic “anti-progress” pessimist like some of his critics claim. Rather, it was not the instrumentality of the new mechanisms that he critiqued, but our attitude in making them the center of our lives and how this shapes all our perceptions and relationships. In this he was most amazingly prophetic. Furthermore, his deep vision also made him see the infinite value of each individual human being, and here also he spoke with a clear, uncompromising voice–whether it was against the emerging factory conditions of workers, whether it was the institution of slavery, or whether it was the drifting into wars where greed and ambition and collective ego mania were the driving forces. Finally, that same vision and his deep inner resources made him clearly reject America’s misguided tendency toward belief in a God-infused exceptionalism–he thoroughly rejected the popular belief of Manifest Destiny.
In Thoreau’s always eloquent and often lyrical prose, we find a nineteenth-century man so amazingly ahead of his time that most of us in the twenty-first century have not yet caught up. Let us listen to a few quotes:
“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making Earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down.”
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.”
“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.”
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
“I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while other have not enough.”
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance…but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board…. There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on him.”
Just a tiny sample from the thought and reflections of this great man. Thoreau dies at the early age of 44. He dies at home. His aunt asks him if he has made peace with God. He tells her he did not know that they had quarreled. Very Thoreau!