July 12 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. I first read Walden and Civil Disobedience in high school. Like many readers, I was hugely impressed by Thoreau’s abolitionist convictions and stubborn insistence on living life on his own terms.
Civil Disobedience served as an instruction manual for the Civil Rights movement in this country and Gandhi’s fight for independence in India. So it was appropriate that last week the Washington Post honored Thoreau’s 200th birthday with a wonderful essay about his life and thought.
Of course not everyone likes Henry. Earlier this year the New Yorker published an essay that described him as “self-obsessed” and “narcissistic.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, was appalled by Thoreau’s “cold-eyed” detachment when confronted by human suffering.
So – is Henry a good role model for us today? I continue to admire him, despite Schulz’s catalog of his alleged sins. I’m sure there’s some self-obsession and narcissism hidden away in most people’s souls (including my own).
Cold-eyed detachment was a common trait among the New England Transcendentalists. Perhaps that’s inevitable if your spiritual goal is to “transcend” familiar, everyday life. Ralph Waldo Emerson confessed to being frightened by his disconnect from the rest of humanity. And then there’s Bronson Alcott, who dispassionately watched his wife and daughters struggle with poverty because his Transcendentalist principles did not allow him to work for money. One of the daughters who did heavy domestic labor for low pay was Louisa May Alcott, the beloved author of Little Women.
This is where I start to have a strong affection for Thoreau. He and Louisa ran a school when they were teenagers, and they were lifelong friends (some say she was in love with him, though I haven’t seen a shred of convincing evidence for that – and I’ve read all the biographies). When Thoreau died – far too young, at forty-four – Louisa wrote a lovely poem about him: “Our Pan is dead; His pipe hangs mute beside the river.”
She thought of Thoreau not primarily as a revolutionary (her father also went to jail for his principles) and philosopher (she was reared on Transcendentalism) but as a naturalist, and in some quarters that’s considered a mark against him. At Thoreau’s funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented that “instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”
I would have gladly joined the huckleberry party. When you read Walden and get past all the high-minded purposes that prompted Thoreau to build his cabin in the woods (which belonged to Emerson, incidentally), you encounter this simple goal: to observe the coming of spring.
And now I want to talk about writing. This man endlessly tramping through the woods to look for buds peeping through the snow has a lot to teach us about forging a connection with our readers.
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For many years my husband and I did animal rescue work. I’m recalling a summer when we raised a litter of tiny kittens. During a late-afternoon bottle feeding, I saw one of the kittens bat her brother on the head. He just stared at her. She did it again. No response.
It took a couple of days for his growing brain to catch up with hers: Oh, I know what she’s doing. She wants to play. Let the romping begin!
Like Thoreau, watching the slow arrival of spring, I was witnessing a step in that kitten’s development into a full-grown cat.
Life happens step-by-step, in small increments that most of us miss. We get so caught up in the details of everyday life that we fail to see that a pattern is forming. Or our experience is so limited that we don’t see that millions of personal stories are grandly linked to one another.
The ancient Greeks were masters at seeing and describing those patterns. Many of their myths encode truths about human nature that we’re still enacting today. If you want to read a fascinating book, try Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann. It traces the journey that every girl takes as she is transformed into a woman…
…which, when you think about it, is similar to what Thoreau was thinking about during those two winters he spent in Emerson’s woods. Moment by moment, the frigid landscape was changing into a verdant wonderland – and he took the time to watch and savor the show, every moment of it.
What process intrigues you? Could you watch it unfold and then describe exactly what happens? Here are some possibilities to get you started:
- a printed script becomes a live performance of a play
- a nervous college sophomore becomes a confident professional
- a rundown house becomes a showplace
- a clumsy junior-high student becomes a star athlete
- a bare canvas becomes a work of art
- a magical moment becomes a poem or song
- a testy relationship turns into love