Thoreau, Walden

It has been SUCH a long time since I last went through Henry David Thoreau's Walden, probably not since the end of high school or the first couple of years of university. I wandered into a loosely anti-American stance back then, though it's more fair to characterize it as underdogging. American culture, my thinking went, doesn't need my help, so why feed it? Anyway, it's still a kneejerk I have to watch out for, and I think Walden fell victim to that tendency.

Which is obviously a shame, since it's a classic, but on coming back to it after so long and after such a long term of avoiding manifestations of the culture for which it has totemic countercultural significance - it's a bit tough to see where the fans get hooked. Don't get me wrong, I agree that the historical value of the book is enormous, and that if you have a clear sense of the book's relationship to other works from the time, then it's straightforward to see its role in the broader American culture and in the genesis of popular environmentalism.

But it's always been baffling to me how Chris McCandless, say, or the early 70s back-to-the-landers saw Thoreau as a model, when he's living a mile from town, in a woods full of former building sites (albeit most of them squatted), and when he goes to town regularly. There's plenty of rhetoric about wildness, and discussion about how humans "require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable" ("Spring"), but this story is being lived and told in close proximity to Concord, Massachusetts.

The back to the land movement was inspired by agricultural writers, among other things, so maybe Thoreau's not such a source for them, but McCandless wasn't the only person to backpack into serious wilderness with a copy of Walden. Thoreau's self-conscious separation from mainstream American life is what's being emulated, I assume, and since the mainstream's different now, then self-conscious separation needs to take a different form as well.

A pleasant and an important book, and I'm looking forward to teaching it this fall.


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