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Walden: Book Review

Thoreau, Walden or Life in the Woods (1854, 2019 edition). I have a mountain of books to read, so I reread Walden. Granted, it’s a classic worth understanding. Thoreau might be considered a nutcase by today’s standards, but he makes the case for his views on nature and Transcendentalism. Thoreau squatted on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond for a couple of years to contemplate and write, while enjoying a life with few if any commitments. His point: “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (p. 14). He has few possessions. He built a simple cabin (cost: $28.12) and depended mainly on his garden and fishing for food. Thoreau grew about two and a half acres of beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. As he said: “They attach me to the earth.” He developed his own bread recipe of Indian meal and salt. Beyond that was temporary work for a salary (about six weeks a year) to cover additional costs mainly at the nearby Concord general store.

The time period was the mid-1840s, a time before electricity let alone smart phones. The rich folk might have had mansions and yachts, but they would have to heat those in the winter and swelter during the summer. Thoreau was more likely to be toasty warm in his single-room cabin than the elites roaming their giant houses. Thoreau called it “voluntary poverty,” but as he stated, he had the “necessaries of life: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel;” plus he did not have to deal with the “hindrances of luxuries.” He did have “a stove, a bed, and a space to sit.” Cooking utensils included tongs, andirons, kettle, skillet, frying-pan, dipper, wash bowl, knives, forks, three plates, a cup, spoon, an oil jug, and lamp. One rationale was “to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (p. 15). He mentions having three chairs and describes some visitors, including the poet Ellery Channing.

Thoreau bathed “religiously” in the pond. However, the pond froze over in the winter, suggesting bathing became more difficult and happened less often. He talked about the trees, birds, and other wildlife, like woodchucks and squirrels. He wanted his form of spiritual life as part of nature: “[Nature] is not afraid to exhibit herself” (p. 62). He expressed guilt catching fish as something unclean: “A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. … [The fish were] not agreeable to my imagination. … Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal” (p. 62-3). Thoreau left Walden September 6th, 1847. “Things do not change, we change” (p. 78). He had suggested the simple-living movement, self-reliance, a near-vegetarian diet, and spiritual contemplation (“transcendental pastoralism”). While at Walden he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and continued to write after he left (including Walden); he received modest success but died in his mid-40s before his genius was appreciated.

There was one event that bothered me. While at Walden he was arrested for non-payment of his poll taxes. He later wrote Civil Disobedience to claim a protest of the war against Mexico. Protesting the war was fine, say by picketing the capitol. His non-payment of a poll tax just made him a deadbeat and his description, a moron. The poll tax was a state tax used to pay government services provided by Massachusetts. Granted a case can be made for complaint because a poll tax is regressive, but he didn’t make that case. His protest was against the federal government. The primary revenue source of the US at that time was customs duties. Getting facts right should be part of effective civil disobedience.


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