October 20, 2010

The CCLaP 100: "Walden," by Henry David Thoreau

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

Walden (1854)
By Henry David Thoreau
Book #50 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Although not published until 1854, Henry David Thoreau's Walden is a chronicle of events that happened to this young radical liberal a decade previous -- when, inspired by his new buddies the Transcendentalists, and growing increasingly sick and tired of the conspicuous consumption on display among his middle-class neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau decided to try an experiment, and see just how simply he could actually live his life and still count it a happy one. And the answer, as we see in this 300-page collection of thoughts and observations, is pretty simple indeed; turns out that Thoreau took great delight living in a tar-papered shack in a woodland area on the edge of town, and for the most part found an evening on his porch reading a book and being one with nature to be just as satisfying as the elaborate parlor games of the Victorian townfolk, played inside their elaborate parlors which cost thousands more dollars to construct and maintain. In fact, that's mostly what this book is, detailed yet simple observations about the day-to-day life he experienced during his two years in the woods (truncated to one year in the book for metaphorical purposes), along with lessons for how you can live a more simplified life too, as well as a fair amount of youthful indignation over more people not doing so.

The argument for it being a classic:
The main argument for this being a classic seems to be the profound amount of influence it's had in the 150 years since its publication; it almost singlehandedly kickstarted the social movement known as environmentalism and the scientific practice known as ecology, is what many claim to be the clearest explanation of Transcendentalism ever written, and (fans claim) lays the groundwork for the political theory now known as anarchy, with no less than Emma Goldman calling Thoreau "the best radical in American history." (And of course, let's not forget that Thoreau also literally invented the concept of modern civil disobedience -- you know, in his essay "Civil Disobedience," used as a virtual field guide by such future social reformers as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.) Now add the fact that, for many people, the reading of this book is a deeply moving personal experience, an emotional appeal for simplicity, empathy and decency that can profoundly connect with certain readers when read at certain moments in their life (but see below for more on this); and then add the very modern argument that Thoreau is the quintessential proto-blogger here in Walden as well, creating the rules that have practically defined public journaling ever since -- often frustrating, frequently self-righteous, yet a funny and charming deep observer of the minutia governing our daily lives, explaining by analysis why we should be paying more attention in the first place.

The argument against:
The main argument against Walden being a classic can be fairly easily summed up with the following question: "Just who does that judgmental little freaking hippie think he is, anyway?!" And let's face it, even his fans easily admit that Thoreau was awfully opinionated, in this snotty and smug way that unfortunately has become a lasting trademark of political radicals on both the left and right; now combine this, his critics say, with the overwrought prose style so indicative of the Victorian Age, and especially Victorian writers in America, a country that much more passionately embraced the flowery, sickeningly sweet Genteel style of writing that fell out of style much sooner over in Europe. (And for an extra special treat, see this hilarious reader review at Goodreads.com on the subject of "Thoreauvian Douchebags" -- the young, sexy, crypto-hippie male undergraduates you always see reading Walden and playing hackysack on college quadrangles, that is, who claim to be all sensitive and progressive but secretly are really as misogynistic as Archie Bunker.) It may be historically important, its detractors claim, but Lord, the book ain't good, a rambling screed that has inspired countless waves of loafing, unwashed drains on society by now, a book to be ridiculed rather than celebrated.

My verdict:
So here today at the official halfway point of the CCLaP 100 essay series (only two and a half more years to go! ...sigh), it seems only appropriate that the book under review be a special case, an opportunity to examine a minor but important aspect about the "classics" that I often don't get to discuss here -- that much like Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, my opinion of Walden turns out to have profoundly changed over the years, which highlights the fact that what we think of any particular book is influenced not only by what stage in history we read it but even what stage in life. Because when I was a punk-loving teen back in the '80s, I have to admit that my friends and I used to mercilessly make fun of this book -- and yes, partly that was to deliberately get the goat of our American Lit teacher*, a former '60s hippie who was horrified to hear of a generation of youth who didn't breathlessly love this title, but partly it was because I simply found it an unreadable bore back then, back when I was sick to death of living in a rural environment myself, and couldn't wait to move to a big city and lead a life of steel and concrete, of urbane coffeehouses and sleek skyscrapers.

But now here in my forties, after living in the sometimes very ugly Chicago for around 15 years, I found myself suddenly responding a lot more positively to what Thoreau has to say, reading it for the first time since high school and the first time ever from beginning to end; but far from it being his simple environmental message, I found myself instead nodding my head a lot more to his struggle to find a life for himself that's as stripped as possible of the middle-class consumerism going on around him, a simplified and self-sustaining life that doesn't ever outright shun the modern conveniences of the Industrial Age, but simply seeks to find a balance within this suddenly exploding world of cheap consumer goods. In fact, I find it sadly curious how many of his critics accuse Thoreau of "cheating" in Walden, because of details like his shack being only two miles from town, him doing his laundry using the modern facilities of his family's city home, and often spending the night in the house of neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson (actual owner of the woods where Walden Pond was located) on the coldest nights of winter, which seems to me to miss Thoreau's entire point; in fact, not once in this book does he advocate completely giving up on mechanized civilization, instead simply arguing that most of us can easily do without the rooms full of discretionary-income doodads we've collected over the years, which of course is the whole reason he left the woods after two years to begin with, a point he apparently makes even more explicit in later books, when he traverses much more literal wild area of nature and generally finds them unsuitable for daily living.

I find myself really responding positively to all these things, here during my middle-aged reading of Walden, in a way that I was simply incapable of when I was younger -- because of being less experienced, because of having a less sophisticated understanding of the world, because of having to overcome at the time the fawning love of the book by the intolerable flower children of my parents' generation. And that's why it can be instructive sometimes to revisit certain books over and over at different stations in life, because you never know when you might have "grown into" one that simply didn't speak to you when younger. That plus its massive historical influence is what lets me confidently label the book a classic, and specifically one that will most likely better stand the test of time than many of the other titles in this series, even though I know there's a group of resentful former American Lit students out there who would passionately argue otherwise.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Read even more about Walden: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)

*And speaking of getting the goat of our American Lit teacher, the poor picked-on Stevie Hobart, it was a long-running tradition from the seniors to that year's juniors to urge them to say to her in class one day, "Say, I heard that Longfellow was gay," not only a stupid comment on its own but doubly annoying now over repeated years of use, which did indeed drive her into an explosive conniption fit when we asked it ourselves that year.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:21 PM, October 20, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |