Henry David Thoreau died at the early age of 44 in 1862 after writing “Walden” (1856) and many other essays including “Civil Disobedience”. Many of you may be familiar with some or all of his writing.
I was introduced to Transcendentalism in an American Literature course in 1978. What a heady topic for me at that age ~ the intellectual discussions often left me in a wondrous world of idealism and Utopia. I spent a good deal of time glamorizing the idealism of this period in history. Many of their ideas were inspirational and a belief in the common goodness of people and particularly nature was a philosophy many people could relate to. Indeed sometimes criticized as irrational, I didn’t care. I loved the idea that individual thought played a huge role in the creation of a culture. Surely a romantic view of the world was possible.
I never forgot Henry David Thoreau. Many of his ideas have stayed with me throughout my life. How blessed is education. I remember wanting to live a different kind of life. Can we pursue a simpler life? I asked myself this question often but, was also caught up in today’s whirlwind of information and technology. What are life’s true essential needs I would ask myself.
Long before we ever did, he realized that overwhelming and repeated communication, without rest; was a necessity we didn’t need. Should we simplify our lives and focus on the surroundings in our reach. Breath the winter air, revel in the beauty of nature, turn off the outside world for at least 30% of our day, read to our children, rest.
In our personal quests to make sense of the world and our lives, we all live each day as best we can. We all have personal struggles and serious setbacks. By middle age you have not escaped a death in your family, an illness, a fear or melancholy.
We all strive to accomplish tasks, perhaps pursue new interests, play an instrument, golf, take photographs. I would love to hear about what others are doing in their lives to enrich their experience…..perhaps some of us share moments of our lives on Facebook to feel a sense of community. A sense of friendship. That is what is so great about fb – staying in contact with people we may rarely see in person.
I have a bunch of hobbies, but, one of the finest experiences I have enjoyed with this unbelievable free time, has been my ability to read some of my university books all over again; and then some. I am able to concentrate on reading so much more easily as an adult! Finally. It is a true blessing. As a student I was so full of energy and had such a hard time settling into a book. I did it; and often it was exhilarating, but most often it was a chore and a frustration ~ I never gave myself the mental time to really think about what I was reading. I had so many students who were just like me and I understood their frustration! I was too busy getting to the next social engagement or dealing with my hyperactive mind. Never before have I been able to entertain myself so readily with one of Thoreau’s essays or a short story by James Joyce ~ how perfect is this time. Reading is quite simply a real joy.
One of my favourite Thorea essays is called, “Reading”. He immediately points out that “My residence was more favourable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university..I had more than ever come within the influence of those books.” He kept Homer’s Iliad on his table through the summer. He was also very busy building his house and preparing his garden for winter which made more study impossible but he knew that he would be reading in the future.
When I investigated The Thoreau Society Bulletin 1985 I found a letter from a “far flung member” who was unhappy with the prospect that he would never make it to any of the society’s meetings or visit Concord, Massachusetts in his lifetime. He lived in Central Eastern Europe and it was noted that Leo Tolstoy was instrumental in publishing the first Russian translation of Thoreau’s works. ” Serious and radical individualism was not easily incorporated into certain chosen lifestyles” but, in spite of “negative omens I am convinced that differences and departures are superficialities.” He believed that the rough road has “led me to Thorea under bitter experiences..it came to be true that in my surrounding a Thoreavian way of life shall remain a queer and suspicious one.”
I wonder if this isn’t still very true today. There is no doubt that there were some serious gaps in Thoreau’s thinking, but the overall impression that has stayed with me all these years is the fact that people need to think deeply about life and our choices going forward. We all need to read beyond what is comfortable and grapple with ideas far beyond our own limited understandings and perhaps commit some part of ourselves to an humanitarian and natural way of life that would benefit more than the 1 %. If happiness can be found in a passage written in the 1800’s, the world is our oyster.
Dedicated to all those parents who read difficult and large texts to their children and discuss themes, character development and history.