Thursday, November 10, 2011
A crank. A curmudgeon. A bona fide eccentric whose spiny self-righteousness had to be, back then, endlessly annoying. A egotist almost beyond compare, a man whose industrial-strength arrogance was bested only by the galling confidence he had that every last soul around him was living in quiet desperation. Not only did he think the rest of us had become tools of our tools, he had that blasted temerity to say it, to shout it. Woe and woe and woe!--I think Henry David Thoreau actually aspired to be an Old Testament prophet.
Today, he'd be on board with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, except for the crowd part. He'd likely wave to them his enthusiasm, if that. But if he was sure of one thing, it was that all of us invested way too much of ourselves into those fancy barns we use to store up all our stuff. That cabin he built at Walden Pond wasn't much bigger than an outhouse--no more spacious, no more fancy. Of course, he once wrote "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."
He liked to say that he'd traveled far in Concord, which is roughly equivalent to my saying I've discovered a great deal in Sioux Center, Iowa. It's preposterous, really, unless you're thinking in a very spiritual sense, and he was. The only GPS he would have wanted would have been a gadget to help him navigate the height and width and depth of the human soul, his own.
Was he a Christian? By definition, probably not, but who really knows God's own mysteries. One of my favorite stories about him concerns an aunt who, when Henry was on his deathbed, asked him if he'd made peace with his God. "I wasn't aware we'd quarreled," he told her. I like that.
He's imminently quotable, like his mentor, Emerson. "I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls." He must have been insufferable.
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can let alone." Just think what a couple of millions of him would do to the GNP.
"I have heard of a dog who barked at every stranger who approached his master's premises with clothes on, but was easily quieted by a naked thief." He should have been locked up.
And he was once, when he refused to pay his taxes because of a war he thought evil. He got himself stuck in the slammer overnight, an experience from which we inherited an essay titled "Civil Disobedience," a meager little piece of work that influenced a couple more cranks--Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
"A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature." In some ways, he was the spiritual ancestor of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. "I rejoice that there are owls," he wrote in Walden, a book that is part-Jeremiad, part-meditation, part-guidebook to nature--a little of everything really.
He was an impossibly optimistic crank, which is almost oxymoronic, isn't it? "Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought."
He wanted like nothing else to become the prophet he has.
Yesterday in class, I started in on Henry David Thoreau for the very last time--Walden. Mostly, students find him as insufferable as his neighbors did.
But in a few months, when I cull through the thousands of books I have, looking to lighten our load, I'll won't toss that marked-up grad school text I bought forty years ago. That's not one I'll give away.
Not that I need it. That old crank built a backwoods cabin in my soul.