Truth be known, I've never been a good reader. My wife is a good reader: she can and does put her life on hold when a good book has a hold on her. When it comes to reading, I'm a technician. I'm am forever sentenced to being flighty because I constantly step back and say why?--why did she say that? My wife, blessedly, goes with the flow.
That may be why I can say determinedly that epochs of my life are marked by readings of Concord's most famous (and largely silent) dissident, Henry David Thoreau, a man who determined, when he was 28 years old, to build a little house in a nearby woods, stay there as often as he could, record what he saw and felt and thought, and thereby simply remove himself from the artful society around him, to see if he could learn some things from what he might have called "real life." At two huge moments in my life, Thoreau was there.
I was somewhere into my second year of college, when one morning, on my way to American Literature, I found myself so taken by the assignment that I told myself that if I'd be a teacher of literature, I could think about such things as "transcendentalism" for an entire lifetime. Right then and there--on a sidewalk that still exists at a spot I could still mark--I set my course a profession I stayed with until the day I retired.
I was in my first year of teaching high school kids from rural southwest Wisconsin--gorgeous rolling hills and woodlands as beautiful as anything in New England--when a class of juniors looked at me one morning as if I was plain nuts for loving the gangly eccentric who wrote all this crazy stuff about "quiet desperation."
A kid raised his hand that day and said, "If we listen to him," he paused, pointed at the clock, "we're slaves to that clock, right?" I probably nodded. "Then we don't have to leave when the bell rings."
He wasn't brown-nosing. I was convinced, at the time at least, that the question arose from my sense that he had engaged Thoreau, even channeled him, just for a moment, and he wanted all verified. He'd never before thought of a clock as an enemy.
If that kid remembers Henry David Thoreau's aversion to clocks at all, I'm guessing there were times in his life, times we all suffer, when he felt the horror of a clock's ticking even more fretfully.
Just exactly what he learned that day will always be a mystery, but I know what I learned: that this profession of teaching, of teaching literature, was, in fact, something I could do.
Henry David Thoreau has a notable birthday this year, his 200th. Walden was published in 1854. For almost a century, I suppose, school kids like the ones I faced that morning in rural Wisconsin, were forcefed Thoreau's weird views sometimes after the Puritans in a required course in American Literature. Is there such a thing today? I'm not sure.
William Howarth, a Thoreauvian with impeccable credentials, wonders about that himself in a wonderful retrospective essay in The American Scholar, where he laments the fact that most of his students today yawn through the first chapter of Walden, probably gaze out the windows or down at their cell phones. I believe him.
When I began college teaching, American Literature was a graduation requirement. Today, it's barely a requirement for the major. After all, where does a love of Walden go on a resume? Of what possible value will "transcendentalism" be to someone with a business major? When education is quite simply the best and only means of getting a good job, who really cares about what can be learned from watching the ice go out from a farm pond?
Howarth sounds like an old man in "Reading Thoreau at 200," like a man whose time has come and gone. As our President might say, Sad.
What's more, I don't think I'd like to do a tally of just how many of my thousand or so students would even recognize the man's name today. One kid looks up a clock that first year, and I think I'm a teacher? Seriously?
Thoreau was rather defiantly anti-business. The world is not.
Still, to think of him being carried off the stage these days is enough to make me weep. But then, long ago already, when this country was less than a century-old, he got himself sick unto death of the rat race and found his one and only love in a woods. Most always considered a bigger-than-life eccentric, maybe he wouldn't even care that today we're leaving him alone. After all, what's a clock to him?