Steal This Book

Grasping the Thoreauvian revolution


in Features


I knew Walden was a dangerous book from the first few pages.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” I read, “and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”

I remember looking up when I read these words to see if anyone was watching me. I was alone, sitting in the English Resource Center, which was a small library controlled by the English teachers in my high school. On most days, there were a handful of students hanging around — all members of an unofficial clique of mostly freshmen and sophomores who liked reading and discussing books. This is where the literary magazine Savannah was cut and pasted together, literally, twice a year, and where six of us hatched a school newspaper in our sophomore year. Kids came to the ERC to read, hang out, think revolutionary thoughts, and practice our best avant-garde poses. There were several second-hand couches and chairs, which together formed a sad little lounge area; an adjoining office with a mimeograph machine, typewriters and filing cabinets; and of course, the books, which were displayed in several creaky free-standing bookshelves that leaned forward from the white-painted cement-block walls, threatening to collapse into the center of the room from the sheer weight of intellectual curiosity. The shelves were jammed with novels and literary nonfiction — some philosophy and history too — and the air in the ERC always carried a faint whiff of paperback, that mouldering acidic smell that any collector of books will immediately recognize. I had thumbed through nearly all of these books, discovering for the first time names like Hemingway, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard.

I had plucked Walden from the shelf that day in part because Marty recommended it. Marty was the hippie of the family, fifteen years older than me and married to my cousin Christine. That year, I was in full rebellion against my father, the former Navy man and conservative Republican. My dad was a straight, decent, fair-minded, and rule-abiding man with values cut right out of the ’50s, but this was 1980, and the ’60s sat between us like a giant mountain, blocking our view of each other. On the other hand, Marty, with his long brown hair and his bonafide stories from the Woodstock Music Festival, was a straight conduit to the ’60s. I would talk to him during our long summer vacations at the family vacation house on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains — grill him actually, like an anthropologist gathering information about exotic cultural rituals. The ’60s counterculture was as foreign to me as a stone age tribe living in the Amazon Rainforest, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Reading was my way to connect to the world. I was one of those kids who would rather read the Che Guevara biography than wear the silk-screened Che t-shirt. At about the same time, I was reading Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake about the Vietnam War and James Michener’s Kent State: What Happened and Why? I was also reading old Rolling Stone articles about Bob Dylan, who I had discovered ironically through my Christian friends who were all listening to Saved and Shot of Love, and I was listening too, to his early ’60s albums. I read articles about the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Chicago 7, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Thoreau was another way for me to connect to the ’60s — through its influences. By 15, I had already stumbled across Thoreau’s name in my reading about Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I already knew that Thoreau had influenced the tactics of the Civil Rights movement. I associated him with radicalism and hippie-dom even before I cracked Walden for the first time.

When the bell rang, I stuffed Walden into my bag, fully intending to bring it back the next day. There was a procedure for signing out books, but the assistant teachers who staffed the ERC seldom enforced it. At home, I resumed my reading, and for some reason, I picked up one of my mother’s highlighters and began to mark passages as I read. Before I realized what I’d done, I had marked up the entire first chapter.

My mother was a librarian, which I suppose makes me an unlikely book thief. I had worked in the town library when I was 14 years old — my first real job — so I was well schooled in the ethics of libraries. Now in her 70s, my mother still asks me if I take my seven-year-old daughter Juliet to the town library.

I can hear her voice in my head:

“Why would you write in a library book.”

I never returned the book. By writing in it, I think I unconsciously claimed it as my property, and perhaps I was ashamed that if I did return it, I might be revealed as a defiler of books. More likely, I simply stuffed it into my own disheveled bookshelf and forgot it was there.

I read the first chapter, “Economy,” with unbridled rapaciousness. I devoured it, highlighting passages and scribbling notes in the margins as fast as I could write them. I’d never written in a book before that. Now, I write in nearly every book I read.

“Economy” lays out the rationale and mechanics of Thoreau’s personal experiment on Walden Pond. He’d gone there in 1845 to build a cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he then lived in for two years and two months. In the first paragraph, we learn that he has returned and is now a “sojourner in civilized life again,” and then, as an answer to questions posed by curious neighbors, he begins to tell the story of this experiment, taking a long, winding, digressive path. He compares the struggles of his neighbors to the 12 labors of Hercules. They are brute slaves to their own property who live “lives of quiet desperation.” He calls most luxuries a “positive hindrance to the elevation of mankind.” He jabs at the absurdities of fashion. He describes in some detail (though not enough to use as an actual blueprint) how he constructed his cabin.

As a practical exercise, Thoreau wanted to carve out space in his life to finish writing the book about his brother that would become A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; the cabin was his way of retreating far enough from the distractions of his life to complete the task, but not so far that he actually left Concord, the Massachusetts town where he was born and lived.

There was more to it, of course.

He also wanted to live more deeply within his own life, and the entire book can be read as a meditation on this quest, which he lays out so beautifully at the beginning of the second chapter:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

The message I took from “Economy,” and then from the rest of Walden, was that each of us possesses a personal “micro” economy, which is like a bubble of choice that surrounds us. Just as the federal reserve can adjust economic variables to produce intended consequences within the lives of millions of Americans, so too can individuals control the kind of lifestyles we want by adjusting the dial on our own material expectations, work life, and habits of consumption. Thoreau believed that we might be better off if we adjusted the dial downwards.

This was a radical message for me. Most of what I’d learned about personal economics at that point came from my parents, who were frugal and disciplined but also fully supportive of consumer capitalism and upward mobility. They’d started their marriage with nothing, living in a trailer near the navy base in Kingston, Rhode Island, where my father was stationed, and they had gradually improved their material circumstances over the years, first buying a small house in the suburbs, then building an addition, then buying a boat, and so on. My father summed up his idea of personal economics this way: “You’re always making adjustments to improve your situation,” he said. Even as a child, I could see that this theory mirrored the macro economic value system. The “Big” economy was considered healthy if it was growing. Slowing or stalled growth could lead to recession; a shrinking economy could lead to depression.

Thoreau’s hypothesis is that good will come to the individual who shrinks his personal economy. He extols the virtue of living a primitive lifestyle in the midst of civilization “if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life.” He calls luxuries “not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I read this as a call to liberation. In the ’80s, upward mobility had taken on religious overtones. High school kids were expected to be on the “college track,” headed towards a life of gradually escalating wealth and career success that would be measured almost entirely by material criteria. The drumbeat of materialism was relentless. I could already feel the vise of these expectations tightening around me.

I knew too that something was wrong with my suburban world — I could feel it — and Thoreau gave me language to describe this unshakable feeling of unease.

I highlighted this passage, among many others:

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.

I already knew what it meant to reach for the “finer fruits” against those who would define all of existence by its coarsest labors. I had watched my grandfather, a World War II veteran and a retired auto assembly line worker, struggle to keep his identity as a painter alive. I had heard too the scoffing of the engineers in my family at anything related to the humanities and the arts. They could see my leanings even more clearly than I could, and they had begun to warn me against pursuing them.

Walden appeared to have been written to me by someone from the past who understood the paradox of middle class life in America — that you could live in the midst of plenty, wanting for nothing, and still be starved for spiritual sustenance. Thoreau was whispering to me a warning that would never leave my inner ear: if you want more out of this world — this American world dominated by commerce and crude materialism — you will have to seek it yourself. Dig deeper. Take more walks in the woods. Write more. Read more. Make yourself an expert on huckleberries while the others are trying to make their living manufacturing and selling artificial huckleberry flavor. Insist on a life of the mind. Carve it out of your whole life and be willing to lower your material expectations and suppress your desires to get it. Whether it is in mid-19th century Concord, Massachusetts, or my New Jersey suburb in the 1980s, middle class life is a desert of the mind and spirit that must be overcome somehow.

I was also struck by these words the first time I read Walden:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

It is strange that these words should speak to me so powerfully. I was not living on a farm, and I was in no danger of being plowed under the soil by the mindless toil of agricultural life. I was clearly not the intended audience for this dense 19th century prose — so languid and stogy, always taking its sweet time to deliver on an idea, so out of step with the channel-switching freneticism of my world — and yet, as I read this passage, I could easily substitute the details of my suburban life for Concord’s farms, barns, cattle, and farming tools. I knew people in my neighborhood who appeared to be serfs to their own lifestyles, trapped in endless Sisyphean toil. I could clearly see these poor immortal souls pushing before them bi-level homes packed with furniture and piles of clothes and a mountain of plastic toys, with two cars in the driveway and lawn mowers and shrubbery and lawn ornaments. Thoreau appeared to have drilled out a core sample of American culture that stretched all the way down to its founding by tens of thousands of yeoman farmers, each burdened with his acres of misery, whose descendants would later inherit the toil, and the habits of mind that accompany it, but without the farm. Thoreau’s neighbors’ gaze was trained into the dirt from too much time behind the plow; mine, from too much time hunched over a computer screen.

Reading between the lines and beneath the antiquated details, I could see the object of Thoreau’s critique as if he had written it yesterday: that enduring American compulsion to sacrifice one’s health and good sense in the service of almighty commerce and a dogged but middling commitment to material self improvement.

I had grown up in an ideal suburban neighborhood which was itself nestled inside of an enviably safe and nurturing small town, and yet, I was beginning to see with “clearer eyes” past the facade and down into the greasy gears of my middle class life. I wasn’t the only one. Some of my friends were already looking for an exit from the stifling future of compromise, acquiescence, and resignation that was being automatically queued up for us, with talk of the SAT leading to a good college, leading to a lucrative and satisfying career — the six-lane superhighway leading straight into the bourgeois heart of America. They were reading Sartre and Nietzsche and trying on labels like “atheist” and “nihilist;” still others were on a more visceral trip, turning to metal and punk and the communal resistance they offered. We were like our older cousins and brothers and sisters, restless and chaffing against the unquestioned verities of suburban life.

This was the ’80s, and America had yet to descend into its current obsession with micromanaging the lives of children, but even in this relative paradise of unstructured time, we were still being sold on a future that looked more like mass incarceration than a paradise of individualism and freedom. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Reagan said. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” When I heard this for the first time, I knew instinctively that Reagan was referring to Communism as the enemy and “freedom” as a kind of generalized packaging of our relative rights to free expression and economic opportunity, but I heard something else in these words. To me, the freedom that mattered most was a liberty of the mind, the capacity to think unfettered thoughts and dream heretical dreams. I could already see the disconnect between the rhetorical freedom of Reagan’s speeches and its largely unspoken opposite, the millions of people who were slaves to their jobs and homes and unquestioned expectations of the American Dream. Most of the adults I knew were not free — not even close.

Education is a complicated thing. Some of it you get in school by following the rules and doing the work you are assigned, but as you grow older and gain some perspective, you realize that much of it happens off the program, or in spite of it. Sometimes, education can only begin when you unlearn what you have already learned in school. Sometimes education is the thing you do when you should be studying. In the case of Henry David Thoreau, I had to actually steal my education, and because I took that book, my relationship to Thoreau was different than it would have been had I been assigned to read it in one of my English classes.

As I examine the book today, I see clearly that my marginalia trails off considerably after “Economy.” I know that I read the rest of it, but I wasn’t prepared at the time to digest it. We didn’t read Thoreau in my school, or, I should say, none of my English teachers thought it was important enough to assign, so I did not benefit from a guide or mentor; that would come much later, when I reread Walden in a Ph.D. program in a class taught by Thoreau scholar Robert Sattelmeyer. I know that many high school students are subjected to Walden, made to read it without proper preparation (I have taught his essay on “Civil Disobedience” to high school students, so I am well aware of the blank expressions and excruciating work of backgrounding and explication that is necessary for a group of students to reach even the most basic understanding of the text). Thoreau is a challenging read for anyone, and Walden is his most challenging text.

For those of us who decide early in our lives to live examined lives, the books we read as teenagers form the foundation for a lifetime of both intellectual and spiritual striving. For me, Thoreau would become the bedrock for both. Because of Thoreau’s influence, my leftism begins with the New England Transcendentalists, not with Marx or Mill or some other foreign import. I am more inclined to distrust the state than see it as an instrument for social change, a position Thoreau so beautifully articulates in “Resistance to Civil Government.” I share Thoreau’s homegrown admiration for the self-reliant human. Because of his influence, I have adopted an almost Zen-like attention to my work, and a sense that it is morally right to love your work and to be good at it. I learned too that my actions on the local level are connected to national and global realities, and that I am not duty bound to obey unjust laws. Thoreau taught me that a person of the Left must cultivate the res-privata before he can be any use to the res-publica and that a strong, fiercely independent-minded individual must stand at the heart of any political act. I discovered anarchism because Emma Goldman called Thoreau “The greatest American anarchist.”

Would I have encountered this Thoreau had I read him in a public high school classroom? Perhaps, under the direction of a good teacher, but probably not. It is more likely that the experience would have been dominated by historical and biographical details, that Thoreau would have been subtly dismissed as a misfit, an extreme idealist, and a saint, and therefore made inaccessible to me. Who can relate to a saint, after all? The teacher would likely have encouraged vigorous discussions of Thoreau’s supposed hypocrisies, as if to suggest that the question of his “authenticity” as a radical thinker should be a main topic of discussion. We would have churned through some anthologized selection from Walden and then moved to something else, and Thoreau would have been confined to that vast junkyard of half remembered things you learned in high school.

I am 53, and now I read “Economy” from inside a middle class life that is much like the one that both swaddled and tormented me as a teenager. I did not peel off down some barely trodden footpath into the wilderness, with all of its simple, hand-hewn pleasures. I embraced instead the cosmopolitan life, with all of its paradoxes, and I ended up back in the suburbs pushing my own house full of children’s clothes and plastic toys along in front of me, just like everyone else I know.

As a boy, I imagined that my idealism would be subjected to stark choices. Either I would preserve it, living strictly according to my values, or I would “sell out,” abandoning those values completely. But I was wrong. Life is long, and ideals seldom stand at a barricade, waving the black and the red, ready for either total victory or total destruction. Instead, they burrow into our lives and refuse to leave. We are stuck with them. If we turn against them entirely, they become a nasty intractable virus, causing endless suffering; if we embrace them entirely, we are fated to live as noble fools, with our stubbornness graying a bit more each year. The true lasting path of idealism is compromise, and the art of idealism is about learning what pieces you can trade off without destroying the whole.

Thoreau was no ambassador from some utopia of alternative living. He was a man who grappled with the gross complexities of his own life, refusing to surrender to that familiar, lazy brand of fatalism that keeps our gaze trained into the few square feet of life rolling out in front of us at any given moment. The real Thoreauvian revolution is a spiritual one, about intentional living and paying closer attention to the details and deeper meaning of our lives, about looking into the depths of the ordinary all around us.

It is easy to make a hero of Thoreau when you are young and idealistic. His rhetoric is so decisive and uncompromising, sage-like but also full of fight and vigor. When I was young, I made the mistake many others make when they first read him: I assumed that his pronouncements were meant to be read like bumper sticker slogans for how to live a better life. I heard in Thoreau a kind of 19th century inspirational speaker. Only later when I read him as a graduate student, immersing myself in his entire canon and the known biographical details of his life would I begin to read between the lines. Walden was as much an experiment and a calculated scheme to find time to write as it was a call to a new way of living. Thoreau was no preacher or evangelist, so why should I read him like Gospel? In fact, Thoreau left Walden Pond after just over two years to return to his own comfortable corner of bourgeois America. By most accounts, he was happy, wandering the woods around town, taking careful notes, observing the things that most people do not care to see. •

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.

Photo by Mikel Ibarluzea on Unsplash.