Robert Sullivan wrote a book called The Thoreau You Don’t Know. In this book, Sullivan explains that the image that most people have of Henry David Thoreau is wrong. I happened to not learn much from this book, because I got my knowledge of Thoreau from reading introductions to his work written by competent historians, but I’ll bet there are many people who have very inaccurate views of what kind of person Thoreau was and what he did and for whom this book would be quite valuable.
Many people think that Thoreau went to Walden to be out in the wilderness, because he saw human society as something separate from Nature. This image is reinforced by the misquotation often associated with Thoreau, “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” Thoreau said preservation, not salvation; and he said wildness, not wilderness. He meant, as Sullivan tells us, not wilderness away from man but wildness even within a human landscape. But when Thoreau built his shack near Walden Pond, he was not “in the wild.” The forest was actually an actively-harvested woodlot, harvested not the least by Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the winter, ice-cutters harvested big blocks of ice. A railroad passed nearby, and railroad workers lived there. Thoreau did not project an attitude of “Just leave me alone already.” He left a second chair by the door of his shack to invite people to come and talk with him. He wrote not just about the wild things he saw, but also about the things he noticed in the railroad cut. When he wrote about his walk to Wachusett, he noted not only the plants and animals but also the gunshots and the “kine” (cattle) that he heard and saw, as they were part of the whole world around him. Thoreau was in favor of preserving some of the woods intact—but sustainably harvesting lumber from the rest. As ecologist Richard Primack points out, Thoreau wanted us to see nature even in a human-dominated landscape. Most days, Thoreau walked into town to visit his family or the Emersons. When he was in New York City, he enjoyed taking walks with Walt Whitman through the streets. He was not alone in a cabin in the woods.
Why, then, did Thoreau go out to Walden Pond and live in a shack for two years? He was conducting an experiment in how to live. What do you really need in order to be happy? A big house? Fancy furniture? In this experiment, Thoreau removed one item of civilized comfort after another; against which the life of a homeowner in Concord was the control. He compared his frugal use of firewood to the enormous amount that Emerson used. That’s why Thoreau kept track, down to the nearest half cent, how much it cost him to do this. And, even though he may not have actually been planning to write a book about his experience, he was thinking continually about publication. In this way, I believe (although Sullivan did not actually say this) you could think of Walden as the equivalent of Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man or A. J. Jacobs’s A Year of Living Biblically: to see if it could be done. At the very least, Thoreau was no misanthrope; his writing is full of humor, and some people today take it far too seriously. Thoreau was the kind of guy who today would hang out his clothes to dry and tell his too-serious environmentalist buddies that he was using a solar-powered clothes dryer. As Sullivan points out, if someone today wonders what kind of car would Thoreau drive, he would probably answer their question with a question: How do you know that your car isn’t driving you? Thoreau’s stuff is sometimes hard to make sense out of—which is perhaps the effect Thoreau intended. To make you think, rather than to give you clear instruction. In wildness is the preservation of the world? What? However you interpret this statement, you will probably be the wiser for the effort.
Sullivan also points out that we should consider that Thoreau’s time was one of social disruption in the United States. During a period of economic prosperity, people thought the banks were the ultimate pragmatic security; but the severe recessions of 1837 and 1857 (which most readers of Thoreau never heard of) disrupted this idea. Thousands of people went west. Thoreau’s friend Horace Greeley said, “Go west, young man!” Why? Because there aren’t any jobs in the east. Sullivan says the Oregon Trail was, in effect, a long unemployment line. When Thoreau said that most people were leading “lives of quiet desperation,” he might have been referring specifically to the fact that they lived from one mortgage payment to the next. Or not. Well, if the purpose of life is not to build a bank account, then what is it? This is what Thoreau wanted to find out. We need to think about this today.