- On the Gallows with Henry David
Five years ago this spring, the Georgia Review ran a special feature called Culture and the Environment. The corner stone of that feature was Scott Russell Sanders’s essay, “Simplicity and Sanity,” which described how Henry David Thoreau’s words might help us today. Alongside Sanders’s piece the magazine also published the work of four other writers, Reg Saner, Lauret Edith Savoy, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and me. In these essays we riffed off, and sometimes rebutted, the ideas Sanders proposed. My own take was that simplicity is a fine ideal, and one that I strive for, but that too often we long for it like a fantasy or pastoral dream, and in doing so fail to appreciate our own complex, contradictory, messy, and decidedly un-simple lives. Henry, I argued, feeds that unreal dream.
Wrangling with Thoreau is nothing new. Opinionated and prone to overstatement, he often seems to be picking a fight on his pages. And, often enough, he gets it. I think of Edward Abbey’s essay, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” which describes a river trip Abbey took with a tattered copy of Walden that he kept dry in an ammo can. As he paddles, Abbey extolls Thoreau for his belief in self-reliance and nonconformity, while teasing him about his prudish thoughts on sexuality. And I think of Rebecca Solnit’s piece, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Solved,” in which she describes how Thoreau detractors love to point out that he supposedly brought his laundry home to mom, as if this would render moot his time in the woods.
Even writers who love Thoreau’s work usually do so with a qualification or two. They are quick to point out their own man’s flaws. One common move is to admit that while the idea of turning your back on the world and living in the woods is an attractive one, there is something essentially adolescent about the enterprise. In the end many people who write about Henry come around to something like this: what he did by spending a couple of years living in a cabin in the woods was essentially symbolic—and so were the ideas that defined him. Ideas are inherently symbolic, of course, but, the argument goes, Henry’s are more symbolic than most, ironically never touching down to earth. Yes, we admit, he [End Page 7] embraced voluntary poverty and lived simply, and yes, he eschewed work as a means to an end, and yes, these ideas function well as a kind of intellectual North Star. But they don’t really fit in the real world. Thoreau had no family to support, no job to go to, and therefore his ideas must be those of a young person, an idealistic extremist.
I agree to a certain extent. If we picture Walden as a Venus fly trap, then the nectars that sucker us in are the moments of nature ecstasy and the fist- waving statements of nonconformity. “The life which men praise and call successful is but one kind,” he proclaims, and we fly a little closer. But once caught inside we are presented with ideas on living that seem a tad rigid—strict, even. We are lectured, hectored, on the benefits of doing with less, on turning our backs on superficial entertainments, on putting our ideals into daily practice. What the hell? We came for the ecstasy, we came for rebellion, we came to fight the man, and suddenly we find ourselves stuck in Sunday school.
For most of my life I have partaken of the Thoreau I like—Thoreau the pantheist—and left the other—Thoreau the schoolmarm—on the shelf. But what I have lately come to believe is this: the schoolmarm was right. In his own essay on simplicity, Scott Sanders turns to this Thoreau quote: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” It’s getting pretty hard to deny that sentiment. We pay with our lives, or parts of our lives, and the value of what we get...