Henry David Thoreau
“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.”
Henry Thoreau likely never imagined that his account of his time at Walden in a little cabin he had built himself would become an American classic. His one regret would surely be that so many have been exposed to it as “required reading.” He would have preferred to have it be for each and every reader a deeply personal and treasured discovery. This is the way Walden deserves to be read.
Thoreau was opposed to required anything. He believed that “the better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost by a seeming fate commonly called necessity.” He even viewed home and property, generally thought necessary to man’s happiness, as the very shackles that keep men from being free, that prevent them from living their lives as conscious human beings.
Thoreau went to the woods to put aside everything that was not life. To be as close as he could be to the source of life. He built his cabin in the very scene that was his earliest childhood memory, the “fabulous landscape of my infant dreams.” This was where he made his home for two years, in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was “rich in sunny hours and summer days and spent them lavishly.” What did Thoreau learn from his time at Walden? He learned that when a man simplifies his life to the extent that he can afford to lose every material thing, he discovers the greatest riches of all.
True literary genius awakens first the senses and then the higher faculties, inspiring us toward a deeper examination of life. Thoreau’s Walden awakens every one of the senses. We hear the song of the wood thrush, “the truest and loftiest preacher,” and the laugh of the loon as it leaps from the lake. We feel the crack of the frozen earth awakening him from his winter night’s sleep as though a team of oxen had rammed his cabin door. We see the glistening grapes in the sunlight as he plucks them for his next meal, and the bare white wood of his cabin floor after he has swept it with wet sand. We even come to smell the morning and taste the autumn air, just as Thoreau describes, “when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.”
Thoreau likely also never imagined what Walden would achieve for so many readers ̶̶ what it would drive home for us even more deeply each time we return to it. He makes us regret the walls and the doors and even the windows that separate us from the power and beauty of the life that surrounds us, the life we are part of, the life that is our real home. Most of all, he reminds us that all the money and property in the world cannot provide us with one “necessary of the soul.”
The Gleam of Light Team
Henry David Thoreau