Thoreau You Don't Know coverOn a frigid January night some years ago, a friend and I snuck into a Massachusetts state preserve, stripped naked, and charged into Walden Pond. For a few exhilarating, painful moments we swam, and I imagined some hard-to-name kinship with the pond’s most famous neighbor, the 19th century eccentric Henry David Thoreau.

It was a climax in my relationship with Thoreau and his Walden. When I read the book for the first time at age 17, it reawakened the intellectual curiosity that I tried to bury in high school. (It didn’t seem useful for attracting girls, not that anything else worked better … ). Thoreau’s reflections on nature inspired me to take a notebook out to the forest preserves that dot suburban Chicago, determined to think deep naturey thoughts of my own. Thankfully, that notebook’s been lost.

In college I made my pilgrimage to Walden — hence the dip. But somewhere around then Thoreau’s uncompromising social critique grew tiresome. Like plenty of Walden readers before me, I came to see the great champion of American individualism less as a prophet than as a self-righteous crank. In praising the bright fire within each soul, I concluded, he failed to see the profound ways our lives are connected to others. The famous proof for his hypocrisy is that while philosophizing about self-sufficiency in his solitary shack, he would drop off his laundry at his mother’s place back in town.

Lately, trying to make sense of the deeply un-philosophical threat of climate change, I’ve wondered if Thoreau has anything to say to the movement to halt greenhouse gas emissions. Back-to-nature environmentalists of the ’60s and ’70s embraced Thoreau’s skepticism toward technology — he distrusted even the telegraph and the railroad. Organic gardeners approved of his bean field. His contemplative habits seemed to fit the spiritual strain of the era.

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But now? Environmentalists have largely cast off their crunchy garb in favor of business suits, the better to woo lawmakers and venture capitalists. This is especially true of climate-minded activists. As Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh wrote last winter about a renewable energy summit in Abu Dhabi, “There’s little about trees or wildlife, nothing about environmental sacrifice — this is about the business of getting the carbon out of our energy supply as quickly as possible.”

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All of that suggests the movement has outgrown Thoreau, just as I thought I had myself. I’ve been prompted to reconsider by Robert Sullivan‘s recent book The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant. Sullivan, who has written unusual “nature” books on rats and the Meadowlands dumping grounds outside New York City, tries to rescue Thoreau from the humorless image that turned off so many high school English students and the cloud of reverence cast by those who would see Thoreau as a patron saint of wilderness preservation.

I think Sullivan does a great job. In place of the crank Thoreau, he offers evidence for a dancing Thoreau, one who played ditties on his flute, got along well with children, and wrote with his tongue in cheek. In place of the wilderness saint (and hermit) image, Sullivan introduces a Thoreau just as interested in the peopled world as in the natural world, a distinction he didn’t buy into anyway.

“Today, adults force high school students to read him, though he critiques the life-in-a-rut grown-up and might prescribe a little teenagerness,” writes Sullivan. “He loved nature, but if we read him closely … we see him cutting down trees, polluting ponds, working with land developers and miners.”

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It’s not hard to see how the humor suffers over the years. Thoreau has a line about eating rice because he likes the philosophy of India. I misread it as deadpan until Sullivan pointed out the joke, uncovering a bit of Thoreau’s mischievous streak.

The simplest reason to reconsider Walden‘s relevance might be its economic context — Sullivan argues the book was written after a recession as bleak as our own. New England’s dominant agricultural industry was unsmoothly giving way to the early stages of a manufacturing economy. Thoreau no doubt had money on his mind at Walden. For much of his adult life he casted about, struggling to make it as a schoolteacher, poet, lecturer, or in the family pencil-making business (where he gladly embraced advances in pencil-tech; it was the uncritical embrace of technology he opposed).

To miss the recession context of Walden is like reading the Grapes of Wrath without considering the Great Depression, Sullivan says. The United States had reached middle age, its political parties grown bloated, and a variety of reformers were grasping about for various fixes. “America needed a kick in the pants and a lot of people knew it,” Sullivan writes, “though all those people had very different ideas of where and how to deliver the kick, resulting in no one effective boot.”

With that familiar situation in mind, I’d suggest three reasons Thoreau is still worth engaging.

The stunt

Key to Sullivan’s interpretation is the idea of the Walden years as a stunt, with a book deal always in mind. Think No Impact Man, Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, even Supersize Me. These are undertaken as journeys of self-discovery, sure, but also out of full knowledge that the hero is on camera, so to speak.

Same with Walden. Thoreau’s itemized list of costs for his hut — with second-hand materials, it totaled $28.12 and 1/2 cents — parodied the lists in house pattern books fashionable at the time. The hut’s lack of ornamentation rejected the way housekeepers had begun to stylize their homes. In his writing at the pond, Thoreau could describe his own strange life and the reasons he chose it. He knew readers would listen.

The cheap lesson for climate change activists is something about being media savvy. Perhaps there’s a bigger message: People look at how you live. Even a stunt shows some investment. That’s why David de Rothschild builds his plastic boat. There’s an undeniable power in preaching something by living like you believe it.


What first hooked me with Walden was the chapter on solitude and the author’s story of returning to the pond after a late dinner with friends to paddle alone and fish. At 17, this deliberate aloneness seemed like an appealing alternative to lame old loneliness. Withdrawing from a society that was “commonly too cheap” felt more noble than tripping around awkwardly inside it. But Thoreau wasn’t looking for zero company; he was looking for encounters that let him give and receive full attention: “We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another.”

Dealing with climate change — through legislation, international treaties, renewable energy projects, green entrepreneurship — is all about playing well with others. Thoreau-as-misanthrope isn’t much help. But the Thoreau who praised periods of contemplative solitude because they allowed him to present a more fully awake self when interacting with others — there’s something useful in that.

Civil Disobedience

I haven’t even mentioned “Civil Disobedience,” the essay in which Thoreau explains why he went to jail instead of paying taxes to fund the Mexican War, seen in its day as an effort to expand the reach of slavery. Here lies the strongest proof that Thoreau’s politics were about engaging, not escaping, society and government. “Let your life be counter friction to stop the machine,” Thoreau writes in the piece that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. found deeply influential in the following century.

He is not demanding no government but better government: “I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”

Civil disobedience still finds some expression in the climate change movement, in demonstrations against coal power and nowhere in the country more than in Appalachia. In their appeal to moral authority, these demonstrators are saying something considerably more difficult than “we all win with green jobs.” They’re saying, if we don’t do anything, some people won’t win. They’ll die.

I’m all for doing the easy stuff first. By all means, let’s take the nearly painless gains to be gotten through weatherizing and retrofitting jobs and saving easy money through energy efficiency. There’s money lying on the ground and we may as well pick it up. But once that’s done, there’s still Thoreau in his hut with his confounding instruction to “simplify” and his aphorisms:  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

He spoke in glaring moral terms, and that’s always a risk. It gets tiresome. It’s like the wrong kind of song stuck in your head — catchy and unrelenting both at once. Sullivan makes a good case that Thoreau wasn’t quite as irritating as he’s been made out to be. But he was still irritating. Still is. That’s why he’s hard to ignore.