To many of you, broadly and deeply acquainted with such anomalies, it will not be a surprise to learn that Henry David Thoreau, he of the Walden Pond hermitage, was not only a naturalist but a peculiarly anarchical exponent of civil disobedience, in the traditions of Gandhi, King, the Tea Party, and the Occupy folks, but really in a tradition all his own. To most of the rest of us, Thoreau shares a naturalist’s kinship with Henry Beston, John Muir, Mary Austin, Verlyn Klinkenborg, or maybe Audubon or even Teddy Roosevelt.
It’s not that the one devotion contests or supersedes the other, what is interesting is the way the two were united in the man, along with his fervent embrace of abolition and transcendentalism. “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” was published in 1854, eight years before Thoreau’s death, and about 10 years after his solitary two years at the pond. It is his story of living alone and intimately engaged with unmolested nature as it surrounded him. Although he might have been remembered as a pencil maker, a transcendentalist, or a philosopher, that book marked the man.
And to be marked that way can be a problem, not only for historical figures with trailblazing legacies, but for any of us. Don’t pigeonhole me, we say.
In 2004, John Updike, who avoided the novelist’s pigeonhole that had his name on it by writing penetrating and surpassingly graceful essays about books, art, artists, politics, golf, and everything else, and composing poetry besides, considered Thoreau and his masterwork sympathetically, in his oblique way.
“A century and a half after its publication,” Updike wrote, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Thoreau, a sometimes Dukes County neighbor of ours, introduced to Naushon Island by his patron, mentor, landlord, and transcendentalism priest, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was inspired to civil disobedience by a tax collector who knocked on the door of his shack at Walden Pond. The collector, just doing his duty, wanted Thoreau to pay his delinquent poll tax.
The intrusion and the demand got Thoreau’s back up.
“But in this case the state has provided no way [to redress the wrong against him]; its very Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and stubborn and unconciliatory; but it is to treat with the utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better, like birth and death, which convulse the body? I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.”
He saw no sense in petitioning the government to see things his way and leave him alone. Unjust laws, Thoreau thought, survived patient lobbying far too long. Better to “transgress them at once,” but civilly.
What’s revealing of Thoreau’s thinking, in astonishing contrast to the modern impulse toward mass civil disobedience, typically framed as a charge to change the world, or to save the planet, and to do it collectively with Facebook and Twitter, is that his motive and objectives were unique to him.
“As for adopting the ways which the state has provided for remedying the evil … they take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone,” Thoreau wrote. “I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.”
Gandhi wrote that this essay of Thoreau’s, The Duty of Civil Disobedience, was his bedside book.
“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,” Thoreau wrote. He, by contrast, looked for space to do not everything but something, and to live his life.