Walden revisited

A second Thoreau book features Island author, professor, and thinker Robert Ganz.


It’s a crazy publishing situation, as most publishing situations tend to be these days, and all writers can relate to this: We’re only a phone call (or email or text or strip-o-gram) away from our next screwy assignment. The situation on the ground started with me, if you’ll excuse a moment of preening here: A wonderful editor of mine from an online newspaper called M.V. Patch — and at the time there were Patches all over the country — Margaret Carrol-Bergman, decamped for the directorship of Thoreau Farm in, where else, Concord. And I, being a dyed-in-the-wool Thoreauvian, having adored “Walden” and read it many times since high school onward, I let her know she held the tiptop job in the country.

So when Margaret and her board of directors at the farm decided to publish a book for all the millions of other Thoreauvians out there, titled “What Would Henry Do? Essays for the 21st Century,” she asked me to contribute a chapter. 

When I took a look at the completed book, released in the fall of 2019, I blushed to see all the biologists, botanists, ornithologists, and scholars weighing in, not to mention a particular well-regarded former president, Jimmy Carter. And what did I contribute? Well, as is my specialty, a few yuks, including an anecdote of how, if Henry David had been incarnated, as was I, in the 1950s, in a subdivision in the Valley, he would at a young age have noticed that there were only three or four identical layouts to each cramped house. The moment he beheld this, he escaped onto a front lawn, crumpled down, and cried.

Well, the book is still in print, and did well enough to yield a sequel: “What Would Henry Do? Essays for the 21st Century, Volume II,” newly released wherever important books are sold. But wait, back up a few clicks, as I tell you about a pandemic day in the spring of 2021 when I visited my close pal Claire Ganz at her 300 wilderness acres off North Road in Chilmark. I met her father, Robert — and I had leave to call him Bob — Ganz, in his mid-90s and a former professor at George Washington University, and in our first time chatting, we sat outside the parents’ house on the property, each of us masked up, our upper faces exposed to the sun of a new season, and we talked about Virginia Woolf, Wordsworth, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, about whom Bob was jotting some essays, possibly en route to a full biography. Later I mentioned this in an email to Margaret, and, of course, any talk about Waldo led to chitchat about his dear old buddy Henry. My beloved editor said, “Ask him if he’ll chip in a chapter for our new ‘What Would Henry Do?’”

I did, and he said yes, and now I’ve just put down the highly entertaining No. 2. In fact, nothing against the brilliant first WWHD, where we learned a whole bunch of fun and exciting facts about the natural world, but this second excursion struck me as more fun. You can pick it up and read it front to back without finding yourself cruising the table of contents for the most entertaining material. It’s all entertaining, and you can peruse it in one fun whack.

Now Bob’s chapter was a total trip, if you’ll allow me some old hippy jargon. Titled “Thoreau in Search of Ever-Wakeful Readers,” our professor of North Road starts us off with a couple of quotes from another one of his favorites in whose honor he’s attributed much ink, to whit, Robert Frost:

“’Tis pity if the case require …

We speak the literal to inspire

The understanding of a friend.”

Bob says, “Being fully awake means being fully imaginative. I continue to have trouble convincing readers that ‘Walden’ really is a landscape of the mind. The bias of materialistic realism is and always has been strong in America. 

“Perhaps I should study to be more insistent in my writing. As Blake said, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ Thoreau says, at the beginning of his conclusion, he is enamored of verbal extravagance: wandering vigorously outside the limits of discursive prose.”

As ever, from that first open-air conversation with Bob on his wild Chilmark acres, I find in his essay on Thoreau that every line is a mystical lure, even with our former Harvard professor’s emphasis on reason and the ‘landscape of the mind.’

And, as I indicated, each chapter in Volume II is as rich in entertainment value as it is in philosophical insight. And here’s the best news of all: Thoreau Farm got our global heroine, Jane Goodall, of the Tanzanian chimp world, to reflect on modern times with her essay, “How to Save Our Glorious Living Tapestry.” In answer to the book’s abiding question about what Henry would do today, she posits, “He would certainly be shocked, saddened, and angry.” And she also believes he’d make lively use of new technology to reach out to people in other countries, reminding us that much as he apparently loved travel, he never ventured farther than Canada. She opines, “He would share his love of the natural world in stories for the children he taught, and perhaps see the value of spreading his love wider through social media.”

The farm also culled an essay from Sen. Edward J. Markey, who writes, “In Thoreau’s work I see an abiding patriotism — a love for the United States that expressed itself in the belief it could always be made better, that together it was our responsibility to push our nation toward justice.” 

And get this: There even exists today a descendant, Mark Thoreau of the U.K., who joined the Thoreau Society at the age of 15, and who has made numerous trips to Concord, as well as the Channel Island of Jersey, where the Thoreau family originated. 

Who knew? Read this book to find your mind blown repeatedly. And that’s what all of us book-loving Thoreauvians live for, is it not?

“What Would Henry Do? Essays for the 21st Century, Volume II” is available at Edgartown Books.