The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond
IN JULY 1846, a couple of days after turning 29 years old, Henry David Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay poll tax, a well-established source of revenue for the government collected from every adult. By then, Thoreau, the great American writer, poet, philosopher, abolitionist and naturalist, was deeply influenced by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Two years back, he had read Emerson’s essay Politics with great interest, where Emerson had argued in favour of individualism and democratic government against intrusion of the state. “The less government we have, the better,” he had written. Thoreau spent one night in jail, even as, unknown to him, his mother and sisters collected the money and paid up to free him, a fact, which didn’t make him happy. This single act of civil disobedience, which Thoreau incorporated into an essay, inspired great leaders of the future like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Gandhi said he was influenced by Thoreau’s essay: “Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practise himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced.” Martin Luther King admitted that Thoreau’s essay was his “first contact with the theory of non-violent resistance….”
In The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond, a fascinating biography, Michael Sims puts the spotlight on the making of Thoreau, one of America’s most well-known—and quirky—literary icons, whose book Walden is revisited even now. We are given a glimpse of a rich, complex life. Thoreau was a colourful character. He had a bitter-sweet relationship with society and was known for his antipathy towards the church—“He had a provocative habit of walking in the woods on Sunday morning, cheerfully enjoying God’s creation, instead of hearing His word.” The book is a great ride through America’s cultural and political history of the 1830s, not least the raging debate on the abolition of slavery and the struggle of families to rise above poverty.
We also get a ringside view of Thoreau’s interaction with the literary luminaries of his time, from Emerson to Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom he went skating and boating. Thoreau loved children and would often play with the four beautiful daughters of his friends Bronson and Abigail Alcott. Louisa May Alcott, writes Sims, the “bookish, dark-haired one” was 13 years old and especially fond of Thoreau.
Thoreau and his brother John keenly followed native Indian history. “To the Thoreau brothers, the Indians personified a need for wildness, and in their imaginations they still hunted the riverside at dusk.” In his journals—he was prodded to keep one by Emerson—he recorded his “ecstatic response to nature”. In one, he scrawled: “We have always a resource in the skies.” Thoreau’s relationship with nature was meditative. He wrote about his happiness at paddling a gentle stream; he described in great detail the life of wood ducks; he wrote about his experience of crossing an icy river (Concord, called Musketaquid by the Indians, a name the brothers would use for their boat); he knew the name of every flower that bloomed and could tell the seasons without looking around him.
When his family—his father manufactured pencils—moved to the village of Concord from Boston in 1822, Thoreau was five years old. Sims tells us that one of Thoreau’s earliest memories was a vision of a beautiful lake that his family took him to visit. “Called Walden Pond, it was about half a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, surrounded by hills clothed in thick woods, pine sprinkled with oak and maple.” Thoreau, who was sensitive to noise, loved the pond’s quiet. In his late 20s, he would famously build a cabin on land owned by Emerson, live there for two years and write his famous tome, an ode to nature.
After two years, two months and two days at the Walden cabin, Thoreau walked away. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” he declared in Walden. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” As it turned out, Thoreau died of tuberculosis when he was only 44 years old. But before that, he had filled 47 volumes of journals with two million words, mostly on “the natural phenomena of everyday life”. For example, writes Sims, he created a huge calendar of annual natural events, “recording the first blossoming of wildflowers and the return of migratory birds, the emergence of woodchucks and the duration of snowstorms. Today, scientists are using his detailed journal records to analyse climate change during the 19th century.”
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer