I grew up outside of Boston, a stone’s throw from Walden Pond. Every summer I prowled through its woods and floated in its shadowy waters; I even dated one of its rangers. Perhaps because of this, I considered Henry David Thoreau to be a neighbor and a mentor, and his Walden to be a sort of local pamphlet, not unlike a collection of blueberry recipes you might find in a Maine library. It wasn’t until I left home that I grasped the full impact of his screed. Thoreau didn’t just immortalize my neighborhood; he offered an anti-establishment, back-to-nature alternative to the Manifest Destiny mishegoss that has run rampant in this country since its inception.
Of course, my younger perception of Thoreau was also accurate. Though he abandoned a career in pedagogy soon after leaving Harvard, Walden can be read not only as a meditation but as the sort of educational pamphlet that used to fuel social movements; it goes so far as to dictate how many chairs we should own and what beverages we should consume. (Answer: Nothing but water, son.) Dying in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, at age forty-four – he would have celebrated his two-hundredth birthday this month – he remained a local boy for most of his life. Certainly his “hermit saint” persona – an “ignore thy neighbor” isolationism coupled with a passion for social justice (he was a fierce abolitionist and tax resister) – was completely and totally New England. Continue Reading →