Walden is in the air again. As Americans face the prospect of indefinite solitude in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some are turning to the man who ran toward not away from solitary existence.
Last year, before the term COVID-19 entered the vernacular, I wrote a new introduction to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden while sitting under the gaze of the Great Sphinx at Giza. I had an unexpected sensation: as incredible a monument as the Sphinx is, and as deeply affected as I was by its antiquity and mystery, I realized that I had a more emotional response about twenty years earlier when I visited the grassy clearing where Thoreau built his one-room cabin in 1845 near the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
I’ll never forget my first visit to Walden. It was a snowy day near Christmas and I arrived at the spot to find that the only original remains were of Thoreau’s hearthstone. I knelt in the snow and cleared away the mounting flurries from the stone. I kissed it — and began to cry. I was so deeply struck that this was the place to which one man came to experience life in its fullness. I later wrote that what was there was a kind of Sphinx of air. When writing that I forgot that Thoreau himself had written: “ If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost.”
A woman who had been walking in the woods nearby later approached me and said that she saw me kneeling in the snow — was anything wrong? No, I smiled, I had just dropped my car keys. How can you explain an emotional reaction at such a moment? It doesn’t belong to small talk.
In the years since, a few literary critics have questioned Thoreau’s sincerity and have accused him of pursuing hype by living two years on the shores of the Concord town pond in what they considered a make-believe hermitage. I consider that kind of hero-toppling overblown and, at times, shallow. You can still find in Thoreau’s book observations that could not arise from any but the person who yearns to peer into life at its core.
Here is one of them: “The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself.”
Here’s another, perhaps over-quoted, but enduring: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
For all of Thoreau’s personal enterprise, why should anyone still read his memoir, which he published in 1854, a classic that can seem overly familiar or even a remnant of grade-school assignments?
Because Walden created a culture of rebellion and independent thought that reflects the best of American life, especially at the current moment when coarseness, unlearned opinion, and groupthink threaten to overrun us.
The philosophy called Transcendentalism, as shaped by Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and their collaborators, reflected America’s sharpest break with the religious dogma and intellectual conformities of the Old World. Transcendentalism embraced inner experiment, personal experience, and the individual search for meaning.
The New England Transcendentalists rejected the idea of rewards in the afterlife as the aim of religious practice. Instead, they believed in living out your highest potential in the present, deriving power and purpose from a palpably felt relationship to greater forces. The Transcendentalists also embraced mystical ideas from the East to which they gave a practical and can-do tone, familiarizing Americans with concepts of meditation, karma, and non-attachment. Thoreau and Emerson further drew upon esoteric ideas from Hermeticism — the Greek-Egyptian philosophy that flourished in the decades following Christ — to suggest the creative and causative powers of thought, and how to apply them in the here and now.
Thanks in part to Thoreau, the idea of an individual spiritual search now seems like a national birthright. In polls, most Americans agree that spiritual truth can be found outside of allegiance to any one faith or tradition. “Unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing category of religious identity. In recovery groups, twelve-step programs, and other nontraditional forms of spiritual search, we are encouraged to seek our own conception of a Higher Power. (I use the term Greater Force.)
Even those Americans who affiliate with the traditional faiths are taught to believe that their own paths to the divine are many — that the gates of prayer and forgiveness are always open; that the seat of the ineffable exists all around you. A spark of divinity, many believe, exists within. Such concepts were foreign, if not heretical, in the hierarchical religiosity of the Old World.
Consider, for example, the physical structure of the fourteenth-century Pope’s Palace in Avignon, France. In the enormous church that dominates the palace’s ground floor, the front pews were, naturally, reserved for aristocracy. A few rows back, space was reserved for those who served the powerful, such as merchants and teachers. And the remainder of the enormous cathedral was designated for everybody else. Here was a structure built in the name of a man who taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” resembling nothing so much as an emperor’s court.
Thoreau and Transcendentalism upended that. Today one can visit Walden Pond and walk to the spot where Thoreau built his tiny house. As I mentioned, nothing remains of the physical structure aside from the hearthstone. There is just open air where the cabin stood. But that empty space is, in a sense, Transcendentalism’s greatest monument, and perhaps America’s. One can stand in this space and feel that this is the place where one individual lived, determined to see what it means to be a real human being, to look inside life and discover what really penetrates the psyche. It is an invisible monument to the quest to know yourself. It is America’s sphinx. And that is Transcendentalism.
Read Walden not because it is old and venerated — that is the last thing Thoreau would want. Read it because it summons you to all that is new within yourself. To ask, to seek, and to experiment — these are the most radical acts a person can take. Those are Thoreau’s tools.
This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to Walden: The Landmark of Simple Living — Now in a Special Abridgment (Condensed Classics)