Why Read Walden?
Forget about hero-toppling lit crit — discover its truths for yourself
Why should anyone still read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a classic that seems to belong to grade-school reading lists, and whose author is sometimes targeted by hero-toppling literary critics?
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 God. The Transcendentalists embraced mystical ideas from the East to which they gave a practical and can-do tone, familiarizing Americans with concepts of meditation, karma, and nonattachment. Thoreau and Emerson 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 the human mind, and how to apply them in the here and now.
Thanks in part to Thoreau, the idea of the 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 movements, and other nontraditional forms of spiritual search, we are encouraged to seek our own conception of a Higher Power. 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 house of God, the seat of the ineffable, exists all around us. A spark of divinity, many believe, exists within. Such concepts were foreign, if not heretical, in the hierarchical Christendom of Europe’s past.
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 Concord, Massachusetts, and walk to Walden Pond where Thoreau built his tiny cabin. 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, as well. One can stand in this space and feel that this is a place in which one individual lived, determined to learn what it means to be a real human being, to look inside life and discover what really penetrates the human psyche. It is an invisible monument to the quest to know oneself. It is America’s sphinx. And that was Transcendentalism.
Read Walden not because it is old and venerated — but because it summons us to all that is new within ourselves. To ask, to seek, and to experiment — these are the most radical acts a person can undertake today. These are the tools of Thoreau.
A PEN Award-winning historian, Mitch Horowitz is the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. He is vice-president and executive editor at TarcherPerigee, where he recently reissued The Illustrated Walden.
Originally published at www.signature-reads.com on December 30, 2016.