Today, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Hery David Thoreau–pencil maker, nap taker, revolutionary, intellectual lover of long walks.
Henry David Thoreau was born into a family of pencil makers on this day in 1817. Though it was assumed he, too, would get involved in the family business, he found getting up early in the morning to get to work, and spending long hours engaged in a single activity (that he wasn’t terribly fond of to begin with) inexplicable, tedious, and….no pun intended, rather pointless. Things only got worse as the graphite dust from the pencils got in his lungs, causing long, no doubt frightening bouts of night-time coughing. He developed insomnia that persisted even when he gave up pencil-making, and tried private tutoring to earn a living.
Now, let’s, for just a moment, be honest here. Who hasn’t felt like the young Henry, staring out the window, fantasizing about giving it all up and just going for a walk in the sunshine because it was a nice day out? Or taking a nap because you were tired and unproductive otherwise?
We learn a lot about Thoreau’s revolutionary sensibilities–his refusal to pay his poll tax to a government that held a sixth of its population in slavery, because it made him, in a small way, complicit with the institution of slavery. In his own words:
I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.
We learn about his “hermit” lifestyle at Walden Pond, a house which he built with his own, two, pencil-making hands. The quote my high-school teacher always threw around was:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
But I don’t think either of these views actually tell us much about what a unique individual Thoreau was. Because he was far, far more human than any quick portrait of him portrays.
When he was living at Walden, Thoreau brought his laundry home to his mother. He had dinner with his friends in Concord, most especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, not only because he wasn’t really big on cooking, but because he enjoyed the company. He invited Louisa May Alcott and her sisters to Walden Pond, gave them lessons on nature, and told them fairy stories about the creatures that lived under the ferns around his house. He planted a garden for Nathaniel Hawthorne as a wedding present, not only because wedding presents were expensive, but because he wanted to give Hawthorne a place where he could think freely (check out a photo of Thoreau’s garden from this photo, courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations). And, according to Hawthorne, Thoreau had a really good sense of humor.
Just an aside, but seriously, the friendship between Hawthorne and Thoreau is one that really deserves far more attention. They were the most mis-matched buddies you could imagine, but they both genuinely appreciate each other, as you can see from this quote by Hawthorne on the first dinner that he and Thoreau shared.
But, to get back to my point, what I really think made Thoreau unique and, in his own way, revolutionary, was his ability and determination to keep asking WHY: Why he was getting up early and going to work if he hated it, and what benefit it was serving him, or the greater world to keep doing it. Why he was paying taxes to an institution that he hated. Why he wasn’t living the life he believed would make him thoroughly content. And why other people weren’t living their own life, either:
Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
He believed, above all, in honesty, and confronted the problems of his life with his eyes wide open. He recognized that nature, by itself, was beautiful and balanced, and that, if humans could just get out of their own way and recognize the lessons of nature, they probably would be better off. He recognized the beauty and the joy around him, without turning a blind eye to the terrible stuff. He wasn’t afraid to be unique–and to call out a society that tried to enforce conformity:
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things…As if there were safety in stupidity alone.
Now, it is very, very true that Thoreau was in a unique and privileged position. He had friends who were willing to support him , he didn’t have dependents who needed his labor or financial support. He was provided an education (at Harvard, no less). Ultimately, he had time, and used it to create the space he needed to live the life he wanted. Few of us today are in a position, financial, familial, or otherwise, to do what Thoreau did. But that doesn’t mean that his choices are impossible to emulate. For all the awful going on around us, there is still beauty around us, and, like Thoreau, we deserve to enjoy it, and the people who make us better and happy, as well.
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.