BOOK (1854)

Rewind book: Ticknor and Fields, by Henry David Thoreau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 10:04am


by Henry David Thoreau

Ticknor and Fields

Walden, one of the most famous memoirs in American literature, was written by survivalist schoolteacher Henry David Thoreau on the back of an extreme lifestyle experiment.

In 1845, Thoreau moved into a one-room shack he built by a pond near Concord, Massachusetts. His mission: to escape urban stress and find meaning through simple living.

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms," he wrote in Walden (subtitled Or Life in the Woods).

At the shack, set in woodland owned by his mentor, poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau lived a brutally bare-bones existence anchored in fierce self-reliance for two years. He ate woodchuck raw, cultivated a massive bean field, and gauged the depth of mythically bottomless Walden Pond, apparently capable of any task. "I have as many trades as fingers," he wrote.

Thoreau's diary, filed under "transcendentalism" - the Emerson-led spiritual movement - was at first just a modest success, but it came to be seen as a masterpiece.

Now, his fans make pilgrimages to a replica of his home in Massachusetts. Thoreau died from tuberculosis in 1862 aged 44.

In March, the Boston Globe reported that, largely thanks to Thoreau's documentation, Concord offers more insight into climate change than anywhere else in the US.

The pioneering environmentalist believed Americans treated wants as needs. He was also an opponent of slavery and a conscientious tax dodger who opposed the war then being fought against Mexico in an original act of civil disobedience. An impressively progressive pedigree.

That said, some readers may be bothered by his learned allusions and page-long sentences that reflect his almost obsessive-compulsive concern for detail. As he builds his house and buys and grows food, the Concord control freak, who would take seven drafts to finish Walden, logs his outlay and earnings in detail.

Still, Walden exerts a lasting charm anchored in the Harvard graduate's wisdom. His memoir is awash with memorable quotes, such as this gem that deftly conveys his love of simple solitude: "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." Hypnotic.