Thinking of Henry David Thoreau, Walden, and an American Daoism

Thinking of Henry David Thoreau, Walden, and an American Daoism August 9, 2019

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A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” John Updike in “A Sage for All Seasons”

It was on this day, the 9th of August, 1854, that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:, or, Life in the Woods was published. The book recounted his experiment in radical simplicity. Probably today more often celebrated than read, it is a masterwork recounting of an American spiritual quest.

Sometime in March of 1845, his friend the poet Ellery Channing had famously advised him, “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Few have given anyone better advice. In the rarest of confluences, Thoreau saw the wisdom in his friend’s suggestion, and acted on it, building himself that hut.

There are some who make light of the fact during his sojourn he was never far from home and frequently had dinner at his Mother’s. And we can’t ignore how he was by no means a perfectly realized being, shortcomings and prejudices are revealed in many of those pages. Still, still there is in this book that those two years, two months and two days generated that is something compelling and powerful.

An American Daoism, if you will. That the author is imperfect, well, that’s how it is when human beings are present. We are called to read closely with head and heart both fully engaged.

(I have to add into any moment reflecting on Thoreau and Walden, the pamphlet that he wrote during that time on the pond. In some ways I feel it perfectly fits as an addendum to the book.)

It is sad the book seems a bit more honored than read these days. I believe most all of us could profit from giving it a read. Perhaps even a re-read.

Not that I’m immune to the idea of honoring. During my time living in New England, no year went by without my making a small personal pilgrimage to Walden’s pond, circumambulating it and stopping to add a small pebble to the cairn near the site where his shack stood.

I remain grateful.

Endless bows…


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