Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Review - Walden or Life In The Woods

There is a sub-genre of autobiographical non-fiction that can be referred to as ‘quest fiction’ wherein a person pledges to undertake a unique adventure, live in a different way, or follow a simple idea to absurd conclusions. Dave Gorman, Danny Wallace, and Morgan Spurlock have built their careers on ‘quests’. Such experiments are entertaining in the short term but over in the long term tend to be disappointing for one reason: everyone breaks the rules.

Walden can be considered an early quest book. In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau pledged to spend two years in a secluded cabin by Walden Pond. The book presents an exercise in isolation, non-conformity, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Thoreau built his own cabin, grew his own crops, hunted his own food, and lived a life that left leisure time for his scholarly pursuits.

The idea of ‘returning to nature’ holds a fascination for people trapped by modern society: the countryside is being invaded by urban townies who want a nice view from their bedroom window and through their willingness to throw money around have driven up property prices in the countryside by an insane degree forcing people who actually work in rural environments to suffer poverty. Not long ago I wrote a post - inspired by the tranquillity of a rural setting - about slowing down our busy lives. Thoreau expresses this point wonderfully:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. 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, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Though the book works as a treatise on nature and the joys of an eccentric life, it fails on one of its central themes. Thoreau presents himself as fully self-sufficient: he discovered his own patch of land and used good old-fashioned hard work to dig his own cellar and erect his own house. The dream of self-sufficiency is of major appeal to the reader who is left wondering why we can’t all build our own houses and live like Richard Briers in The Good Life. The book is appealing because we imagine that we could do what Thoreau did: escape modern society and live for ourselves.

But a quick glance at the most cursory of sources reveals that Thoreau was not the self-sustained rebel he appears as. Thoreau gives the impression that he broke society’s rules to squat on a piece of a land and live out the rural idyll. In fact, the land that Thoreau built on was owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow American Transcendentalist. The reader wants to believe that self-sufficiency is possible for anyone and so on learning about the real background of the experiment, the book becomes less relatable: we don’t have rich friends who allow us to conduct social experiments on their land, we don’t have a Harvard education and disposable income, we haven’t been taught the intricacies of farming and hunting. Thoreau breaks his self-imposed rules and the reader feels cheated. Richard Zacks wrote: Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle.

Thus the book loses its power and its appeal. It’s an interesting read with some inspirational insights applicable even a hundred and fifty years later but its simplicity and homeliness comes at a cost of naivety. It stretches credulity to believe that the whole experiment was one long success: Thoreau never complains of a bad day, the cold, the hunger, or any failure on his part. The penultimate chapter, Spring, reaches a zenith of sickly sweet optimism and I pictured Thoreau singing 'Zip-a-dee-doo-dah' while waltzing through a Bambi-esque forest. Walden comes across as unreal and while it is entertaining and profound in the short term, it is disappointing in the long term because Thoreau broke his own rules.

Walden is available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg or can be read on Wikisource.

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