Search This Blog

Sunday, 16 July 2017

In Thoreau's footsteps: My journey to Walden for the bicentennial of the original de-clutterer

He retreated to a cabin by a pond and wrote Walden, the most influential guide to happy living ever. As his devotees (modestly) celebrate his bicentennial, Rafia Zakaria follows in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau: 

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau declares early in the pages of Walden. But these words, some of his most quoted, are only half true. In the summer of 1845, Thoreau – who would have turned a healthy 200 this week – had a lot more on his mind. The book he was writing was not Walden but the almost unknown A Week on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, an account of a river journey he took with his older brother, John. That brother was suddenly and newly dead of lockjaw, so a bereft Thoreau was left with only his memories in a little cabin, toiling at his even littler desk. He may have gone to the woods to live deliberately, but he also went to remember.

Love, loss and labour do not guarantee literary success. A Week on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers was published in 1849 and met the worst of literary fates: not ridicule, but indifference. It sold only a few hundred copies and the publisher returned the rest to Thoreau, who had self-financed the venture. It was not a good moment: “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself,” the author acidly notes in his journal in October 1853. But sitting among the dusty piles of unsold books, Thoreau began to compile a second. Walden was the work of a writer on the rebound – and this time it enjoyed modest success.

 A haven from consumer zeal … a replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond.

In the century and a half since it was published in 1854, Walden – and by its grace Thoreau – have become bright stars in the constellation of American classics. A young visionary, holed up in a cabin on land owned by a wealthy friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, details his dissatisfaction with the world around him and the encroaching Industrial Revolution. Against a world that gushed over competitive progress, Thoreau preaches a radical freedom as an antidote to “lives of quiet desperation” and crass consumer zeal. He exhorts men – women are almost entirely omitted – to give up everything that keeps them imprisoned in the “factitious cares and coarse labours of life”.

There are also small changes to be made: not adding salt to food, so one then needs less water; finding enjoyment in housework (which Thoreau finds “never ceases to be novel”). The writer rubbishes curtains and doormats as extravagances. He praises the self-restraint of vegetarianism, but admits to longing for small pleasures such as tea and coffee (“Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!”). To a modern reader, Walden reads like a combination of how-to-do minimalism and an inspirational poster. It is the ancestor of all the modern guides on how to live and eat and think purely – not by an author with a minder and a splashy book deal, but by a man hellbent on reminding everyone that “money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul”.

Of course, Thoreau wanted Walden to be a financial success, which sits oddly against the book’s line on living free of materialism and competition. It is this sort of quibble, over the diligence with which he followed his own prescriptions, that has preoccupied his critics ever since. Some, such as James Russell Lowell, writing in the Atlantic in 1862, found Thoreau “conceited, egotistical” and “a boor” who blabbed on about retreating from life but “never himself went far from home”. American novelist John Updike, writing in the Guardian on the 150th anniversary of Walden’s publication, noted that Thoreau’s retreat to the cabin was “financed by the surplus that an interwoven slave-driving economy generates”. Others, like Kathryn Schulz, writing in the New Yorker, elevate his dislike of things such as cranberry farming as proof of bad character, even questioning his staunch anti-slavery views as sprouting from a belief in his own superiority above the laws of the time.

As is often the case, the criticisms say more about their authors than the long-dead Thoreau. To some, Walden is symbolic of the cult of American individualism, living away from the meddling state and emphasising self-reliance and austerity to the point of poverty. It is true that Thoreau was privileged, but to discard Walden on that basis is unfair, particularly at the present moment in the United States. The resurrection of an author who preaches environmentalism and makes a case for choosing less may be just the thing for a country where millions voted for a president in a gold tower. The premise that living with less, buying less, wanting less, can be a sign of moral strength, is as radical and relevant an idea now as it was then.

He imagined solitude as an ideal – omitting to mention the regular laundry service provided by his mum
Still radical … Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s shadow still hangs over Concord, Massachusetts. While his original cabin at Walden Pond is gone, the room where he was born (in a building now called Thoreau Farm) exists, staid and stolid like the man himself. I spent some time there, meeting Joseph Wheeler, a descendant of the family that bought the farm from the Thoreaus and who was also born on the property, before it was opened to the public. In 1941, his mother co-founded the Thoreau Society, which now sits on the farm but has members in all 50 states (and 20 other countries to boot). At Walden, a week of celebrations is planned for Thoreau’s bicenntenial – and not only the predictable get-togethers about the man, but discussions about his significance to movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter, his role in Japan, his manic depression and one talk called “Business Lessons from Henry David Thoreau”.

 Luxury living … a modern-day hut featured in the photobook Cabin Porn.

There has been a revival of interest in Thoreauesque ideas. A recent opinion article in the New York Times called the man the “original declutterer”, connecting his mantras of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” to organising maven Marie Kondo’s prescriptions for culling belongings. Small and free is also the concept behind the wildly popular tiny house movement, whose precept of living in 300 sq ft or less challenges the McMansions that dominate US suburbs. And, of course, corporate America has already adopted his philosophy, with construction companies offering stressed hipsters and city dwellers “luxury” tiny homes complete with soaking tubs and high-end appliances – pictures of which are gathered into books by conglomerate publishers and deemed “cabin porn”.

Funnily, these primped-up cabins are not that far from Thoreau’s life back in 1845 – looks poor on the face of it, but not so much inside. With their folding tables for 10 and secret recesses for widescreen televisions, these cabins are made with the same imaginative flair Thoreau possessed, as he reimagined a bucolic suburban lot into wilderness, a two-mile walk from town as isolation, and solitude as an ideal, omitting the regular laundry service provided by his mother.

So Thoreau and his famous book are relevant to America now, but less as a lifestyle guide and more as an exploration of the approximate nature of truth. Even in Thoreau’s day, as he knew too well, it was quaint to believe that less was more, especially in a country that has always been better suited to those wanting the latter.

(Source: The Guardian)

No comments:

Post a Comment