Henry David Thoreau: A Wild and Disobedient Life



I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is sounding more than ever like one of us, a prophet of our excesses and distresses, a man of 2017. Still saying: Simplify, Simplify. Unclutter your life and your head. Toss the iPhone, probably. Above all: Wake up! “Crave only reality,” he’s saying, the universal truth inside you; see the evidence in front of your eyes. He’s still demanding, uncompromising, but he lifts our spirits anyway. He’s funny as well as flinty: inside the prose genius, out in his semi-solitude at Walden Pond, there’s a performance artist, and his eye is on the future not the past. We keep wondering: is there time left, to rescue our US empire of over-consumption? And even now the stumpy, strong Concord woodsman who sanctified wildness responds: There is always more day to dawn on America. Or as in the last line of his testament Walden: “The sun is but a morning star.”

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.

This hour will be the first of three, reacquainting us this summer with the first saint of Transcendentalism and the Concord circle around the great sage Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1830s and ’40s. Henry Thoreau was the local boy, handy-man, baby-sitter, gardener, astonishingly learned in classics of many languages, an emergent genius among literary lions named Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, lionesses Alcott and Fuller as well. We’ll meet Thoreau indoors and out, on his Concord River and Walden Pond, at his writing desk in the cabin he built for 28 dollars, twelve and a half cents, in 1845. We’re pursuing, among other things, the clue that the prophet in Thoreau at Walden was bent on writing a new scripture for his country — a nation just 70 years young but dangerously compromised by slavery, industrialism, and the contradictions of freedom in a democracy. We begin with Thoreau’s bicentennial biographer Laura Dassow Walls visiting this week from the University of Notre Dame. There is news and insight in her book that’s drawing high praise already. I wanted to know what had drawn Laura Walls to Thoreau 40 years ago:


Laura Walls

Laura Dassow Walls: What brought him alive for me was that he spoke to me out of the past to a moment during the Vietnam War and that whole era when I was a teenager and suddenly this voice from the past was saying you can live in the now and find your own path in the now. And I was a teenager, learning girl culture of you know about 1970 and conformity and trying to figure out how to get along and worried about future and what college to go to what kind of job I could have. What kind of a job could a woman have. And they were limited. So for instance secretarial work was still something we were encouraged to think about. We took home ec classes and thought of ourselves as homemakers. And here was this voice who said maybe you could go to the woods. Maybe you could confront life. Maybe you could figure out what it is to be alive

Christopher Lydon: This was the ’60s, Thoreau. The saint of hippiedom in a certain way, but individualism and it was important. You’ve added so many layers to this story though. For me the big impression of your book is he’s a modern. He’s one of us! Starting with the fact that he’s not out of the forest primeval. He’s out of an already industrialising Concord, Massachusetts. There’s a wonderful line early on in your book where you say, “His kind of people were cooking on stoves heated with coal, built with Maine white pine. They cut their wood lots to fuel the railroads. They planted them in English hay to feed new breeds of cattle. They filled their pantries with China tea, slave grown sugar, prairie wheat flour, tropical oranges, and pineapples. They wore Georgia cotton, China silks, Canada furs, British woolens.” They’re us. But also he’s worried about so many things that recur in our lives and certainly embarrassment about what we’ve done with American independence, dissatisfaction with our work. Hunger for a more imaginative, convicted spiritual life. Where do you start?

LW: So let’s go back to where he was physically. So he’s in a shire town. It’s a commercial center. It’s where the roads converge. It’s an industrial center, or had been until recently. When he grew up there was a lot of what we would call now artisanal industries, but it was a center of production.

CL: Tanning, right?

LW: Tanning, for instance. Clockmakers, carriage makers, shoes. His own family made pencils and notebooks and marbled paper. And that’s the business that he was apprenticed to and innovated in. So he’s in that kind of a town that is itself a market center and busy and bustling and ramshackle and just vibrant with life.

And then he feels a sense of the conventionality of that kind of environment. He felt himself to be part of a generation, not just a lone individual but his classmates going out and saying here is this modern world. He graduated into the panic of 1837 when nobody could get jobs. I think that resonates today because there were no jobs. Factories were closing, it was an economic depression. And that sense that if you aspire to live a meaningful life what are the paths open to you in this new America.

So there he is thinking, “I grew up in this town.” He’s watching his own hometown transform before his eyes. He’s watching himself and a cohort around him saying, “How do I find meaningful work. What do I do with my life in this new society that we’re making?” He reaches a crisis point around 1844, where he’s tried to find a path and he’s tried one way after another.

CL: He’s taught some school, he’s written some poems.

LW: He taught some school. He did manual labor. He kept on doing that. He had aspirations to be a writer. So after apprenticing himself to Emerson and doing editorial work and getting some things published, Emerson thought he was ready to try for the real thing, so he sent him to New York to market his wares. So, literally, Thoreau is wearing out shoe leather tripping up and down the sidewalks of Manhattan knocking on doors trying to sell his wares. And publisher after publisher is saying, first of all, we don’t know who you are, we only publish known authors.

That six months in New York was really pivotal for him because that notion that you could take your writing aspirations and skills with you wherever you go. Thoreau learned that he could not. What fed his creative springs was in Concord, the whole situation of Concord. So going back to that town that was transforming, this radically changing modernity that was sweeping through his childhood home, going back there and saying I want to figure this out partly because it’s my dilemma, my crisis of vocation, but it’s also a kind of global crisis. The world is turning a corner here. This isn’t just about me. He spent all this time looking at Manhattan and saying, “Oh my god. What is happening here?” The immigrants coming in, the streets, the buildings, the street cars. The idea that you had to have money to get anywhere do anything.

And so he goes back to Concord and starts making plans which Emerson facilitates by buying the land on Walden Pond and telling Thoreau, “OK you can build here on this land” and Thoreau’s been thinking about this for a very long time and this is the opening shot I will hit the reset button. I will get to where I can simplify life to its essentials and figure this out. Deep spiritual quest, but prompted by a sense of crisis when he wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. He’d been there. He was thinking of his own friends. But that’s the impulse he went to Walden to try to nail down. Do we have to be desperate?


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.


CL: Laura on the Fourth of July, 1845, he goes to Walden. We look at this as a kind of scriptural statement for his generation about this country. It’s a kind of reset button of the revolution. Reform. We know lots of things aren’t working out and that slavery is a disgrace. Read it as a very large and epic philosophical statement.

LW: I think one can. It’s a statement about freedom, liberation. What could be more central to this nation and what could be more central to somebody growing up in Concord which still to this day thinks of itself as the cradle of liberty. So to live deliberately is to be in those moments of choice when the choices are hard. So his concern is that we’re not conscious. We don’t know that we have choices. We don’t know that we have the freedom to make choices. We don’t read the world accurately enough to know

CL: We are not awake.

LW: We’re not awake. We are sleepers We do not ride upon the railroad, it rides upon us.

CL: You said quoting Emerson, I guess. Read the eternities. And a transcendental bell goes off in my head. Transcendentalism is about time it’s about spirit it’s about a divine principle dwelling in every human person. Emerson would have said. He’s at an amazing peak of global thinking, even then. Global, not just knowing other religions, but realizing that it’s all one.

He turns over a rock in his beanfield and a salamander runs out and he says, “that’s Egypt, that’s the Nile.” You know, he’s everywhere.

LW: Yeah he says when he’s reading these Hindu scriptures he says, “New England will be my India.” That sense that we here in New England are in India. India somehow is here.


Today he would have said “China is here,” but we get the idea. That was Laura Walls and a taste of her new Thoreau biography.

Coming up: Lewis Hyde spells out just how a modern spiritualist, like Thoreau, finds his way into the voice of a prophet. This is Open Source.


Illustration by Andrea Ventura

We’re sampling Henry David Thoreau in his bicentennial birthday season, and his masterpiece Walden. The actor Ben Evett is our Thoreau voice:

Love your life, poor as it is. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.

Lewis Hyde, polymath and writer, is a thoroughly modern transcendentalist, author of a treasured book-length essay, titled The Gift, about the making of art in a commercial society. In conversation this week I asked Lewis Hyde to speak of form and language, the almost King-James-Version Biblical rhythms in the Walden sentences that Ben Evett was just reading, and whatever they tell the world about the scope of the project that Thoreau had set for himself.


Lewis Hyde: So the first chapter of Walden is about economy and Thoreau’s project is to try to list the things that are necessary in your life and, therefore, to think of the things that are not necessary. And I always thought that the question of necessity connects to the question of freedom because what is absolutely necessary constrains you. You are not free to live if it’s 50 degrees below zero. You’re not free to go without food. You’re not free to wear no clothing. So to think about your necessities is therefore also to think about your freedoms.

So the equation here is that every time you can reduce your necessities you increase your freedom. And so I think it’s worth, in any life, to pause and think which of the things you feel you have to do you really have to do because to the degree that you can discard some of them you increase the range of your own freedoms.

So July 4th 1845. Yes it’s a new founding, though he says it’s by accident that he happened to do it on that day. But it’s an accident he happens to write about so it can’t be that accidental.

You know behind the work is a question about freedom, and of course in his day it also meant the question around freedom and chattel slavery. Slavery in Thoreau is not simply about slavery as actually practiced. It’s about trying to think about the ways in which each of us is enslaved by the institutions that we’ve inherited and the assumptions we’ve inherited about how to live.

CL: He says at the outset no hiding behind a mask here. I’m speaking in a first person singular in my voice. It starts with I.

LH: So it’s a curious kind of “I” though. Yes. He says I’m going to talk a lot about myself because I don’t know about other people as well as I know about myself, but you’ll see that in fact it’s an edited “I”. it’s a particular kind of “I.” You know, Thoreau had his own disappointments and traumas, and many of them are just not in the work because that’s not the kind of self he’s describing. I mean, for example: Thoreau had a brother with whom he was very close and the brother died of tetanus. And it was incredibly upsetting to Thoreau. He had a kind of hysterical psychosomatic reproduction of his brother’s tetanus symptoms after the brother died. This is never mentioned in any of his works.

You know today if you read the best-seller list of the New York Times, it’s all books about how my brother died of tetanus or I died of my own self-inflicted wounds. So, we currently have a kind of fascination with personal trauma and the ways in which people have overcome them, but in Thoreau that’s not of interest. What’s of interest to some kind of vision of a better life.

I mean my own take on the kind of voice that you find in Thoreau is that it’s prophetic. Not in the sense that a prophet tells you what’s going to happen in the future that you should buy stock today because it’s going to go up tomorrow, but rather that the prophet is the person who tries to speak about things which are going to be true tomorrow because they’re always true. So it’s an idealist voice. It’s a prophecy that tries to speak of eternal truths, and in this line the “I”, the first person that speaks, is a kind of what could be called an extended first person. If the writing works I think you are supposed to identify with this “I” so it becomes a kind of we if you join him in his project then the “I” includes you.

That’s one mark of the sort of American Protestant prophetic voice is an individualist speaking about ideals in a way that draws you in so that you share those ideals.

CL: In which of those famous sentences, Lewis, can you say he’s putting on the mantle of the Prophet right there, the voice of the Prophet?

LH: You know one thing that the prophetic voice does is to take us out of normal time and space. So one of Thoreau’s famous essays is called “Walking,” and at the end of the “Walking” essay, he and a friend have gone out for a long stroll and at the end he says as we were coming home the sun was setting over the pastures and it was a beautiful November day: “But when I thought that it was a November day, like all November days that forever there would be November days like this it was even more remarkable.” So, what he’s done is to take one November day and show you that it’s in fact an eternally recurring thing. So he’s taken you out of normal time. You could say as opposed to, for example, some November day in 1854 when some political event happens. That’s time bound, but time and Thoreau is expansive.

And the same is true of space. Another feature of this prophetic voice is that it’s spoken from on high. Now, sadly there are no high mountains in Concord, but Thoreau does manage to get himself up onto a hill at one point in that same essay and he says when I look down on the town everything seems quite trivial. It’s an elevated voice, which doesn’t mean that it’s above the structures of the world. He says there’s a subtle magnetism in nature which if you’re patient you could feel, and that subtle magnetism is the thing he’s after. It’s going to be a force that tells you how to live, and that calls into question therefore the way you are currently living or the way your neighbors are currently living.

CL: Lewis Hyde, your friend and mine, the philosopher Stanley Cavell says it’s not just prophecy or prophetic voice. He’s writing a scripture for this country. Just what does he mean?

LH: I mean if you begin with the assumption that Walden is a kind of bible for America, then again it’s raising questions about how to live as an American in a democracy and offering some models of how to live as an American in a democracy.

Maybe another way in which the book has a scriptural feel is this business of the layers of meaning. So, at one point in Walden he reminds us that the poet Kabir used to say that his poems had four different kinds of meaning, and this is the same way that in the Middle Ages people talked about the Bible, that the Bible would have a literal meaning and a moral meaning and a pedagogical and so forth. So, you could take any one sentence or any one story and read it in this layered way, and that’s partly how scripture works. And one of the things that’s maddening actually about Walden is that it is both a literal story–he really did go to the pond, he really did grow a beanfield–but it’s also not supposed to be taken literally. He wants the beans to be read as parables and and Walden Pond is symbolic. And part of the canniness of Thoreau is that he keeps switching back and forth. You can’t you can never trap him. He’s like the loon on the pond. If you think he’s being literal you’ve made a mistake and if you think he’s mean symbolic, well he actually did go to the pond.

they say that Thoreau wrote Walden in maybe seven drafts over a period of eight or nine years. And so the book has a worked density to it, that you feel a man who’s really trying to say what he thinks.

CL: How many Scripture writers do we know by the way? And I don’t mean just the gospel writers. But what does it take to say which is I’m going to write as if the word of God for all time, and here I go.

LH: I don’t know how many Scripture writers we know. [laughs]

CL: You might be one of them, Lewis!

And then what about his, to me, a very moving conclusion at Walden where he tells this as if it were a common story in New England of the bug that emerges out forces his way over 65, 70 years from a germ that was dropped into an apple tree in Connecticut and he says, “who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and in immortality strengthened by hearing this story?”

LH: I mean if Thoreau’s writing works as Scripture or as Revelation, it has in the literal sense a kind of apocalyptic purpose. So the word apocalypse actually means uncovering. There’s a wonderful remark by a man named Mircea Eliade who says “the sacred is among us camouflaged” as if we live in a secular mundane world but around us there are sacred things which are hidden. And the problem is to have the eyes to see them.

Then again one of the ways that this prophetic voice works is that if it can give you the eyes to see the ideal life that is nearby you and in some sense parallel to your own life, you get a kind of double vision. You get the life you’re living and you get the life you might live. You get the life you could imagine if you were truly free. And in this double vision you could then either find that the two are congruent–you really are living the life that is meaningful–or they’re not congruent, which means you’re given some sense of what you could do.

My own sense of the way prophecy works is it not only reveals things that are true but it offers a story from which you can make some choices about what to do in your own life. So, just to say, when I was a young man I was dissatisfied with my own life as many are even older men are, but you know I was not happy in school. I was not happy in love. I was not happy with my work. And when you read Thoreau, you get a sense that there is some other life to be led. One thing I loved about him was the kind of emphatic declarative sense. You know he would say things like it does matter which way you walk. There is a correct way to walk. Wildness is the salvation of the world. Even if you ended up disagreeing with him. How nice to have somebody who has a position that you could either follow or push off against those.

You know as a young man when I read Thoreau, I was moved by his clarity of sight and his sense that you could find purpose. It was important to find it and that you could act on it.

CL: Lewis, if we are listening to the voice of a prophet in Walden–and I’d love to think we are– what might he be saying in this world of 2017, 200 years after his birth. An endangered planet, a divided planet.

LH: As for what the prophet is telling us, I have two things to say. First of all, I’m very interested in Thoreau’s fascination with ignorance. So, there’s a wonderful moment in Walden where he says, “We have heard of a society for the diffusion of useful knowledge. Methinks there is an equal need for a society for the diffusion of useful ignorance.” And elsewhere he says that his neighbors are so busy that the laboring man, quote, “has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance which his growth requires. Who has so often to use his knowledge.” So I love that aside. How can he remember his ignorance which his growth requires? The point in a way is simple, which is that there are thousands of things we just do not know. I mean, Thoreau would go out into nature, and part of what interested him was how mysterious it was, how it seemed to have meaning that he could never put into words.

So part of what I think the Prophet does in Thoreau is to lead us to the edge of our own knowledge not to tell us something not to tell us what’s the next thing but to have us front our own not knowing, which is where the future is. That is, if the world is going to unfold in a new and original way, it can’t simply be patterned on the cultural institutions and ways of living that we already know. So you need to somehow get to the edge and get to the outer point of your own knowing and then see what happens.

Now, a second thing though to say about what the prophet might tell us. On particular issues Thoreau does sometimes have something quite clear to say about what he should believe, and particularly comes out around the fight over slavery. And one simple fact in the 1850s about the fight over slavery is that slavery was written into the Constitution. The Constitution of the United States had clauses in it which recognized the institution of slavery. It even had a fugitive slave clause by which runaway slaves could be sent back to their masters. So, abolitionists in New England were incredibly frustrated because if they tried to go to the law to help them in their cause, they got to the Constitution and then it ended because they could not find a constitutional provision that would help the abolition of slavery. So Thoreau says you have to look to your own constitution. You know figuratively, how are you made? What is your mind and spirit and soul alike?

CL: You, individually?

LH: Yeah. You individually. Again this is the Protestant American prophetic voice that you go to the individual and you ask that person what does your conscience say about the enslavement of men, and your conscience is a kind of constitution.

So, now you ask about today. One quick thing… In the first half of the 19th century when Northern states that opposed slavery found themselves frustrated by federal law, they passed state laws called personal liberty laws which contravened the federal laws. So, the state of Massachusetts for example would have laws that insisted that a captured escaped slave could have a jury trial, whereas the federal law forbade jury trials. So personal liberty laws in the 19th century were state laws which argued with the federal law.

Now, we could have this again today. Suppose you had a state which did not want to arrest immigrants who didn’t have papers or did not want to deport people or wanted to give sanctuary to Syrian refugees. Well that state might have to write some personal liberty laws, which came out of the sense of personal constitution that might be at odds with the federal Constitution as adjudicated by nine wise Supreme Court justices.

CL: Would he want to confirm the sense that the planet is endangered, in desperate trouble, or mitigate that, cool us down, get us busy working on it?

LH: Well, if you turn to Thoreau to think about questions about ecology and the climate and so forth, the best place to look really is Thoreau’s essays about going to Maine. So, he wrote these during his life but they were then collected later in a book called The Maine Woods. He went first to Maine in 1845 when he was living at Walden Pond, and he wanted to climb Mt. Katahdin. But what was going on in Maine was the harvesting of the old growth forest so there were 400 year old white pine in Maine which were being cut down rapidly for ship masts and everything else. And Thoreau was very clear about what a desecration this is. You know he says the white pines get cut down turned into board feet and lumber and ship planks and matchsticks he says, “Those things are no more like the white pine than the corpse is like a human being. He says you have to see these tall trees with the sun hitting the tops of them.” So he has a sense–there is a wonderful detail actually. He has a kind of pantheistic sense that these trees are living beings who matter and he likes to be in the world with these other living beings.

And when he writes this, one of these essays is published in a magazine, maybe the Atlantic Monthly, and the editors took out that sentence because it was too pantheistic. They didn’t like the sense that trees had standing the way that human beings have standing, but that’s part of Thoreau’s sensibility. There’s no chance at all that he would find some middle way around the current ecological issues or questions about global warming. he would go back to this question of what are your necessities. I mean why do you have to burn all this fossil fuel? What is this addiction to fossilized energy, and what does it give you? In a simple way, the very first chapter of Walden should be read, weekly, at the board meetings of the energy companies.


Lewis Hyde also wrote Trickster Makes This World and Common as Air. He teaches at Kenyon College.

Coming Up: Two more of the many Thoreaus: Susan Gallagher, Thoreau, the slavery obsessive who befriended the insurrectionist John Brown; with the writer and walker Kevin Dann, Thoreau, the leader of huckleberry parties. This is Open Source.


You can read Laura Walls’s new biography of Henry David Thoreau and conclude that Slavery is the main thread of all his thinking from the 1830s to his death from tuberculosis, before his 43rd birthday in 1862, when the Civil War is underway. Slaves pick the cotton getting milled on Thoreau’s Merrimack River. And Slavery underlines all the rest he’s writing about: freedom, conscience and the crime inside the US Constitution. Susan Gallagher took it further with us this week. She teaches history and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and she edits a vital, earthy Thoreau website at MappingThoreauCountry.org:


Susan Gallagher

Susan Gallagher: Just as historians once underestimated the power of slavery in shaping American society. I think that they’ve underestimated the power of slavery in shaping Thoreau. He described slavery as an existential threat. He says we are now in hell. We are we are losing our lives. And then John Brown comes along in 1859 and he says this is the best news that America has ever heard.

He was the first to defend John Brown in the aftermath of John Brown’s failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, and actually I shouldn’t say failed because in Thoreau’s view it had been a success. And for Thoreau, John Brown represented the first just and sufficient action against slavery. The rebellion against slavery was for Thoreau an act of self-defense. He felt that he was defending himself by refusing to be an instrument of the slave power. It wasn’t that John Brown was actually kind of bringing the United States back to its original promise. It was that he was realizing that promise for the first time and Thoreau even says in his essay “A Plea for John Brown” that John Brown is the first man the first American who has ever lived. And the reason he is the first American who has ever lived is that he’s the first American, as far as Thoreau is concerned, who has ever died and he says you know Franklin and Washington you know they just ran out the clock and disappeared, but John Brown died for a reason.

And what he says in resistance to civil government is that I can’t be an instrument of injustice so if I pay taxes I am an instrument of injustice. I’m an instrument of slavery.


If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood… Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.


SG: This is where Thoreau’s individualism comes in. It’s that Thoreau is not like pitying the poor slave you know the one that is looking charitably on the kneeling slave and wants to be the white abolitionists to lift up that slave. It’s that he’s looking at slavery and saying as long as this country depends on slavery, we are all complicit and we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility by acts of charity because no one is redeemed by an act of charity. So we redeem ourselves when we take action against the evil in which we are complicit.

And so, in a way, all of his efforts on behalf of abolitionism we’re self-reflecting. And he even says like I don’t want to be involved in this this is not how I meant to spend my life. I have better things to do than to get up on an abolitionist platform and speak. I want to be out walking. But I can’t. Slavery drags me back because I can’t find any refuge from slavery. I thought I could, you know, when I lived at Walden Pond. I thought I could. But instead the state came for me and arrested me and I still thought you know that I might be able to live on the periphery and avoid it but now I can’t because the fugitive slave law has made me a deputy of the slave power. And also I recognize that the wheels are spinning in Lowell out of the slave made cotton. And so the idea that the North is somehow independent of the South is a lie.

CL: Susan Gallagher, there’s so much more here than we we saw in that hippy dippy postage stamp of Henry David Thoreau, everybody’s perfect model, sort of Johnny Appleseed of whatever in Concord, Massachusetts. Two important points you’re making about slavery though one that you said to me he didn’t think it would ever end but certainly was afraid it would never end. It was a part of the human disease. Secondly the point, we associate with Ta-Nehisi Coates and sort of modern thinking about slavery, that Thoreau was wide awake to the fact that the country’s economy north and south was built on stolen labor.

SG: Yes, and what’s worse than stolen labor is stolen liberty, you know

CL: Not to mention stolen land.

Place him in his own time. In Concord in 1840, 1850. What’s going on? What’s he worried about? What’s he not worried about?

SG: Well in 1850, I mean already as you can see from what he wrote while during his stay at the pond and what he had written in resistance to civil government is that slavery and the Mexican War is just an extension of slavery. It was just fought so that slavery could be extended to the west. So the problem that permeates the whole society is slavery.

CL: The freedom issue he calls it.

SG: Yes. He wants to visit a world he says in “Walking” where the rooster that announces the gospel of the present moment lives in a country where no fugitive slave laws are passed. And guess what? He lives in a country where fugitive slave laws are passed and where the government of Massachusetts is entangled in sending fugitive slaves back to to be enslaved.

CL: 1854, you’re reminding me. Anthony Burns, black preacher, is seized in Boston by federal marshals and despite the efforts of the local huge crowd he is remanded to Virginia. Critical point that brought Thoreau to a boil. Explain it.

SG: It’s intolerable to Thoreau. Now he’s already said…

CL: He says, ‘I have lost my country.”

SG: Yes, I have lost my country. And he says that we are now all part of the slave power. If we are not actively using our bodies as he said in resistance to civil government if we are not using our bodies as friction to stop the machine then we are actually oiling it. We are fueling it. We’re making the machine go. And so every inhabitant of Massachusetts makes the machinery of slavery go when Anthony Burns is sent back to his owner. So that’s when Thoreau says I thought before I was just between heaven and hell and now I am fully in hell. And that’s also when he says I walked towards one of our ponds. But what signifies the beauty of nature? When men are base. We’re living in a society without principle and it is now impossible to live he says, “If we would save our lives we must fight for them.”

And so after John Brown and after John Brown’s execution doesn’t have this galvanizing transformative effect that Thoreau was hoping for. He stops writing like having new observations on society. And his essays are all about looking back. So he writes wild apples which is about the loss of wildness right. Previously he said in wildness is the preservation of the world. And then he also writes Autumnal Tints which is sort of like a eulogy of the living world.

Thoreau was not an abolitionist in a personal way.

it was not like certainly for his children. Like you’ll hear people say this a lot like I’m fighting for climate change so that my children can live and Thoreau would never have those kinds want to leave your family behind. We’re about a lot more important things in your own family, right? No soldier ever died for his own family, right? You die for a country you die for an idea that is more important than your family. And so and that’s where I think that’s the level that Thoreau was living.

You die for a purpose and you refuse to make your survival depend on the extinction of the liberty of another. Not just the life but the Liberty with which were Thoreau. Liberty is more important than life.

Thoreau the ecstatic traveler, on foot from Mt. Wachusett to the Maine woods, is still walking on Susan Gallagher’s site: MappingThoreauCountry.org.

We’ve been asking all over: who in our day has taken up the multiple missions of Henry Thoreau — and the answers are all over the lot: Bill McKibben for the planet, Annie Dillard for exquisite prose about nature; Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama for cosmic consciousness, Black Lives Matter for social justice; each doing just part of Thoreau’s job. And then a natural-born, walking, talking Thoreauvian named Kevin Dann came up with brilliant answer we’d never have imagined. Kevin Dann is the author of Expect Great Things, a phrase and now a book that has the feel of the great man himself. There will be a prize for any listener who can top Kevin Dann’s choice as the reincarnation of this fellow Thoreau:


Kevin Dann: We read Walden in high school. We took for granted that it was required. Of course most everybody was, like, scrambling for the Cliff Notes. But, I don’t know I was a weird kid. It really took hold of me. It felt like I was hearing my own voice in some way, it was strange, really strange.

But the very premise of Walden that you build a cabin out on a little pond and you get to go out there away from everybody. Well at 17 that meant you get to leave your parents. it just was a perfectly fit. It felt like that here was somebody we got offered in our little public high school who was saying be yourself, find yourself, do it in nature. And did it in this incredibly beguiling intimate secretive, but revealing way. I mean he was just… it was a lure. How could you help but follow him into the woods.

Christopher Lydon: Ralph Waldo Emerson and that amazing funeral that amazing funeral oration about Thoreau said he could have been an engineer for all America. Emerson said it with a certain regret. He said Thoreau just wanted to leave the huckleberry party. You make the case that that’s what we should be doing in Thoreau’s honor. Having a huckleberry party.

KD: Amen and hallelujah to that. You know, I decided to celebrate Henry’s 200th birthday and my own 61st birthday, I’d walk from my home in New York City up to Concord to Walden Pond. Take 13 days to do it and put on a little performance I decided I would call “The Captain of a Huckleberry Party” after that famous Emerson funeral oration, that eulogy he gave where he paints the most beautiful portrait but then there’s this lament and, you know, you can almost feel the disdain in Ralph’s words, because Ralph would have been off, you know, lecturing at some fancy institution while Henry was leading the local kids into the shrubbery. I mean Henry’s first memory of Walden Pond is going and gathering huckleberries there. So I held a huckleberry party. I wanted to sing and dance and play and and celebrate and be joyful and be improvisational and be unkempt and everything that a huckleberry party is.

You don’t wear your good white dress to a huckleberry party because you can do damn well going to get stained and you’ll probably end up throwing a few huckleberries at each other while you’re out there. You probably get bitten by by flies and mosquitoes and who knows maybe even a deer tick and get Lyme disease. But that’s what nature is that’s it you can’t plan it you can’t engineer it. You don’t engineer it. Or else it bites back in a big way.

So a huckleberry party for me is the ultimate expression of what Henry Thoreau was, which was meeting nature on its own terms, playfully, expectantly, but also expecting surprise, and also a social activity. You know a huckleberry party was something you did with other people. It was like, you know, a bee of some sort. It was a natural bee. Rather than sitting around knitting in the parlor you were all out in the world and experiencing the fruits of the land.

As Henry said, “If you would know the flavor of a huckleberry, ask a cowboy, or a partridge.” We need to be cowboys. We need to be partridges.

CL: Around the time of Emerson’s Bicentennial, I figured out for myself that the Emerson of my lifetime, the bandleader of incredible voices, the itinerant artist who played the role of Emerson in my lifetime was Duke Ellington. Kevin Dann, who living among us, maybe unnoticed, plays the role of Henry Thoreau today, would you say?

KD: I have one answer that leaps into my mind and this person, I see him capering, I see him mid air as I see Henry mid air, and this man, who is a funambulist, a funambulist of funambulists, the leaper of leapers, the one who said that creativity was the perfect crime and he pulled off the most beautiful work of art ever on that artful island of Manhattan. And that is Philippe Petit.

Philippe Petit, who got his performing chops right there at Washington Park. And when has a 19, 20 year old man took Greenwich Village from Paris and brought his juggling and his miming and his tight-rope walking skills and delighted people in the streets, living in the streets, living by his wits, and all that time, just ’cause he’d seen back in the dentist’s chair in Paris, seen that full page article describing that the Rockefellers were putting up this monstrous, gargantuan testimony to their own egos, the World Trade Center. And said, “I’m going to walk between those towers.” And plotted in secret and honed his skills and gnawed on his bone and gnawed on his bone until, for an hour, he danced between the tallest buildings in the world.

Now Henry built a little cabin, but his cabin had reached all the way to heaven. And when Philippe Petit went up on the wire, he was in heaven. People don’t realize, angels were there. Yes he’s trained and he’s trained and he’s trained, but his confidence rests in the angels. When the seagulls go by, when the ravens go by up there at eye level up there at 1000, 2000 feet in the air, it’s cause he’s got the angels underneath him. And that’s the same thing with Henry. People don’t get it. He built a temple, a rustic temple, and all the good came to him because he knew the angels were about him, you know?

So, I think in the sense they both knew their caper was delightful to the gods, even if it wasn’t noticed, or seen. Philippe Petit didn’t know if they’d even be able to see him from down on the sidewalk. Just so happened that the clouds parted, and they could. But 9 times out of 10 they wouldn’t be able to see him up there. It didn’t matter. This was for God! He did it for God! Henry did it for God! And we’re just lucky he wrote it down so we can have it too.

Send twenty-five cents and a cereal boxtop — or an email — to mary@radioopensource.org if you have a better idea than Philip Petit, on the high wire he strung between the Twin Towers over Wall Street, for the Henry Thoreau’s title of: Walker Out of Bounds. Thanks in any event to Kevin Dann.

Next week: Thoreau out of doors in part two of our bicentennial series: canoeing on the Concord River, swimming or thinking about it on Walden Pond, and hearing Henry talk to the trees, most lovingly perhaps to the highest White Pines still around.

I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made; the weeds at the bottom gently bending down the stream, shaken by the watery wind, still planted where their seeds had sunk… and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom and float whither it would bear me…

Thank you Laura Walls, Susan Gallagher and Lewis Hyde. Stay up with our Walden adventure on our website — radioopensource.org. And don’t forget, we’re reading Moby Dick for a show later this summer, and we want you to read along with us.

Our show this week was produced by Thoreauvians all — Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, Becca deGregorio, Susan Coyne, George Hicks and Mary McGrath. Special thanks to Ben Evett, our voice of Henry David Thoreau. I’m Christopher Lydon. Join us next week on the beautiful blue and green river of Open Source.



An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org