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Great Books 8: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, with Benjamin Reiss

America’s “environmental prophet,” Henry David Thoreau, set out for a simpler, more mindful, and more deeply lived life on Walden Pond on July 4th, 1845. How to live deliberately, being mindful of the things that truly matter and not let ourselves be distracted by what everyone else seems to expect and want from us. The date of July 4th is important, for the book is another Declaration of Independence: an effort to unshackle America from the consumerism, competitiveness, and the profound and shameful dishonesty that created a new nation without reaching true freedom and equality. Thoreau’s book is as much about how to live a better, simpler life, as it is about the right way of settling a continent stolen from Native peoples and aided by the moral sin of slavery. Thoreau, after all, gave a word to the idea of “civil disobedience,” refused to pay his taxes to a state that supported slavery (he was jailed for it), and railed against the dishonesty that propped up what today we call white supremacy. Walden is a deeply philosophical book about making sense of one’s circumstances, taking control of one’s life and reckoning with the temptation of living up to the expectations of others. The late Stanley Cavell, a philosopher who did much to insist that the United States have a unique tradition of thinking and writing (and with whom I was able to study in college), said that Thoreau’s Walden “means every word it says.” Cavell taught me how to read this book and take its claims seriously: that so much of what we think are circumstances given to us are structures we buy into — and that so many of the structures we cannot change by ourselves are deeply corrupt. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” What’s amazing about Walden is how Thoreau switches seamlessly from literal description (how many nails to build a cabin; how many rows of peas to make a harvest; how many hours to make a day) to metaphorical (or metaphysical) observations.

“To be awake is to be alive, yet I never met a man who is quite awake.” Are we perhaps walking among a nation of sleepwalkers? How do we rouse ourselves from the slumber: how do we find not our true selves but our “next selves”? Walden breaks off (Thoreau did not chronicle his second year on Walden Pond) because Thoreau says that he “had other lives to live.” This should tell us that we ought not to follow in Thoreau’s path but choose our own path. We should realize we have other lives to live, and that to change our lives we must first genuinely live our life.

While Walden tackles so many practical problems it lays out a path for living a life “in simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” What would this mean? What would it mean to live “in trust”? It would mean jettisoning others’ opinions of yourself. Letting go of the clichés and prejudices, the stock phrases and prefab images that society furnishes for you to live your best life. Living in the belief that life furnishes so much mystery and splendor that to disparage it is blasphemy - against yourself and your own greatest capacities. It means shaping your life for your self — and seeing how the blade of the axe you use to do so, quite literally but also as everything in Thoreau also metaphorically, is sharpened by its daily use. And, how this sharpening by daily use means that you are more alert and awake to reality which usually, in “this restless, nervous, bustling trivial nineteenth century” passes us by while we think we are oh so engaged. Also, it means sleeping when you’re tired, and knowing that: “Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me.” To know when there is dawn in me: that would be a worthy goal.

He counsels that the price of things is not measured in dollars and cents but time: your time: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” 

I spoke with Benjamin Reiss, Samuel Candler Professor of English at Emory University and author of Wild Nights: How Taming Sheep Created Our Restless World and The Showman and the Slave, about Walden’s continued significance, how to read philosophically, and — yes, I did ask — how to get a good night’s sleep.