Politics Magazine

Reading Thoreau During "Million Dollar Listing"

Posted on the 23 October 2014 by Erictheblue


I've been reading, during my lunch hour at work, and at home in the evenings after the kids are in bed and while Amanda is watching the sublime programming of the Bravo network, Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau.  It's a pocket-sized paperback and includes at the back "A Thoreau Chronology" that lists, year by year, the principal events of his life.  Here is the entry for 1840, the year Thoreau turned 23:

Proposal of marriage to Ellen Sewall rejected.  Wrote The Service, rejected by Margaret Fuller for The Dial.

By some measures, it was more than a slump.  The year before he had gone on a trip that provided the material for his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  It was this book that he wrote, in 1845 and 1846, while living alone in the cabin he built on Walden Pond.  When A Week was published in 1849, the reviews were poor and the sales worse.  How bad were the sales?  Well, in 1853, Thoreau took back from the publisher 706 of the original run of 1000 copies, remarking in his Journal, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself."  The next year he published his masterpiece, Walden.  One rag of the day reviewed it along with P. T. Barnum's autobiography beneath the heading "Town and Rural Humbugs."  Emerson, his friend and champion, criticized Thoreau's lack of ambition: "Instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party."  Another contemporary genius, Hawthorne, described the effect of Thoreau's physical presence:

He is as ugly as sin, long nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.

In college I had a course with a professor, John Dolan, who obviously revered Thoreau.  Being a teen-aged contrarion, I adopted the view that it was convenient for such a man as Thoreau to ask, "Why should men be so desperate to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?"  We learned about how Thoreau, to oppose the unjust Mexican War, went to jail rather than pay a poll tax.  But I preferred to emphasize how he was bailed out when some unknown person, probably his aunt, paid the tax, and then paid it again year after year in order to avoid a recurrence.  Dolan thought Thoreau was the great original for Ghandi and Martin Luther King, but to me his purity was too closely associated with the useless depletion of his aunt's savings.

I think, however, that I am coming toward Dolan's view.  Maybe it's just the Bravo going in the background but Thoreau seems to have gotten so much right.  "Keep a chaste mind," is good advice.  "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" is like a mountain of truth built with just a few stones.  The Mexican War was unjust.  Slavery, too, and the Fugitive Slave Act--abominations.  And Thoreau didn't just condemn them in his essays and at the lyceum; his house, at some danger to himself, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  His short life was in many ways heroic and not the least of it was his perfect indifference to what others thought about him.  The distinction between what's respected and what's truly respectable is one of the icebergs moving beneath the water of his prose, but he illustrated it with his life, too. 


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