It’s class reunion season across America – the time when alumni of high schools and colleges gather to see how well they’ve fared when compared with their former classmates. And some of us might naturally wonder how we’ll measure up, in terms of professional and personal accomplishments, when we return to our alma maters.
He stayed two years, sustaining himself by taking on odd jobs, but spending most of his time watching nature, thinking, and writing. He left Walden Pond in the autumn of 1847, moving into the home of his mentor and benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson to help care for the family while Emerson was in Europe.
That’s when a letter arrived from the secretary of Thoreau’s class at Harvard, where Thoreau had graduated in 1837. The secretary was sending along one of those “Where Are They Now?” questionnaires, apparently popular even then, in which graduates can brag about how well they’d done since leaving campus.
Thoreau had little to show for his decade away from an exclusive Ivy League school – little, that is, by the yardstick that most of the world used to measure success. He had no spouse, no regular employment and only a handful of possessions.
But Thoreau was confident enough in his peculiar sense of purpose to fill out the questionnaire matter-of-factly. Asked to state his occupation, he suggested that he was something of an overachiever, having not one job, but many:
“I am a Schoolmaster – a Private Tutor, a Surveyor – a Gardener, a Farmer – a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.”
Later in the questionnaire, Thoreau elaborated on his professional ambitions – or lack thereof: “I have found out a way to live without what is commonly called employment or industry attractive or otherwise. Indeed my steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition, and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven and earth.
Thoreau knew, of course, that more than a few of his fellow Harvard alumni might regard him as a hopeless slacker. With that in mind, he ended his answers to the questionnaire with a postscript: “I beg that the Class will not consider me an object of charity, and if any of them are in want of pecuniary assistance, and will make known their case to me, I will engage to give them some advice of worth more than money.”
That advice was eventually distilled into “Walden,” Thoreau’s celebrated classic. The man that classmates might easily have voted Most Unlikely to Succeed now endures in history as perhaps the most famous graduate of Harvard’s Class of 1837.
A good thing to remember, maybe, as we lovers of literature head off to class reunions this summer.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”