Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau – an inconvenient yet invaluable friend

I didn't take much to Thoreau the first time I read him. He's been proving me wrong ever since.

Thoreau – who lived in a hut, claimed a handful of belongings, wore unstylish clothes and a bad haircut, had no obvious chance at romance, and spent the day hoeing beans and looking at trees – doesn't appeal to all first-time readers.

Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, although not everyone will be inspired to celebrate.

Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 and didn't quite make it to age 45. But thanks to “Walden,” his classic account of two years spent near a New England pond, he persists in popular culture as a kind of eternal adolescent – a man who spent much of his time questioning authority, and never married, had children, owned a house or kept a regular job. It was a life that can sound either liberated or limited, depending on where you sit.

E.B. White, a big Thoreau fan, thought it best to read “Walden” when young. But opening “Walden” as a university freshman, I first experienced him as a writer more to be endured than embraced. I couldn’t quite grasp Thoreau’s skepticism about personal possessions. Like most kids fresh out of high school, I owned very little – and hungered to have, for the very first time, the very things Thoreau opted to do without.

Thoreau – who lived in a hut, claimed a handful of belongings, wore unstylish clothes and a bad haircut, had no obvious chance at romance, and spent the day hoeing beans and looking at trees – didn’t look like my idea of success.

I didn’t really warm to Thoreau until I read him again a couple of years later, when I was working as an intern on Capitol Hill. Spending the summer of 1984 in Washington excited me – so much, in fact, that I had trouble falling asleep. I bought a copy of “Walden” as a bedtime sedative, remembering how much it had bored me in my first semester of American lit.

As I came to know a city celebrated as the center of world affairs, the musings of a mystic who lived in a shack in the woods seemed, at first glance, beside the point. But in preaching the promise of individual initiative, rather than institutional power, to enact change, “Walden” reminded me that life outside the Beltway mattered, too. Thoreau’s critique of consumption for consumption’s sake also affirmed a truth that still resonated in the gilded 1980s – namely, that a just society is grounded not only in material gain, but moral awareness. And the wonder and insights that Thoreau found in the local – in his case, the Boston suburb of Concord – stood in stark contrast to the smug conceit that a fulfilled existence was only possible in urban enclaves.

“Walden” steered me back to my home state of Louisiana, where I’ve made a meaningful life away from the more celebrated sources of culture and influence. I have Thoreau to thank for that.

I’ve also come to see, in subsequent readings of “Walden,” that Thoreau sought engagement, not escape. He believed that principles yielded their value only when tested in actual application. Thoreau didn’t intend for everyone to live alone in a cabin in the woods. His real point was that we need to see how our beliefs – such as the ideal of simplicity – work in the real world before we smugly assert them as irrefutable.

In our deeply divided culture, Thoreau’s call to pragmatism is a timely answer to the partisanship of the headlines. Although it first spoke to me in the 1980s, "Walden" has new things to say to every generation.

Thoreau's thinking, expressed in a handful of books and a journal that runs to some two million words, defies easy category. There's enough there to affirm – and deeply challenge – every reader's comfortable assumptions, regardless of party. Decades after my first brush with him, he is still, often inconveniently, shaking me awake. 

Thoreau’s intellectual and spiritual complexity is exactly what makes him a literary original. That’s why he still deserves to be read two centuries after his birth – and for many centuries to come.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”   

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