We've all heard of Henry David Thoreau: he's that old guy who's really into nature, lived out in the woods and wrote about it. That's what I knew when I read Walden, but within the first part of the book something struck me as odd. Thoreau only spent two years of his life on the pond. For a guy who has a reputation close to that of a hermit, I found it strange that in reality he lived there for a short time.
That is what peaked my interest in a recently published book called "The Thoreau You Don't Know," by Robert Sullivan. I knew the book would help answer some of my questions about the often overlooked aspects of Thoreau's life, but it surprised me to learn how much Thoreau's world (1830's-1840's) parallels the current state of our own. To get a better understanding of Thoreau, Sullivan points out the social/economic state of Concord (and America) at the time Thoreau chose to pursue his little experiment in the Walden woods...times which are eerily similar to our own:
"To get an idea of what Thoreau was thinking about work and about making a living when he wrote Walden, you have to stop and look at the work situation in Concord and the towns in the area, to imagine the economic landscape around the pond the way you might try and imagine the trees and the birds and the water...
"The Concord that existed when he went to college, in 1834, was different form the Concord in which he is about to build a cabin, in 1845, at twenty-seven; like the rest of America, it is in the midst of a transformation. It bears repeating that from 1837 through 1843, the country was caught in a severe financial depression. In general, New England's economy was changing, colonial agriculture being replaced by the early stages of modern industrial capitalism, all the economic and political power that had been dispersed among farmers now being concentrated in a smaller number of people, primarily landowners and business owners." (Sullivan 125)
Just as in Thoreau's time, the America that existed when I went to college, in 2002, is vastly different from the America in which I am now building the foundation for my future in 2010. When I went off to school, 9/11 had just happened, we were going to war, but on the flip side, the housing market was booming and jobs were readily available. Fast-forward eight years...I am twenty-six (Thoreau's age when he built his house on Walden), America is in the midst of a similar transformation. Our country is once again caught in a severe financial recession. The ongoing war has not been cheap, the housing market has crashed and jobs have dried up. I don't know if it's comforting or disturbing to know that Thoreau (an aspiring writer himself at the time), was faced with very similar issues over 100 years ago...makes me wonder if we've learned anything from the past.
Even after reading this book, I won't really know Thoreau, but if his thought process about going off to be more self-sustaining, getting back to nature, not being owned by a job, was in any part due to his frustration with the way things were headed in Concord and America in general (industrialization, a failing economy, and class separation), then I know a lot of people my age can relate. We're frustrated, confused and distrusting. We graduated, like Thoreau, into a world full of broken systems and because of this we don't want to be a part of them. All this is enough to push even the most practical of us to want to get all "Thoreauvian" and desire to build a modest home with a garden on a little pond outside town.
Thoreau struggled with these things over 100 years ago and perhaps another generation will struggle with them 100 years after me in a world that is even more advanced and industrial. I wonder if this moment in time will spark modern Walden-like experiements...there is something about seeing the modern world in turmoil that causes a lot of frustrated souls to go running back to nature for the answers.