Walden and Civil Disobedience
I first read "Walden" in a freshmen seminar course in American Lit, and it was quite daunting reading at the time. Thoreau seemed an over-rated author: he darts from topic to topic with little to no transition, he quotes obscure passages, he sermonizes. And perhaps most frustrating of all, he wants his writing to be ambiguous (see for instance, Chapter 18), and for an assiduous college student eager to absorb and analyze, this can be quite an overwhelming experience. So, I got very little of Thoreau at the time.
Ten year's later, I decide that I would pick "Walden" up again. I told myself that I would stop whenever the reading became too discursive or abstract... And I did not stop until I reached the end!
As any student of early American lit. knows, Thoreau built a small house for himself in the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, MA, where he lived for two years (1845-1847), documenting his experiences living there in "Walden." He hoed beans for a living, lived a mile from his nearest neighbor and survived on the absolute minimum that he could. In his downtime, he would swim, fish, read and take in his surroundings, describing every sight and sound with the utmost care. Thoreau creates for his reader an unforgettable Nature-observing experience with such richness of detail that we feel we are right there with him. We hear the owl's cry, we witness the loon diving into the pond and the two ants going head-to-head in battle, we see the blue of Walden Pond. He is a student of Nature of the highest order and extracts from each of these experiences a parable about humanity: what we lack and how we can be free. For Thoreau, Walden Pond is a place of purity, an oasis, an Eastern paradise on earth, a Ganges.
An ardent non-conformist, Thoreau also uses this book as a sounding board for his "radical" views and practices. He detests the railroad and its encroachment upon his land (and more generally, that of technology on human and animal life). He refuses to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery and the Mexican War (for which he is briefly imprisoned during one of his sallies to the village). He prefers Eastern spirituality and meditation to Western religiosity. He spurns the high life and abstains from drinking and eating meat. He believes that man is in a dormant intellectual state, from which he can one day rise and embrace the dawn. And the list continues...
Thoreau's prose is also rather unique. What one must remember is that he is faithful student of Emerson and like Emerson, his paragraphs often contain non sequiturs, digressions and sometimes outright contradictions. It was perhaps this lack of logical linearity that initially kept from enjoying his work as a college student. We must be indulgent with Thoreau: his wit, his aphorisms, his acumen are well worth the sometimes uncomfortable task of deciphering his prose. I am very glad that at nearly the same age as Thoreau, I took a journey to Walden Pond with him.