Friday, October 19, 2012

Not Exactly a Hermit

Everything we know about Henry David Thoreau is wrong.

From a piece in Humanities...

For nature author Bill McKibben, the question of Thoreau’s true self is obscured not only by the breadth of his writings, but their depth. Take Walden. “Understanding the whole of this book is a hopeless task,” McKibben said. “Its writing resembles nothing so much as Scripture; ideas are condensed to epigrams, four or five to a paragraph. Its magic density yields dozens of different readings—psychological, spiritual, literary, political, cultural.”

Many readers, faced with Thoreau’s enigmatic Yankee persona, have resorted to a kind of pop-culture shorthand for describing his life. As the capsule summary goes, Thoreau was an oddball loner who lived by a lake, writing in praise of nature and against modern progress. But the full story of Thoreau’s life involves subtleties and contradictions that call his popular image into question.

“One misperception that has persisted is that he was a hermit who cared little for others,” says Witherell. “He was active in circulating petitions for neighbors in need. He was attentive to what was going on in the community. He was involved in the Underground Railroad.” In yet another way Thoreau was politically active, penning an essay, “Civil Disobedience,” that would later inform the thinking of Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite his fame as a champion of solitude—a practice that he chronicled with wisdom and wit, Thoreau made no secret of the social life he indulged during his stay at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. In fact, one of the chapters of Walden, titled “Visitors,” offers an extended account of Thoreau’s dealings with others. “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a blood- sucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way,” Thoreau tells readers. “I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar- room, if my business called me thither.”

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