The Canon: Walden; Or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

December 2, 2010

In my five years lecturing at the University of Wales, Lampeter, I was known as an academic who rarely smiled, joked or enthused about the texts. Walden was the exception - I can never think about Thoreau's experiment in independent living without grinning. This 1854 masterpiece stands the test of time and then some: Thoreau's concerns include the impact of technology on the environment and everyday life, food miles, dietary choice and the pitfalls of the property ladder.

A confessed fan, I find the book inspiring and entertaining. I still laugh out loud as Thoreau pours scorn on his shallow and prurient neighbours (and by extension potential readers) and lauds his own approach to independent and self-reliant existence. I have also enjoyed hearing undergraduates who encounter it proclaim, "I think this book will change my life". These days, a student who is truly an aficionado of any text is a rarity indeed.

Admittedly, it isn't everybody's cup of tea. I've imagined people reacting to the book in much the same way as they do to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. I see those with a keen social conscience nodding approvingly, and those who dislike being preached at tossing it aside - but I always hope they will not.

More than a journal of an experiment, Walden is also an example of superb literary artifice. The voice of the book is not Thoreau's per se, but a textualised narrator who allows Thoreau to poke fun at himself and present himself as the reader's equal. It is always clear that his way is merely one way - not the only way. Because of this Thoreau is able to move hearts and minds, despite what seems at times like the bluntest rhetoric.

I never encountered the book as an undergraduate, and would argue that it is much neglected by British universities; classics by other American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe always seem to get more attention.

In fact, I first encountered Walden as the meta-text behind Paul Auster's Ghosts, a novella that spoke to my juvenile concerns about authorship and that addresses the timeless clashes between political activism and art. Thoreau, author of essays such as Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government) and A Plea for Captain John Brown, may have been partisan in his political views and may indeed, as his detractors gleefully declare, have been of an idiosyncratic personality type incompatible with US capitalism. Nevertheless, Walden is the finest example that any aspiring author could consult in the timeless quest to combine fierce commitment with self-knowing detachment and wit.

In the later 20th century, Walden was stereotyped as a "bible for hippies" because of its influence on figures such as Gandhi and popularity with 1960s radicals; I hope it experiences another revival in the 21st. Our age of global expansion and environmental meltdown is also an age in which many argue that literature has lost its ability to make any serious impact on readers. A book with Walden's integrity and artifice could well demonstrate otherwise.

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