How This Person Challenged Our Understanding of Work, Tech. and Natural World

Costica Bradatan in the TLS: On July 4, 1845, a man from Concord, Massachusetts, declared his own independence and went into the woods nearby. On the shore of a pond there, Henry David Thoreau built a small wooden cabin, which he would call home for two years, two months and two days. From this base he began a philosophical project of “deliberate” living, intending to “earn [a] living by the labor of my hands only”. Though an ostensibly radical undertaking, this experiment was not a break with his past, but the logical culmination of years of searching and groping. Since graduating from Harvard in 1837 Thoreau had tried out many ways of earning his keep, and fortunately proved competent in almost everything he set his mind to. Asked once to describe his professional situation, he responded: “I don’t know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not … I am a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a painter (I mean a house-painter), a carpenter, a mason, a day-laborer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper-maker, a writer, and sometimes a poetaster”.

A statue of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond |© Nancy Carter/North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

From this position, with any number of routes before him, yet none decided on, Thoreau was particularly well placed to consider questions about the nature, purpose and fundamental meaning of work. Yet he was also a born contrarian, a natural dissenter, with a knack for swimming against the current (his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of him as “spiced throughout with rebellion”), and when finally he emerged from the woods he was set not on a trade or career, but on life as a communal gadfly – a professional pain in the neck. “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection”, he writes in Walden (1854), “but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” His self-imposed seclusion had allowed him to see his outsiderness anew, to understand it from within, to become of a piece with it.

This was a time of unprecedented change in American history. In a generation the country had gone from a motley collection of states, lagging the European powers, to a key player on the world stage. It was a sharp and swift upheaval, resulting not only in a dramatic depredation of the natural environment, but also in a dangerous straining of the country’s social fabric and a remaking of the American collective psyche. Thoreau had already seen the effects in 1843, when he visited New York City, which was then in the vanguard of the great transformation. The rapid technological advancements, the piling up of wealth, the relentless drive to prosperity, the general acceleration of life – such markers of progress may, he worried, end up killing the humanity in us. “I walked through New York yesterday – and met no real and living person”, he wrote in his diary. The future may have seemed radiant to some, but Thoreau was not impressed: “I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It is something to hate – that’s the advantage it will be to me”. That meanness would in time follow him back to Massachusetts. In Walden he protests the arrival of the railway in Concord, a stone’s throw from his cabin: “What an infinite bustle! I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath”.

At a moment when everything in America seemed to be accelerating, Thoreau, always true to form, came up with a counterproposal: slow down, do as little as you need to. Nothing, ideally. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau wanted not only to bring back Sabbath to a world that seemed to have lost it, but also to re-signify it. “The order of things should be somewhat reversed”, he had said a few years before, in his Harvard commencement speech. The “seventh should be man’s day of toil … and the other six his Sabbath of the affections of the soul”. More here.