I have never read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, though of course I have heard of it – and now that I come to it I’m ashamed I took so long. We Brits are scandalously behind when it comes to reading American literature: of course we read Henry James and have a stab at Hemingway and Pound (aren’t Pound and Eliot more British in spirit anyway?) but as for me, I am terribly behind on my US classics, only coming to Walt Whitman late and never having touched Faulkner.
All is not lost! for I am only sixty and it is probable that many years remain in which I can rectify these omissions. In that spirit, I went to the library and happened upon Walden which, though I have only read fifty or so pages, has already blown my mind.
First, I never knew that there were so many quotations in it – for just as every line in Withnail and I is quotable, so every page of Thoreau has something in it that you didn’t know came from thence. On the first page I read a line familiar to me from Dead Poets’ Society:
‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.’ *
That idea of living deliberately, thoughtfully, not just being swept along by the mainstream, is very appealing – though it does of course mean living a very stripped-down life. Still it’s good to question which of the things you regard as necessary to life actually are. Is a car necessary? Is a job necessary? And if so why? You may come to the conclusion in the end that you do in fact need all these things; but at least you’ll have thought about it: and as we all know, the unexamined life is not worth living. (That’s Socrates, not Thoreau, but still.)
A few pages later I came upon this:
‘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…’
Everyone knows that line, as well as this one:
‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’
I had no idea that Thoreau was the source of these; and now I do, I want to read more. I’ll keep you updated as I go…
*I guess Thoreau didn’t go on holiday by mistake?