A Reading Life

Getting to know the real Thoreau

By Katherine A. Powers
April 19, 2009
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When I moved to New England in the early 1970s, I found that I had entered a world of counterculture bossiness. Outside work (at the now long-departed Schrafft's in the Prudential Center) most of the people I met managed to maintain self-congratulatory contempt for bourgeois values and buttoned-up lives, while at the same time laying down the most joyless laws about what one might eat, drink, do, say, and even believe. I realized after a time that this scolding, superior frame of mind was less a New England temper than a Cambridge one, but I could not shake the idea that its author was Henry David Thoreau. This was the killjoy who called water "the only drink for a wise man" and extolled the virtues of abstaining not only from meat, but "from much food of any kind." And, because of his lofty views on other men's lives of "quiet desperation," I lumped him together with people whose family money allowed them to lead lives of virtuous disdain for material grubbing.

For decades now, expressing these views, based on irritation and prejudice, have served as a handy way of annoying people. So it comes as a blow to discover that they are completely ridiculous, a revelation I have gained from reading Robert Sullivan's "The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant" (Collins, $25.99).

I'm not sure I would have even opened its pages if it hadn't been for the author's earlier book about rats, a very fine work from which I learned, to mention only one thing, that the creatures are fond of chicken pot pie. This is the sort of detail that is irresistibly pleasing as it puts all of us together, people and rats, living in parts of each other's world, everyone seeking the good life.

As Sullivan confesses in the present book, he attempted to mimic the structure of "Walden" in the rat one - "not," he comments wryly, "that anyone noticed." Still, as I understand now, it is precisely the heterogeneous area that includes both civilization and natural arrangements, which fascinated Thoreau, more perhaps than Transcendental verities did. Sullivan notes, "Thoreau savored the view of not just the untouched top of Mount Katahdin . . . but the vistas colored by crop selection, the sounds at dusk as they were punctuated by the echoes of chopping wood. He was excited by the human activity that surrounded him."

The Thoreau Sullivan presents to us is a man who has nothing against work and, in fact, worked hard, not only writing, but in the pencil-making business and as a surveyor; for Emerson as general dogsbody; and as a schoolteacher, first for the town, a job he quit after two weeks ("He was at that stage of life when you can sometimes find yourself telling people where to go, even if you are ill with tuberculosis and there are no other jobs to be found."), and later in his own school. When he built his little house at Walden Pond and lived in it for two years, he did so, says Sullivan, "to work and to make a point about work - work in his own life, as well as in the lives of everyone else." As Sullivan also notes, Thoreau combined his work with a fine sense of humor. His tenure at Walden Pond was not only an experiment in living, but also a species of joke. Indeed, the book "Walden" is to some extent a parody on the books of household management that were then the rage, and also a humorous critique of the idea that felicity demanded a great deal of material possessions and domestic help. Even his choice of growing beans was an entertaining commentary on attempts by surrounding farmers to grow wheat in hopeless competition with the high-yield farms of the West.

In his wonderful little book, "How to Retire at Forty-One," L. Rust Hills observes that Thoreau's "is perhaps the only major voice in American literature that is so positively negative." What he was saying no to, as Sullivan makes clear, is not human society and work, but to submission to the dehumanizing changes - regulation, specialization, stratification, and dissolution of nonmonetary ties - that were transforming his world. These, as Sullivan shows, were similar in destructive effect to those taking place in our own time. For Thoreau, as for us, the question of how to live, in every sense, was the big one.

In a general way, Simon Critchley's "The Book of Dead Philosophers" (Vintage, paperback, $14.95) belongs to the growing genre of books meant to supply spiritual succor for the godless - other titles being "The Portable Atheist," "The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality," "Living Without God," and "The Atheist's Way." Like the others, Critchley's book establishes a simplistic version of religion, of Christianity in particular, and this its author does by claiming that it is the promise of an afterlife that is central to the appeal of religion as it makes the idea of death tolerable. This is pretty much all wrong.

For a start it is life more than death that is made tolerable for those fortunate enough to have faith - which is not to say only religion does that, but it is what religion does best. It allows there to be something beyond neural wiring behind morals and ethics, to say nothing of humor and art. Be that as it may, Critchley means well - he would like to show that it is possible for an atheist to die in peace "without recanting and making his or her peace with God." Of course we all know that this is not only possible, but certain. To this end, he doesn't cook up some philosophical anodyne, but rather he gives us "a messy and plural ragbag of lives and deaths."

It is the deaths that are the book's real draw and, to a lesser extent, the brief descriptions of the philosophical views of the 190 famous and not-so-famous deceased thinkers. Among the melancholy events recorded here, actual and rumored, are deaths by drowning, beheading, poisoning, lice infestation, cow dung, a tortoise dropping from the sky, and "falling over some unidentified bronze utensil." Thus did great minds go out, not with a whimper, but a pratfall.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at