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After 150 years, Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ still resonates

ON AUG. 1, 1854, W.R. Alger strolled into the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston, the retail arm of the publishers Ticknor & Fields. Alger, a friend of Bronson Alcott of Concord, plunked down a dollar and, near as anyone can tell, bought the first copy of "Walden."

Officially released eight days later, Henry David Thoreau's masterpiece turns 150 years old today. Over those years, millions have repeated Alger's transaction, paying 25 cents for dog-eared paperbacks and $10,000 for a pristine first edition. More than 200 editions have been published, four of them this year. It has been translated into two dozen languages.

"Walden" may or may not be the greatest work of American literature, but it is the most American of our great works and the one that has held a mirror to our soul most fully. Its observation that the average person "has no time to be anything but a machine," to take one example, is certainly no less true today.

Thoreau would likely be appalled to learn that high school students today are forced to read this book about inner freedom, and perhaps we should be. It is more easily revered than read, with its dense prose (compacted over eight manuscript revisions), its briar patches of self-indulgent writing and complex allusions.

Yet it is astonishing how relevant "Walden" remains on this anniversary. Its introspective tone and focus on sensory perception, its dissent against the pettiness of popular culture and the worry it causes, its reportage on nature and its desire to understand and redress our alienation from it -- all seem addressed to our national mood today.

"Walden" did not start off as a publishing juggernaut, though, in contrast to Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" in 1855, for example, which sold 40,000 copies in its first two years. It took five years for the first edition of 2,000 copies of "Walden" to sell out. After that it went out of print until after Thoreau died in 1862.

Although he worked hard revising it for years, Thoreau did not boast on publication day. Perhaps his first book's failure sobered him. In any case, the six words he wrote in his journal Aug. 9, 1854, seem to intuit the book's modest debut: "Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing."

Thoreau had moved to Walden Pond nine years earlier to begin his experiment in simple living. The idea for it arose after his failed move to Staten Island in 1843 to be a tutor and launch his literary career in New York. But Thoreau was homesick and deeply sad over his brother's recent death. He was soon back in Concord, speaking of moving out of the village, to the woods, to find out who he was and what our life is about.

In 1844, Thoreau's friend Ellery Channing urged him to withdraw to land Ralph Waldo Emerson had just bought around Walden Pond. Thoreau built his famous $28 house in the spring of 1845 and took up residence on Independence Day. This did not enhance his local reputation as someone unwilling or unable to turn a Harvard diploma into a paycheck.

But his move was an act of high ambition. Thoreau's account of it has made Walden Pond the world's most famous small lake, the one most visited by pilgrims and videotaped by tourists, whose very name suggests a way of thinking and being.

Why? Shot marvelously through "Walden" is an insistent, driving optimism. On the first page, Thoreau compares himself to a rooster rousing all to the day -- even to the hour -- at hand; on the last, nature confirms his faith in resurrection. "Walden" asks: What shall we do with the day? All we need to live it fully, it replies, is ever around us. This is central to "Walden." Truth is not beyond the farthest star, or another Google search. We apprehend "what is sublime and noble," "Walden" states, "only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us."

Its influence is incalculable. It remains a template of the American journey narrative, and it has spawned untold similar experiments. Its close observation of nature and prescription of the "tonic" of wildness to heal our malaise began nature writing in America and inspired the founding of the conservation movement. The diamond cut of its prose has influenced countless writers, and its powerful spiritual undercurrent prefigured the boom of open-ended spirituality in America today.

Perhaps Thoreau would not be shocked at this. He knew the value of words that cut to the quick.

"There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives," he wrote in "Walden." "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."

Richard Higgins is a freelance writer. 

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