Sunday, December 10, 2006


Walden, or life in the woods – Henry David Thoreau
Published unabridged by Dover Thrift Editions 1995.

It was over twenty years ago, on good old BBC Radio 4, that I first came across Thoreau. ‘Walden’, was their Book of the Week. It was a lively, clear and succinct reading of his ideas and experience, whilst he lived his back to earth lifestyle. He may not have been the first urban dweller to do so, but he was certainly the first to effectively write about the changes then overcoming civilised humanity. These days ‘dropping out of society’ is a common place occurrence. However, it often is only a partial one. Some semblance of support by the host society remains, if only in the form of ‘the dole’. Thoreau was unique, in that he was looking to be independent and self-supporting, in a way we would struggle to achieve these days. The talons of civilisation dig deep into self-determination, to hold us within its bounds.

Anyway, when I first heard it being read, I was captivated. I went out immediately and bought a small pocket sized edition produced by Shambhala Publications. In that period, I was fond of underlining in blue pen any apposite statement I found in books. Looking back through these blue lined sections, tells me something about my concerns at that time. Extensive sections of ‘Walden’ are selected, such as :~

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”

Concerns about what it was like to live an essential life, were then dominant in my psyche. How to live simply and contentedly was paramount. Thoreau, though quite a pragmatic man in how he approached his solitary life, was motivated essentially by a romantic impulse; to return to a state of grace that had been lost. This underlying romanticism was what struck me most at that time. These days, I handle this sort of ideal with a more sceptical touch. Even Thoreau saw his ‘simple life’ as an experiment only, living like this for only a couple of years, before then returning to his former lifestyle. Without the donation of Emerson’s land at Walden Pond, the whole experiment would have been impossible anyway. Besides, the town of Concord and civilisation was never too far away if it all went ‘pear shaped’.

This Dover Edition is unabridged, my original pocket edition was heavily cut, as ,no doubt, were those radio readings. Not without good reason I am currently discovering. I’m finding the unabridged edition quite heavy going. Pages and pages of ponderous, pontificating prose to wade through. Some of his observations on the nature of a civilising society are spot on, whilst others appear cranky, quaint or just over simplistic. I suppose this is why, these days, he is routinely severely edited. His writing style is very Victorian. Overloaded, for modern readers, with small asides and references, tucked within unfeasible long sentence structures. To make him palatable for contemporary audiences, his verbose writing style needs to be curtailed by the hand of a skilled surgeon. Then his undoubted ability to express the universal zetgeist of this, and any other industrialised era, emerges, strong and potent.

I do wonder whether we do Thoreau a disservice by treating him in this way. We make him a mythic figure, an archetype of the outsider, living beyond civilised norms, not a man of his time. Thoreau was certainly not some proto-hippy, new age Victorian, getting off his head on opium. He was just one of many 19th Century social analysts, who looked at the emerging industrialised nations and started to question, with an air of looking backwards like Rousseau, asking quite where we were going with this headlong rush for progress. As the first to really articulate this, Thoreau is justifiable revered. For in it he expressed the basic form for an Ideal of an Alternative Society, this found its audience in the disillusioned drop outs of the late sixties. The rendering into our complex civilisation, of this beautiful dream of the simple life, of a form of society not hell bent on creating a living nightmare, is why this book is still significant. When you actually read it unabridged, you realise it's style is what has not worn well. The myth that Thoreau represents for us now, has overtaken the reality of his experience then, and its mode of expression. He is being revised and remodelled to fit our contemporary dreams of escape.

No comments: