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On the Gallows with Henry David

Five years ago this spring, the Georgia Review ran a special feature called Culture and the Environment. The corner­stone of that feature was Scott Russell Sanders’s essay, “Simplicity and Sanity,” which described how Henry David Thoreau’s words might help us today. Alongside Sanders’s piece the magazine also published the work of four other writers, Reg Saner, Lauret Edith Savoy, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and me. In these essays we riffed off, and sometimes rebutted, the ideas Sanders proposed. My own take was that simplicity is a fine ideal, and one that I strive for, but that too often we long for it like a fantasy or pastoral dream, and in doing so fail to appreciate our own complex, contradictory, messy, and decidedly unsimple lives. Henry, I argued, feeds that unreal dream.

Wrangling with Thoreau is nothing new. Opinionated and prone to overstatement, he often seems to be picking a fight on his pages. And, often enough, he gets it. I think of Edward Abbey’s essay, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” which describes a river trip Abbey took with a tattered copy of Walden that he kept dry in an ammo can. As he paddles, Abbey extolls Thoreau for his belief in self-reliance and nonconformity, while teasing him about his prudish thoughts on sexuality. And I think of Rebecca Solnit’s piece, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Solved,” in which she describes how Thoreau detractors love to point out that he supposedly brought his laundry home to mom, as if this would render moot his time in the woods.

Even writers who love Thoreau’s work usually do so with a qualification or two. They are quick to point out their own man’s flaws. One common move is to admit that while the idea of turning your back on the world and living in the woods is an attractive one, there is something essentially adolescent about the enterprise. In the end many people who write about Henry come around to something like this: what he did by spending a couple of years living in a cabin in the woods was essentially symbolic—and so were the ideas that defined him. Ideas are inherently symbolic, of course, but, the argument goes, Henry’s are more symbolic than most, ironically never touching down to earth. Yes, we admit, he embraced voluntary poverty and lived simply, and yes, he eschewed work as a means to an end, and yes, these ideas function well as a kind of intellectual North Star. But they don’t really fit in the real world. Thoreau had no family to support, no job to go to, and therefore his ideas must be those of a young person, an idealistic extremist.

I agree to a certain extent. If we picture Walden as a Venus fly trap, then the nectars that sucker us in are the moments of nature ecstasy and the fist-­waving statements of nonconformity. “The life which men praise and call successful is but one kind,” he proclaims, and we fly a little closer. But once caught inside we are presented with ideas on living that seem a tad rigid—strict, even. We are lectured, hectored, on the benefits of doing with less, on turning our backs on superficial entertainments, on putting our ideals into daily practice. What the hell? We came for the ecstasy, we came for rebellion, we came to fight the man, and suddenly we find ourselves stuck in Sunday school.

For most of my life I have partaken of the Thoreau I like—Thoreau the pantheist—and left the other—Thoreau the schoolmarm—on the shelf. But what I have lately come to believe is this: the schoolmarm was right. In his own essay on simplicity, Scott Sanders turns to this Thoreau quote: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” It’s getting pretty hard to deny that sentiment. We pay with our lives, or parts of our lives, and the value of what we get in return seems increasingly questionable. Look anywhere and you see we have moved in just the direction Thoreau warned us we would. Have our improvements improved us enough to justify their cost, or have we given up too much to get them? If we take any of his criteria—the opportunities and capacity for solitude, the valuing of nature, the importance of true independence—the answer is an easy one. And if we accept that answer, then Thoreau’s ideas and warnings start to seem more sensible than adolescent.

What if we really took his advice? What if we questioned why we are so hell-bent on wanting more? What if we spent more time in the natural world? What if we tried to work less, or, more accurately, work less at things that hold little meaning for us, and reserve that energy for the work we love? What if we thought hard, before pursuing our ends, about “the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged” to achieve those ends? What if we actually went ahead and tried to simplify our lives?

This is exactly the sort of argument for Thoreau that used to annoy me. It wasn’t just that it sounded too prescriptive and goody-goody in a way that Henry himself would have been troubled by. It was that it seemed to go against my idea of human nature. I have always seen the human mind as a kind of elastic, aggressive animal—ours are minds with minds of their own. My instinctive conception was reinforced when I took a course in college with Walter Jackson Bate, the great biographer of Samuel Johnson, and began to read Johnson’s work. Johnson was the anti-Thoreau, armed with a bristling realism that seemed to pick up romantic ideas like “retreat,” and examine them briskly before tossing them in the pile marked “bunk.” He spoke of the “hunger of the imagination” and described the mind as always gaping and rapacious for more, always yearning to be somewhere other than it was. That seemed right to me. It still does.

The argument I used to make against Thoreau, my younger self’s knock on him, was that he, with his superhuman will and unbudging morality, stood outside or above the rest of us—judging us, of course—and that his morality did not transfer well to lesser beings. That is, Thoreau was a freak. A freak of resolve, a freak of independent-­mindedness, a freak of self-reliance. And while we can admire freaks—the way we do great athletes, who are often also tagged with this word—they do not necessarily make the best models. Their lives do not apply to ours.

What has lately brought me around on Henry? Partly it is the state of the world, partly the state of myself. I know my own mind to be particularly unruly, but I also know that I can sit it down and point it toward my writing desk and then unleash it for four hours a morning. I have watched the way my own brain—wild and willful as it is—can be marshaled, and I have come to value, more and more, that marshaling. I believe we let ourselves off the hook when we say “That’s just how I am,” forgetting that part of who we are is always the effort to be more. It strikes me as odd, and somewhat wonderful, that Thoreau, our patron saint of wildness, is really a secret embodier of discipline.

It is discipline of the Thoreauvian sort that the world needs desperately right now. While admitting that we are all naturally consumers, gobblers of the now, we need to relearn the value of restraint, of not doing some things. Full of need, we need to train ourselves to need less. There is a joy in this too. In not developing another piece of land, in not taking the easy path through our days, in not valuing cash above all else, in not clicking on the next link or making / taking the next phone call. When all we ever answer is “yes,” we become loose puddles of easy acceptance. Thoreau, for all his embracing of the world, found his joy in that world, and carved his space out in it, by saying a lot of nos. The math he did on the pages of the “Economy” chapter of Walden, ciphering out what he spent and what it cost him (two very different things), is exactly the math we could all use right now. “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” There isn’t a question more pressing at this moment than that of energy use, how we fuel ourselves and what we pay (in every sense) for that fuel. In trying to address these questions and their profound consequences, we may find that the thoughts of a mind long considered radical and adolescent can come in handy.

In fact, it may be that in the end Thoreau is the least adolescent of writers. He foresaw the troubles we have stumbled into, and offered a very practical alternative. He told us, long before we began to suspect it ourselves, that it was time to grow up. While I will not be building a cabin in the woods any time soon, I do plan on keeping a closer eye on my own personal exchange rate, on what I give up and what I get. I will also continue the process of nudging my unruly brain away from more and toward less. More important, perhaps, is that with each passing day I become more confirmed in my belief that unruliness can be marshaled. We live in a time of crisis, but our minds, it turns out, are particularly good at focusing in crisis. Samuel Johnson himself famously said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” We may not yet understand that we are being hung, but perhaps we’ll soon open our eyes and find ourselves on the gallows. When we do, we will have the example of a man who, one hundred and sixty years ago, had already recognized that this would be our sentence.

***Read more about The Georgia Review‘s noteworthy “simplicity”-centric collaboration here.