A sage for all seasons
Walden, Henry Thoreau's classic account of life in a simple one-room cabin in New England remains, 150 years on, an anti-establishment masterpiece and a testament to individualism, writes John Updike
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• John Updike
• The Guardian, Saturday 26 June 2004
• Article history
A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century - Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), to which we might add Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854) as a nation-stirring bestseller and Emerson's essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground - Walden has contributed most to America's present sense of itself.
In a time of informational overload, of clamorously inane and ubiquitous electronic entertainment, and of a fraught, globally challenged, ever more demanding workplace, the urge to build a cabin in the woods and thus reform, simplify, and cleanse one's life - "to front", in Thoreau's ringing verb, "only the essential facts of life" - remains strong. The holiday industry, so-called, thrives on it, and camper sales, and the weekend recourse to second homes in the northern forests or the western mountains, where the pollutions of industry and commerce are relatively light. "Simplify, simplify," Walden advises, and we try, even though a 21st-century attainment of a rustic, elemental simplicity entails considerable complications of budget and transport.
Thoreau would not scorn contemporary efforts to effect his gospel and follow his example. Walden aims at conversion, and...