Another married year went by, and the Pianist and I went to New York at the end of June. We visited the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue where we saw an exhibit entitled “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal.”
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. The Morgan Library decided not to let this bicentennial anniversary go unnoticed, and neither should we. I hadn’t thought much about Thoreau since reading “Walden” a long time ago, but the exhibit made me appreciate how much the man’s words remain relevant today.
There are two ironies here. First, Thoreau hated museums, which he called “the catacombs of nature.” And, second, he had no interest in travel. “Give me the old familiar walk, post office & all,” he wrote. Yet without a museum and a trip, I would not be thinking about and paying tribute to him in this column.
Thoreau was a commencement speaker at his Harvard graduation in 1837. “How can we live a meaningful life,” he asked on that occasion, “when riches are the means and not the end of existence?” He spent the remaining 25 years of his life trying to answer that question.
We tend to forget that Thoreau didn’t just go off for two years and hide in the woods watching nature at Walden Pond. He chose simple living, he said, in order to be “ready for all issues, daring to live,” and to “suck out all the marrow of life.” So there he was, alone in the woods, keeping busy every minute of every day. He was never bored, his interest in nature never dwindled, and he was a keen observer. “Go not to the object,” he said, “let it come to you.”
Thoreau didn’t have much use for government. The less the better, in his view. He even refused to pay a poll tax and spent a night in jail.
He held no illusions. “We’ve all got our own stuff going on,” he wrote, “and it is impossible to solve all of earth’s issues.” Still, his quill pen (on display at the exhibit) was put to constant use as he tried to solve some of them. Slavery, for example, offended him greatly, and his 1849 essay entitled “Civil Disobedience” proclaims that “a government which deliberately enacts injustice and persists in it, will become the laughing stock of the world.” While he was attending graduate school at Boston University, Martin Luther King, Jr. read that essay, which includes Thoreau’s conviction that “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
The essay includes some other interesting thoughts. One of them is that “a corporation has no conscience.” Those who oppose the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to make unlimited political donations, might want to use that quote. Another is that “all voting is a sort of gaming,” a “gamble” over “whether the majority will be right or not.” Can you imagine what Thoreau would be writing if he was alive today?
Thoreau’s book “Walden” came out in 1854. If it weren’t for that book, most people would never have heard of that particular pond. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but if he had come from our Concord, rather than the Massachusetts one, he might well have made his way to Jaffrey. “Walden” might well have been “Gilmore,” or maybe “Thorndike.” A lot depends on the accident of where one happens to be born.