(Host) Commentator Peter Gilbert reflects on an American classic that is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year.
(Gilbert) A hundred and fifty years ago one of the most important books in American letters was published – Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. That’s right, Thoreau. If you’re visiting Concord, Massachusetts, site of Walden Pond and once home to Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, be sure to pronounce it Thoreau. To say Thoreau would be like saying Montpelier or Charlotte, Vermont.
If there were one book that best embodies the spirit of the humanities, it very well might be Walden. Of course, no one book can encompass all those subjects that speak to what it means to be human – history, literature, ethics, philosophy, the study of religion and art, and the like. But Walden comes close because, as Thoreau writes, he went to live at Walden Pond because he wanted to live deliberately. And living deliberately is at the core of the humanities. They’re about being thoughtful and reflective, living what Socrates called the examined life.
Nothing promotes thoughtfulness more than reading – unless, perhaps, it is stillness and silence. Thoreau was good at both: he read and borrowed abundantly from other authors, and by removing himself from society for a time, he was sure to experience life as it was happening – to think and feel for himself. Thoreau called Walden Pond the “earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” If Walden Pond is Thoreau’s mirror and means by which he comes to know himself, the humanities are the universal tools of self-reflection and self-knowledge.
In seeking to live deliberately, Thoreau took his own advice to “Simplify, simplify.” By simplifying our lives we’re more able to remember what’s really important and to connect with what Nobel Laureate William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Only that, he said, is the stuff of good literature, and good lives.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote, “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.” One need not be a Back-to-the-Lander or even a fan of Walden to benefit from the spirit of that book, a century and a half young this year. As we go through life, we all need to keep in the forefront of our minds the fundamental themes of the human experience that Faulkner lists – because at joyful births and tearful deaths, those are the things that we think of. Those are the things that give our lives joy, satisfaction, and meaning. It would be a shame indeed if, as Thoreau writes, when it comes time to die, we discover that we haven’t lived.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.