173 years ago this March, Henry David Thoreau, age 28, took his axe down to the still chilly shore of Walden Pond and began cutting down pine trees with which to frame his famous cabin. It was an iconic American moment, embodying youth, hope, can-do spirit. It’s my favorite part of “Walden,” the perennial classic written about Thoreau’s two years living in the cabin.
Thoreau seems a uniquely American hero of sorts, one of those figures that only this New World could have produced. But what sort of American? Was he liberal or conservative? Who gets to claim him?
Is it possible that Thoreau is one culture hero that both of the currently bitterly opposed factions could get behind? He is certainly famous for his independence, advising each of us to march to our own drummer. “That government is best which governs least” he said, or at least paraphrased. He would seem to be inspiration to survivalists, anarchists, libertarians. A recent “New Yorker” piece suggested that he has a strong streak of conservative favorite Ayn Rand.
But he’s also hailed by liberal ecologists as precursor, like John Muir, of national parks, one large piece of socialism now being threatened by Trump.
And if he’s an American hero, he’s the sort of American hero that resisted mightily our capitalist economic system, scathingly characterizing life under it as one of “quiet desperation.”
As he explains in a chapter of “Walden” that nobody reads, he grew up a hunter, indulging wild killer impulses of which the NRA might approve. But later in life turned into a radically fastidious vegetarian. (Actually, and weirdly, he depicts himself as ashamed of the animal need to do any sort of eating at all.)
A radical who went to jail for his principles, he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” taken as bible by liberal protesters.
Of course, conservatives might point out that liberal protesting is often against government (as in the Vietnam War era or now with the NRA influenced government). If Thoreau seems a contradictory sort of fellow, government would seem to be contradictory phenomenon. It’s a nuisance when its in your face with taxes, and otherwise regulating your free spirit, but a really good idea when it’s protecting you and yours from the likes of Hitler. Or establishing a national park you enjoy.
In what might be taken as a refinement of his “governing least” crack, Thoreau also said that “unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government,” which seems reasonable enough. Perhaps government is inherently a question of the lesser of evils in a world in which there’s no such thing as a piece of earth with no government.
The site of Thoreau’s famous cabin was not free of either government or capitalism, even 173 years ago. His friend Emerson owned it and gave him permission to build there. On the Outer Cape, only the National Seashore allows us to sit by a pond not unlike Walden Pond and dream of building a cabin (although perhaps not in March, at least this March). But only if the majority of Outer Cape locals at the time had had their way and the Seashore had not been established, and you had been lucky enough to have an indulgent friend with some pond-front land could you actually have built it.
The biggest knock on Thoreau from left or right should be on the limits of his experiment-of- one, whether you see it as liberal or conservative. It would have been more impressive if “Walden” had been a literary demonstration of how to lead a less desperate, mortgage-free life off the grid in your three-bedroom home with a spouse and several kids. To see how that m ight have turned out, read “The Mosquito Coast” by that other writer with the similar name, Theroux.