Every age gets the Thoreau it deserves. Since “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” was published in 1854, this crank genius has been alternately held up as our greatest nature writer, the icon of American individualism, the firebrand dissenter, the sage of simplicity, the transcendental mystic, or the in-your-face libertarian. These personae slow-fade and recur like the seasons. Meanwhile everyone from the civil rights movement to the Tea Party movement claims him. He’s been called the first hippie. Edward O. Wilson dubbed him “the father of environmentalism.” He’s a beacon for rebellious teens. St. Francis meets Holden Caulfield meets Stokely Carmichael.
This protean quality can steamroll you. I typed in “Walden” on Amazon.com, for instance, and got more than 28,000 results. Still, America’s arguably most canonical book, wrote John Updike, “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
So I go to “Walden” and new books about it because I wish to read deliberately, to front only the essential facts of the literature, and see whether I can learn what it has to teach.
I drew several lessons. No. 1: The scientific “Walden” trumps the literary one in our technological era. At first, I thought “Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” (University of Chicago, 2014) would feel as forced as a January narcissus. But I think Thoreau would approve this “realometer” (his word, a combo of “reality” and “thermometer”). A realometer pushes through “the mud and slush” of opinion, as he wrote in “Walden,” to “a hard bottom” of fact.
For those of us fond of the epigrammatic Thoreau, wary of enterprises that require new clothes or preferring to sit alone on a pumpkin, it’s jarring to read about his “dream data sets.” But Richard B. Primack, a biology professor at Boston University, gushes about them. From 1851 to 1858, Thoreau noted the spring flowering dates of more than 300 plant species in Concord. Primack and his colleagues tried to find the same species and recorded their own dates. It turns out, many plants flower about three weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s day. And so Walden, once again, is synecdoche of a larger world.
Back then, carbon dioxide levels clocked in at 280 parts per million, versus our toasty 400 today. Cold weather was the greater concern, not boiling summers: In “Walden,” Thoreau told of losing his bean crop to a June 12 frost. Still, he rhapsodized about pond ice, two feet thick by February during his two-years-two-months-two-days sojourn. Our world is not his. In February, “[i]ce too thin for skating and walking would’ve shocked Thoreau,” writes Primack.
And so to “Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science” (Harvard University, 2014 ). Another scientist, a University of Connecticut geologist named Robert M. Thorson, says that the old Thoreaus — the literary hero of the 19th century, the social reformer claimed in the 1930s, the Earth Day bodhisattva of the 1970s — have mulched over the fact that he was “a pioneering field scientist.” Thorson says that literary types haven’t had the scientific chops to recognize, among other things, Thoreau’s “genius for river channel hydraulics” and how close he came to discovering glacial theory (then unformed, now proved) to explain his terrain of erratic boulders and kettle ponds.
Thorson says that Thoreau changed from “science light’’ to “science heavy” around 1851, and his writing shed much of the ecstatic divine metaphors for a style closer to field notes. I found this a mixed blessing, since I’m drawn to Thoreau the “parable maker, the seer . . . the poet” to quote Jeffrey S. Cramer, who edited one enlightening edition of “Walden” (Yale University, 2004).
It’s all about Darwin, before and after, says Thorson: In June 1851, Thoreau becomes besotted with reading about the voyage of the Beagle. From then on, he is spurred to act more definitively the naturalist, deeply surveying and measuring the land, the pond, and all it enfolds. This “quantitative compulsiveness” even led to Thoreau’s demise. In December 1860, he got so rapt measuring tree rings, he suffered exposure, which turned into bronchitis and brought a creeping decline in his health. He died two years later at age 44.
Something clicked for me at that word “compulsiveness” and then again when I read the more personal “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond” (Bloomsbury, 2014). Michael Sims’s breezy biography has some fascinating stuff on why Thoreau was driven to his cabin — grief over the death of his only brother, a bad rep from the time when his campfire ended up burning 300 acres. But then he quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne: Thoreau “is the most unmalleable fellow alive — the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable.” The man was also hopeless at reading facial expressions, Sims reveals, and tended to speak in monologues.
That did it. I Googled “Thoreau autism.” And up came “Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing” (Jessica Kingsley, 2010). There’s an entire section on Thoreau: Author Julie Brown believes he had Asperger syndrome. Add neuroscience, therefore, to the fields Thoreau continues to illuminate. Suddenly, “marching to a different drummer” has a whole new meaning. And “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” reads like a projection: Neurotypical lives look pretty bad — messy, commingled, unfathomable — to someone on the spectrum.
Brown, however, makes a moving case for the boons of Thoreau’s condition. A neurotypical, who can more readily imagine other people’s lives, might have written a forgotten novel instead of the self-referential “Walden.” People with Asperger’s are also known to perseverate. Thoreau couldn’t get enough of Walden — and we are the beneficiaries of his obsessive brilliance.
Most of us fall headlong into “Walden” in high school or college, a time when we want to run screaming from the coming responsibilities, financial and otherwise, of adulthood. Ken Ilgunas is the latest incarnation of this type (he admits to “a man-crush” on Thoreau), and I quite liked his “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom” (New Harvest, 2013). Lesson 2, then: In our era of economic inequality, Thoreau-as-capitalist-critic is back, and he’s bad. Ken does Henry proud: “I didn’t want to be a bolt in the consumer-capitalist machine,” he vows. And he’s capable of lovely Thoreauvian prose, too, writing how Alaskan mountains show the “tinted leopard prints of cloud shadows.” He also makes lists (of his college and grad-school debts and the gear for his hut-like van). And so he lives rent-free, toughing it out with a sleeping bag and a camp stove in his “upholstered hermitage” in a Duke University parking lot.
But disillusion awaits. Thoreau may have never found “a companion that was so companionable as solitude” but Ilgunas aches for human contact — and women. Thoreau, jokes Ilgunas, had the “libido of a turnip” so they diverge here. Moreover, he comes to realize, Thoreau has an “unflinching unreasonableness.” That is undoubtedly true, but it took an older book by Lawrence Buell, no scientist nor disaffected counterculturist he (he’s a Harvard professor emeritus of American literature) to put everything in perspective.
His “The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture’’ (Belknap, 1996) is considered a founding work of “ecocriticism,” which seeks to read texts from a nature-centric, rather than human-centric angle. He places Thoreau in the tradition of “retreat literature” where an escape from town to country purifies one’s life and spirit.
Buell pokes fun at the Concordian for his lack of concord, his “capacity for self-righteous hectoring.” But he also realizes that such misanthropy was a prerequisite for putting the land center stage. This love of land was core to our New World identity, and now that love must be the force for our survival. That’s my final lesson, then: No matter the year, or the treatment, “Walden” remains a book of revelation.