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Alex Beam

Happy Birthday, Henry Thoreau, you gassy old crank

Henry David Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau.Concord Museum

It’s Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! You can practically feel the perturbation of the spheres.

Christopher Lydon is devoting three episodes of his Radio Open Source podcast to Concord’s most famous sociopath, celebrating the “American gospel” of the “prophet Thoreau.” Broadcasting from a canoe afloat in the Concord River (“the headwaters of American thinking”), Lydon ejaculates: “It looks like heaven! It’s the river primeval!”

Over at the New York Times, historian Douglas Brinkley argues that Thoreau, who died in 1862, influenced the creation of our national parks. Thoreau certainly was an inspiration for Smokey the Bear. His neighbors called Thoreau “the woods burner” for setting fire to 300 acres of local woodlands, almost eradicating Concord in the process.


Here is Thoreau’s classic, unrepentant response: “I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein . . . it was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”

Pyromaniac, prude, hypocrite, layabout, mooch, scold, a graphomanic overwriter of densely forested, unreadable prose; Happy Birthday, Henry! Did I leave anything out?

Thoreau has partisans aplenty, I just don’t happen to be one of them. The oft-inflicted “Walden” loses a bit of its man-living-in-nature edge when you know that he was eating at home twice a week, according to New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz, “lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends.”

Schulz called “Walden” “an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice.” She noted that a Boston commuter train ran alongside Thoreau’s Walden Pond, making it as “off the grid” as Prospect Park in today’s Brooklyn.

Preaching one thing and doing another is Thoreauvian to the max. Historical icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King claim to have been inspired by Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience,” prompted by a one-might stay in the cushy Concord clink. But Thoreau also championed un-civil disobedience, in the person of the abolitionist firebrand John Brown. Under Thoreau’s pen, Brown became “a man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all.”


Brown is best known for his 1859 attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, but Thoreau was well aware of his hero’s sanguinary escapades in antebellum Kansas. You might want to Google “Pottawatomie massacre” and see if cold-blooded killing fits into your definition of civil disobedience.

I don’t mind cheap-shotting Thoreau; I wish more people did. But behind the gassy miasma of uncritical praise for this unclubbable crank lies a deep misunderstanding of his cultural importance. His acolytes like to think Thoreau “got” America, but quite the contrary — he understood almost nothing about the country he was living in.

If you want to navigate the headwaters of American thinking, you need to dip your toe not in the anemic runnel of the Concord River, but in the mighty Mississippi. That river culture begat Mark Twain, who understood the new America aborning in the 19th century 50 times better than Thoreau.

Outside of a tiny corner of New England that celebrated a bloodless religion called Transcendentalism, America was never a nation of navel-gazing, teetotaling grouches whose idea of a good time was waiting for the frost to form on a stand of lily pads. While Thoreau shrunk his universe into a 250 square foot cabin, Americans broke open an entire continent, and writers like Twain and his darker cousin Ambrose Bierce were there to chronicle the attendant conquests and catastrophes.


Not even a dram of birthday praise for the dull old misanthrope, Henry Thoreau? He may have invented raisin bread, and who can possibly object to that?

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.