H&C Heroes: Henry David Thoreau
For the first in a new regular series of people who embody the Hole & Corner ethos, we look at the life of the famous essayist, philosopher and naturalist who famously spent two years living alone in the woods at Walden Pond, MA
‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.’
– Henry David Thoreau, ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’, from Walden
Many people have their own interpretation of a hole-and-corner but if you were looking for an embodiment of the dictionary definition (‘a secret place’ or ‘a life lived away from the mainstream’), the log cabin in the New England woods where Henry David Thoreau repaired for two years would come pretty close.
Thoreau’s famous book Walden – or Life in the Woods is a call to abandon the materialistic life of ‘quiet desperation’ and to instead embrace the simple life… Walking the walk, it details how the author gave up his worldly possessions for his own life in the woods at Walden Pond, Massachusetts.
For Thoreau, it was a quest to find a spiritual truth in nature, earned through the awareness of the sheer beauty that surrounded him. His ascetic life there, living in a cabin he had built himself on land owned by his friend and patron, fellow writer Edward Waldo Emerson, also lead to his most famous work. While living in the woods, he met the local tax collector who demanded he pay six years’ of unpaid tax. Thoreau refused, citing his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War, both of which would be funded by his tax money. Having spent a night in jail, he worked on a lecture about ones individual rights which would eventually result in his book Civil Disobedience, in which he detailed the individual’s right to stand against a government they felt to be unjust.
Thoreau’s writing is as pertinent today as it ever has been: how does one tally one’s conscience with a democratic process that might sometimes result in decisions to which one is opposed? From Brexit to Trump, it’s a debate that continues to be rolled out. Similarly, his commitment to the abolition of slavery, his early environmentalism and his rejection of ‘waste’ (albeit conceptual rather than practical) all make him the ideal candidate for the first in the H&C Heroes series.
Oh, and for the who believe in the cause but can’t quite commit to two years in the woods, the key essay in Walden can be found in a slimmed-down, 90-page version, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas selection…