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November 22, 2017

Few Hear the Walden Wake-Up Call

On this day in 1854, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods was published. Emerson reported a "tremble of great expectation" in his friend just before publication day, a prowling about Concord as "the undoubted King of all American lions." It had been nine years since Thoreau had taken Bronson Alcott's axe to Emerson's woods and exercised his choice "not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century." This is a long time to wait for one who proposed, as the title page of the first edition put it, "to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up." Thoreau the growling lion and crowing rooster was, said Henry James the elder, "the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egotist it has ever been my fortune to encounter."

Mid-nineteenth century America was awash with reform movements and counter-culture experiments -- there were Shaker communities just down the road, and the Transcendentalists had Brook Farm and Fruitlands -- but these were not for Thoreau. As he put it, "I'd rather live in a private Hell than a public Heaven." As Walt Whitman put it, "he had a morbid dislike of humanity." Robert Louis Stevenson, reflecting on Thoreau's unsociability, seemed to think it best that he lived alone at Walden Pond: "It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish." What Thoreau wanted was partly peace and quiet -- "to find God in nature, to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature" -- and partly room to shout:
    If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance... through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This Is, and no mistake. . . .
Whatever the hope or expectations, the sales of Walden were poor, with about 750 copies sold in the first year and a second edition not needed until after Thoreau's death.

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