(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1984)
Everybody wants to be Thoreau. That is, the best of our modern essayists and nature writers have imbibed the spirit of the author of Walden along with their taste for outdoor air, and he continually haunts their perceptions of the world and their judgments about their own and others' work.
Pre-eminent among them is E. B. White, who, describing his retreat from hectic New York City life to an idyllic Maine saltwater farm, wrote his own Walden in One Man's Meat. Throughout his career White continually felt Thoreau's presence at his shoulder, declaring, "I should hate to be called a Thoreauvian, yet I wince every time I walk into the barn I'm pushing before me, seventy-five feet by forty, and the author of Walden has served as the conscience of my trivial days." Time and again White used Thoreau as the measure of conscience and of observation, writing that, "I'd like to stroll about the countryside in Thoreau's company for a day, observing the modern scene . . . and offering belated apologies for my sins." He wryly observed that "Thoreau is unique among writers in that those who admire him find him uncomfortable to live with—a regular hairshirt of a man."
Other writers find him equally omnipresent. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe John McPhee discovers that everyone canoeing the Allagash River with him has virtually memorized Thoreau's The Maine Woods, discussing around the campfire Henry's accuracy and the Allagash's changes. Thoreau is the ghostly passenger in each canoe, somehow an essential element of the forest and the river.
But he doesn't only haunt the locales of his life—Concord and Cape Cod and Maine; his spirit travels wherever literate people wander the wilderness. Edward Abbey, whose Desert Solitaire is a Walden of the American southwest, writes of reading Thoreau while rafting the Colorado. Trying to discover support for his own perceptions, Abbey most often turns to Thoreau. In Beyond the Wall he writes that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul," and then adds, "Or as an old friend of mine once said, 'If I regret anything it is my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?'"
Such writers not only see themselves in Henry's terms but judge each other by measuring their integrity and insight against Thoreau's. Larry McMurty calls Edward Abbey "the Thoreau of the American West," and Edward Hoagland writes of Abbey that "like Thoreau, he is at times ornery and subversive in thrust, undeterred by the tastemakers of his own day, a man still 'with the bark on.'" The Washington Post identifies Hoagland as "the Thoreau of our time," and the American Academy of Arts and Letters claims that Hoagland's voice sounds "like Thoreau's, the sharp note of man's independence." Scott Elledge says of E. B. White that, "early on, he knew, like Thoreau, that contemplation was a form of creativity."
All this sense of Thoreau's ghostly presence in modern creative life, all this measuring of modern accomplishments against Thoreau's model, should make us suspect that something in his life and work still speaks with vitality and force to fundamental, universal issues. E. B. White called Walden "a document of increasing pertinence" and Edward Abbey wrote, "Thoreau becomes more significant with each passing decade. The deeper and faster our United States hurl themselves into industrialism, urbanism, militarism and authoritarianism—with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America—the more poignant, strong and appealing becomes Thoreau's demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile."
As we turn with delight and pleasure to the writing of our modern day Thoreaus, we might do well to occasionally return to the source, just as they do.
Note: Thoreau's influence continues—
Fate, Tom Montgomery. Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild (2012)
Gessner, David. Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (2021)
Gessner, David. A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod (1997)
LaBastille, Annie. Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness (1976)
Mitchell, John Hanson. Living at the End of Time: Two Years in a Tiny House (1990)
Mitchell, John Hanson. Walking Toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (1995)
Sanders, Scott Russell. "The Infinite Extent of Our Relations" in The Way of Imagination: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2020: 71-86). Originally published as "Hooks Baited with Darkness" in Daedalus, 143:1 (Winter 2014): 115-122.