It’s time for some wisdom from Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), for the simple reason that I’m in the mood for just such a thing. Thoreau is best known for his book, Walden, but he’s got other works out there including a number of essays.
We’ll start with this:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I’ve known teachers on Saipan who could offer the above quote from memory. Me, I had to look it up. I’d nominate it as one of the best all-time sentences in American letters.
It brings to mind another favorite quote that I can’t help from mentioning from time to time, one that also has fans on Saipan, although I don’t recall anyone actually reciting it from memory; this is from the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald:
“I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”
Thoreau and MacDonald had roughly the same take on a lot of things. They had something else in common, too: They went to Harvard.
“Spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”
This is akin to the tale that circulates in modern times about the businessman who goes on vacation in the tropics. He sees a local lounging about on a small fishing boat. The businessman tells the local that he should get more ambitious, form a corporation, round up some investors, buy a few more boats, sell a lot of fish, and then he can get rich enough to retire. Once he retires he can lounge about on a boat and go fishing. The local points out that he’s already doing that.
I must report that Thoreau took a dim view of the news business. Here is a take worthy of the most dedicated curmudgeon:
“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter–, we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”
Whether you agree with the sentiment or not, you can’t deny that when Thoreau got cranky it had some good ol’ down home, woodsy authenticity to it.
He also went Full Cranky on a number of occasions and did it with gusto. Although he was an intellectual, he darned sure didn’t cower under a desk when he had something in his craw.
Here’s a Thoreau quote that certainly applies every bit as much to modern society as it did to his times:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”
Thoreau was no fan of busybodies, so we’ll close with this quote, and bid him goodbye until the next time we have occasion to visit him in his cabin in the Massachusetts woods:
“If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…”
A tidy collection of Thoreau’s writing, including Walden, Civil Disobedience, and A Week on the Concorde and Merrimack Rivers, is provided in a Penguin Classic edition called The Portable Thoreau. This 612-page paperback lists for $22. I think it’s a better buy than some of the less expensive alternatives.