Thoreau in the ‘Burbs
Air Date: Week of February 27, 2009
Commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate wonders if Henry David Thoreau's commitment to solitude and nature masked a deep sense of loneliness. He imagines another - less simple - life for the writer.
GELLERMAN: There are some who find inspiration in Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century naturalist, poet and tax resister who headed to the woods and lived the solitary life chronicled in his book Walden.
Then there are folks like Commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate
MONTGOMERY-FATE: Walden is an inspiring book. Yet now when I read it I find myself looking for what Henry doesn’t say, for what’s missing. He must have felt more loneliness than he commits to ink.
This morning I tracked down the one exception, the one weak moment I remember in the book.
“I have never felt lonesome, or at least oppressed by a sense of solitude,” he writes. “But once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life.”
Only one hour of loneliness in his two years at the cabin? Unlikely. But maybe it doesn’t matter, since it’s his recovery from this rare instance of loneliness that readers remember.
That day amid a gentle rain Henry suddenly recognizes “the beneficent society of Nature”: “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me,” he writes. “I was so aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary…that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”
Today I can’t help but wonder if Thoreau would find my home in suburban Chicago a bit strange and dreary, even lonely. I would love to read the book he would write here in Glen Ellyn, particularly if he were married with three kids. I suppose he would call it “Glen Ellyn, or Life in the Burbs.”
And though I’m admittedly fishing for points of connection where they don’t exist, I do wonder how marriage and children would have affected Thoreau’s otherwise “deliberate” life—if they would have restrained or liberated him and made him more or less lonely.
Perhaps he would start that famous passage differently: I got married and had children “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, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I wonder how Henry would have negotiated a much different kind of wilderness—how he would “simplify” the deep compromises that marriage and parenting require. Or how his fierce commitment to leisure and solitude would endure his children’s late night sickness, or his partner’s request for him to get a job. Would his immense patience and listening in the woods translate to the family dinner table?
But these are probably not fair questions. Marriage and children were just not part of the life he chose. And in my longing to find Thoreau’s hidden loneliness perhaps I’m missing the point of the book. Which is not to retreat to a cabin in the wilds, but to find the wildness within, to learn to be “at home” in self and world, no matter where you live.
GELLERMAN: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL and is the author of “Steady and Trembling: Art, Faith, and Family in an Uncertain World.”
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