A Reflection on Thoreau’s Walden
In Walden Henry David Thoreau tackles nothing less than the meaning of our existence. I won’t bore you with the details of the book because you already read it. I am instead going to pick apart his argument about the cheapened lives of Americans in the 1840s. Thoreau believes that men have a desperate need to amass fortunes to feel a sense of success and I will argue that he is, in fact, the worst kind of snob.
Walden was written in 1845 in Massachusetts. Life in the 1840s in Massachusetts was more about etching a living, feeding your family, and having enough pennies to put a roof over your head then contemplating the deeper meaning of life. Thoreau was a graduate of Harvard University and other than his self-imposed time hiding in the woods he never missed a meal because of lack of funds. In 1850 the life expectancy of a white male was 58. 30% of all babies born did not see their 10th birthday. 70% of the population lived in incredible poverty; most were day laborers working 16 hours a day 6 to 7 days a week for a meager hourly wage.
In Where I Live and What I Lived For he believes he has the blueprint of how men should exist in the words “Simplify, simplify, simplify”. He talks about not needing three meals a day only needing one. Not going outside to work on a railroad but staying inside and working on your mind. Thoreau only appreciates the many merits of going hungry because he never has. The lifestyle of the day laborer is more about survival than learning the meaning of an awakened spring.
Thoreau has some nerve to place his moral values on a populace who will not see any fruits of their labor beyond the piece of bread they just stuffed in their mouths to go work another shift at the factory. His poverty is chosen rather than forced on him by the hard circumstances of life in 1840s Massachusetts. He simplified his life to the barest of necessities in an effort to find himself. Thoreau didn’t even own the land in Walden that he built his cabin on. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned this land and allowed Thoreau to live there, free. Realistically do you believe that Emerson would have allowed the factory day workers, their wives and children to live in the woods plopped down next to Thoreau’s shack? I don’t think so.
Thoreau was not married, Thoreau did not have children, and he could afford to live his life simply because nobody else was dependent upon him. His relatively affluent family would’ve taken care of him if he had fallen ill or hurt himself in the woods. The day workers living only a few miles away in the factories lived hand to mouth with no safety net of wealthy family and friends to catch them if even the smallest change in their daily life were to happen. The day worker misses a day of work he doesn’t get paid, if it day worker has a child who is ill and needs to see a doctor they need to pay for it somehow. Poverty isn’t beautiful and fanciful like Thoreau wrote about. Poverty is sad, depressing, relentless and endless circle of survival where the smallest slice of the finger can lead to painful death from a staph infection or a tiny cold lead to tuberculosis.
Thoreau was truly ahead of his time. I believe reading the book Walden today is a very different experience than it was in 1845. Our lives are too fast and people do rely too much on status to fulfill their spiritual needs. But this book was not written in 2014, it was written in the 1840s. It’s easy to say “love your life, poor as it is” when you get to go home and be served a hot meal at your family home in the suburbs delivered by your servants. Thoreau is the worst kind of snob.