“Things do not change, we change.” – Henry David Thoreau
In 1849, Henry David Thoreau self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It was his first book. It is about a two-week boating trip he took with his brother, John. The trip had occurred in 1839 and they went from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back.
“We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language.” – from the chapter “Friday” in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
The brothers were close but very different. Henry was the quiet, studious one, and was loud and fun-loving. But John helped pay his brother’s tuition to Harvard, and he helped Henry open his own school. (Henry had been fired from his teaching job because of his objection to corporal punishment.) During the ten years between the trip and the book’s publication, John died unexpectedly from tetanus. He dies in Henry’s arms.
Thoreau decided on seclusion and began building a cabin by the banks of Walden Pond.
“I went to the woods 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, ” he wrote. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”
What did he mean by “living deliberately?” Do most of us live “accidentally?” Thoreau wanted to determine for himself what was really important. his method was to take himself out of the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840’s. Partially, this was economic as he reduced his material needs by living simply. That meant he did not have to spend time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other part, which gets most of the attention from readers, is spiritual. We often see his time in the woods as akin to the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.
He lived there for two years and during that time he finished the drafts of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and a series of lectures that would eventually become Walden.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Henry David Thoreau is part of America’s literary history today, but A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was initially rejected and Thoreau was able to publish it only by paying for printing from its sales. It took him four years to pay off the printing cost. He wrote in his journal that his publisher had delivered the remaining unsold copies to his home. “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living. I’m not sure if he had some place of retreat to examine his life. Can you live deliberately while still living in the “normal” work of your work and life? Do we need our cabin in the woods and a few years of living deliberately to know who we are and what we want to do with the rest of
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
(All quotes from Walden:Life in the Woods – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, unless otherwise noted.)
I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.