"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
The Means and Methods of a Modern Thoreau
May 14, 2008
The other day I was talking with my dear friend Annie about Thoreau. We were discussing what it means to be a success in America . Imagine, I said, what his fellow townsfolk must have thought, when they read how Thoreau described himself.
'For many years I was a self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms and did my duty faithfully, though I never received payment for it.'
A self-appointed inspector of snowstorms?
And a self-avowed vegetarian and an outspoken critic of US imperialism a century before either ethic became widely popular. Seems Henry stood for stuff that never fell out of fashion. Idealistic stuff that eventually defines a nation, defines whether society itself tends toward hope or hypocrisy, toward decay or rejuvenation.
What would Henry be doing today, were he alive now in these tumultuous times? I imagine he would be indifferent, whether oil sold for $200 a barrel, or even $2,000, whether gasoline cost $5 or $50 dollars a gallon. We'd see him on his bike, coasting through town, observing everything, missing little, shaking his head at a 100 lb woman alighting from a 6,000 lb SUV, grinning when he overheard her curse the high price of gasoline.
He might live in a loft, houseboat, garage, van, treehouse (which he would have built himself), cabin, teepee or tent. He might even instruct others on the sensibility of building their own home and even send this extensive and detailed essay to Fine Homebuilding magazine, where the manuscript would be rejected. Economy, Part III -- from Walden by Henry Thoreau, with Notes and...
Doubtful he'd pay much rent, nor own an edifice surpassing 500-1000 square feet. To those who wondered why he did not buy or build a bigger place, he'd still reply: 'What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?' And, of course, now as then, few would know what he was talking about.
I can picture him living as a caretaker, working for a brief time for the wealthy owner of an estate. Probably Thoreau would provide that obscenely wealthy man (or women) his practical insights at no extra cost, advice which would be promptly ignored. I'm pretty certain he would work with his hands and, if you asked him, he might remark how he earned his living by the labor of his hands only. But'if you were astute'you would realize he was simplifying. To live well, then and now, is an exact science, requiring cleverness, stubbornness and an abundance of childlike faith, that you are right and the bulk of society wrong.
Perhaps he'd be a handyman, carpenter, day laborer, roofer, electrician, well digger, house painter or bike mechanic in some lakeside village in the northeast or west. Or perhaps our modern Thoreau might even be, gasp-- a woman, a public defender, an inventor, counselor, commercial fisherwoman, waitress, truck driver or ER nurse.
Maybe our modern Thoreau lives in Vermont or Oregon, Wyoming or Tennessee, tucked away in the Appalachians or the Grand Tetons, known as a pretty competent worker when he put his mind to the task. But now, as then, he might aggravate clients. Probably he would ignore calls'if he even owned a telephone'and instead wander through the woods on snow days, or just take off on those summery weekends, heading for wilderness with a group of friends.
He'd get much of his wardrobe from thrift stores, wondering who owned the garments before him and picturing their existence. And yet he seemed to make his own fashion statement, without intending. Friends remarked on this style, somewhat aware he set that style less from the clothes he wore and more from his own distinct personality.
Many of us, myself included, live far removed from Thoreau. 'Simplify, simplify,' he said, while we complicate and trivialize our lives, chasing paychecks and mirages, vague ambitions and vaguer social duties. But still we recognize a wildness in ourselves that mirrors exactly that of Thoreau, the patron saint of wilderness and non-conformity, the standard-bearer of bullshit detectors everywhere.
Sometimes I see bits and pieces of Thoreau in my friends and it makes me smile. What an irascible yet loveable contrarian he must have been. What a character, local lunatic, witty wacko, what a friend to have.
Would he own a car, you ask? Maybe a truck, rusted to the wheel wells, which someone gave him. Or a Prius which, he would kindly explain, pays for itself in 8-10 short years in the gasoline saved.
Would he own a gun, you wonder? Most certainly he would, especially if he read an American newspaper or listened to the evening news. He might even belong to the NRA. Yet the local cops might know him as a decent fellow, quick to flash a peace sign their way but someone not to be riled, someone akin to themselves even, or to that better part of themselves that they once prided themselves possessing.
Would Henry support the war on terror? Would he vote? Would he cross the street to meet some presidential candidate, like John McCain or Hillary Clinton? I think we all know the answer to those questions.
Would he pay his taxes? Yes and no. He might pay a local tax levied for local revenue but then again he might pen a lengthy essay for his local newspaper about how taxes are comparable to Hercules battling the Hydra. Once again the local editor might reject what he called a wordy rant from a colorful crackpot.
Would kids love this modern Thoreau? Most certainly, and much to their parents chagrin. And dogs and cats would love him too, especially those not entirely domesticated. They'd recognize, indeed sense, a rare, non-threatening species of human, strolling through their quiet street headed for the nearby river, hillside or distant horizon, and long to go with him.