Walden by Henry Thoreau

Review by John Loofbourow, MD

Rereading Thoreau, I was not as impressed now, as forty years ago. I still like his views on old clothes, and on the merits of walking rather than riding the train. I still like his libertarian positions. His essay on civil disobedience is classic. Above all, Thoreau is an admirable writer, and I admire his careful prose and scathing wit. But he is such a misanthrope, that even when he is justifiable in his positions, it is hard to like him. Only a man with uncommon education and advantages, and who accepts none of the ordinary obligations to wife, child, or society, can be so selfish, so arrogant. He despises the values of the common herd, while I distrust the values of elitists like Thoreau, or Gore, or McCain for that matter. Since humanity has always suffered inhumanity, through excess of idealism, Thoreau's rigorous intolerance strikes me as ugly.

While both Thoreau and Diamond are elitists, they would not agree on the value of agriculture or food production as liberating people and allowing for technologic and cultural progress. Thoreau, imprisoned for his defiance of a law he held unjust, might agree more closely with a modern North American prisoner who also lived in a remote 10 x12 cabin with a root cellar, and who, though he is no writer in a literary sense, wrote, and still writes, political tracts: Ted Kazinsky. I was so intrigued by this coincidence that I logged on to the Unabomber site and read Kazinsky's manifesto, some 92 pages or 50,000 words. If one were not aware of the cowardly and vile acts perpetrated by this philosopher, our unabomber's voice would sound like that of many other we hear today who advocate violence for just cause.

Thoreau is at his best when he writes of his beloved pond, his woods, and his life immersed in them. Words are only metaphors made more powerful by their imprecision, and Thoreau is a master of metaphor, using them deftly to convince or to lacerate or both.