Thoreau in the 21st Century: Can Walden Still Speak to Us Today?

By Detroit Publishing Co. copyright claimant, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A young man wakes, suddenly, to his radio alarm clock blaring loud. He quickly checks his cellular phone for any missed calls before sitting down at his computer, pulling up his e-mail account, and scanning through the spam for any messages of substance. Finally, after toasting a strawberry pop-tart and spinning through the drive-thru window at Starbucks for a double mocha latte, he arrives at work, just two minutes late.

Henry David Thoreau, a man who cried for “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”, might be rather despondent over the changes that have taken place in the world since the nineteenth century.

In “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” from his collection of essays, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), Thoreau expounds on the many ways in which the world is changing for the worse. Thoreau seeks out solitude and isolation to gather his thoughts and ponder the (mis)direction of American life. It is the technological improvements, or the “luxury and heedless expenses” that exist in such abundance in the twenty-first century, which would greatly discourage him (136).

One feature of American life that Thoreau would be most critical of, would be the suffocating luxuries. Most of these luxuries exist in the form of technological advances, but Thoreau, no doubt, would find these concepts far from improvements.

 

First of all, we must consider the internet. What would a man who once wrote that he “could easily do without the post office, since [ . . .] there are very few important communications made through it” think of e-mail (138)?  Would he not be troubled that, not only are we sifting through mounds of tangible junk mail in our own physical mailboxes, but we’re wasting time sitting at a desk clicking through mail that does not physically exist?

The internet also brings “the world to our doorstep.” But, if the world were to show up at Thoreau’s door, it is not hard to imagine him bolting it shut. All of the information from around the world, the cyberspace that we hold so dear, might be simply fluff to Thoreau. He writes, comically:

I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed . . . or one vessel wrecked . . . we never need read of another.  One is enough . . . To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. (138)

Therefore, from a Thoreauvian perspective, the majority of Americans have been swept into the life of old maids, chatting about every inconsequential matter that comes to mind. This is certainly not Walden Pond. 

Secondly, aside from the internet, Thoreau would likely take issue with the “luxury” of other technological time-savers. For instance, consider the cell phones we have constantly in our hands or pockets. This is an age in which people feel the need to be constantly in motion, constantly speaking, always at the ready to be contacted. Thoreau, who took up residence in a house “in the woods,” one “without plastering or chimney,” would hardly find it appealing to be constantly in contact with other people.

Indeed, he did his best, at least for two years, to live distantly from other people and comforts.

He writes: “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence” (140).  Thus, in all this bustling and chatter, he would find us aimless, without direction or purpose.

Thoreau would take the same issue with other conveniences, such as fast-food restaurants which seem to appear in ever-increasing numbers on every major and minor street. These “improvements,” as we call them, Thoreau would view as exhaustive and self-destructive. We come up with new ideas before we have made proper use of the old ones. Take, for example, the evolution of portable cinema. First, there were the 16mm and 8mm film reels. How the world rejoiced when the grainy films were transferred to VHS tapes.

Then, still, the tapes were improved upon with the DVD. Now, just as most homes have acquired their own “standard” movie player and are settled in to watch a flick, the BluRay disk is thrust upon us and we are, yet again, expected to conform. To advance. Thoreau could not have been more correct than when he said, “we are determined to be starved before we are hungry” (137).

A final convenience or luxury of American life that Thoreau would take great issue with is the growing city, or shrinking countryside. He believed that a man’s most poetic moments in life came while listening to the wild birds of the country. He quotes Damodara: “there are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon” (132). In other words, one may boast that he lives in a grand city where he can walk to the museums, the theater, and fine restaurants, all before coming home and knocking on his own wall to invite the neighbor for a late coffee. Yet, what happened to space? What happened to land and breathing room? How does one expect to be inspired in such overrun areas, lined with skyscrapers that block out the sky and pollution that filters the sunlight?

Thoreau believed that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone” (126). If he were alive today, the shock of such a plentitude of conveniences and possessions, which most of us cannot bear to live without, might kill him. Thoreau might view us all as drones, copies of one another, going about our daily routines because we do not know that there is another option.

Perhaps he might give us the benefit of the doubt, believe that we are consumed by fear of the unknown, rather than ignorance.

Henry David Thoreau said, “millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive” (134). Has the twenty-first century fallen asleep, a victim to its own luxuries?