Henry David Thoreau is the flip side to the man I made note of yesterday, George M. Cohan. Whereas the latter was loud, brash, and exuberant, Thoreau was quiet, reserved and reflective. Thoreau’s America was the same as Cohan’s, however, and in very different ways, they each celebrated the same boundless human spirit.
Thoreau called himself “a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot.” He was interested in external nature, in the quest for knowledge, and revered the gift and sustenance of inspiration. At the same time, he was absorbed in the discovery of the inner, spiritual nature of human beings.
Thoreau’s America was also the same America that Kerouac and the Beats found, some one hundred years later – seeped in materialism and conformity. Unlike the beats, Thoreau had an anchor, a refuge, on Walden Pond.
There, in 1845, Thoreau built a small house on land belonging to Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he spent several years. He “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” At Walden, he would practice “sitting still” for self-purification, imitating Eastern meditation, although it is unlikely that he had ever received any formal meditation instruction.
In Walden; or Life in the Woods, he described his sense of contemplation:
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest.
My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.