Some Penguin Classics are examples of that peculiar sub-species of literary work that somehow always feels pointedly relevant, no matter the age or era: in this case, the great writings of celebrated New England crackpot, Henry David Thoreau – Walden and Civil Disobedience. This is a new edition, with a simple, arresting cover illustration by Jason Holley and a new Introduction by English professor Kristin Case, who nods in the direction of that weird eternal relevance right away. “The questions that drove Thoreau to Walden Pond in 1845 were the same questions that face young people, particularly recent college graduates, two hundred years after his birth,” she writes. “What should I do for work? How should I spend my life? And how far should I accept the answers arrived at by others?”
Thoreau’s decision to absent himself from decidedly manageable hustle and bustle of mid-19th century Concord and go live in a little shack on a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land gained him a small amount of notoriety in his own day and has been irretrievably enshrined in American cultural mythology ever since, mainly because it was one of those insignificant gestures that seem to signify eighty different things. Something similar is at work in the pages of Civil Disobedience, even though on the surface the two works look so different that Case is right when she points out that Thoreau scholars have often complained that the two works feel like they were written by two different authors. The feeling is deceptive; in reality, great thematic strands unite these two things and everything else Thoreau wrote. One of those strands is hooey, but Case, ever the true believer, has a different one in mind:
Imagination is among the keys to Thoreau’s enterprise and one of the themes that unites his writing on nature and his writing on politics. To answer, even to earnestly ask, the question of how to live is to engage in the work of imagination. It is to imagine something other than what already exists, something other than what we can see. Here we might think again of that sentence from Walden‘s conclusion: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.”
Not exactly a crystal clear sentence, that, but re-reading this lovely new Penguin edition reminded me of how good Thoreau can be when he’s not woolgathering or posturing. The key, as Case writes, often is that element of imagination, when Thoreau effectively blends his habitual melancholy with a whimsical element that sticks in the memory – like the daydreaming in which he indulges while out working the ground:
As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.
“Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more,” writes Thoreau scholar William Howarth in The American Scholar, painting a now-familiar nightmare scenario: “We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” One federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under attack. Thoreau is too: the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance – or reading him at all – are multiplying swiftly.”
If this is true – and I wouldn’t underestimate the 21st century on such a score, particularly after this last year – then this Penguin Classics re-issue couldn’t be more timely, as appalling a thing as “timely” always is for any classic to be.
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