Alexis de Tocqueville liked American democracy, but he thought its spirit of egalitarianism militated against the cultivation of individual excellence, which he associated with aristocratic societies. Tocqueville overlooked a side of American society that tolerated and even treasured a peculiar type of “natural aristocrat,” the American contrarian. Henry David Thoreau became part of the national canon because he wrote and lived against whatever was happening in his own time, a precursor to such great contrary characters as H.L. Mencken and Flannery O’Connor.
As his countrymen expanded to the west, Thoreau lived out his days on his own little patch of Massachusetts. With economic growth providing new opportunities for upwardly mobile strivers, Thoreau obstinately pursued his own simpler version of Emersonian self-reliance. He even viewed economic development itself with skepticism and attachment to the older ways. His first book looked back on a boating trip he had taken with his brother and observed with some sadness, “[s]ince our voyage, the railroad on the bank has been extended and there is now but little boating on the Merrimack. All kinds of produce and stores were formerly conveyed by water, but now nothing is carried up the stream, and almost wood and bricks alone are carried down, and these are also carried on the railroad.”
In the face of newly achieved universal white male suffrage, Thoreau often looked askance at democracy itself. To majority rule, he objected “… the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long time continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be right, nor because this seems the fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.” Surrounded by newspaper readers and enthusiastic voters, he frequently dismissed both the press and the poll. “I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency,” he wrote in the essay that came to bear the title Civil Disobedience, “made up chiefly of editors and men who are politicians by profession.” He generally preferred the uncut trees to the stumps beneath the feet of the campaign speakers. His neighbors may have found him an odd customer, but they put up with him, many of them even liked him, and many Americans since then have believed this rustic curmudgeon had something to say to them.
In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849, Thoreau reflected on a boating trip he had taken in 1839 with his brother. Today, some readers regard this as a classic of “deep travel,” traveling for sake of acquiring a profound understanding of locations rather than for superficial experiences of distant and exotic places. The book sold few copies in its own time, though, and although it has many wonderful passages, its rambling, digressive form can give the impression of a shaggy dog story. In addition to recounting historical anecdotes about the countryside along the river, Thoreau engaged in a good deal of what we would today call free association, drifting into off-the-cuff essays on classical literature and South Asian philosophy between more homespun tales about the people he and his brother met. It is best taken in small portions and in the right circumstances. I like to read it on canoe trips down the Bogue Chitto River here in Louisiana.
If Thoreau had stopped after that initial attempt, he would probably be known today only as a minor figure connected to Emerson’s circle. But in 1854, he published a book about another part of his life a few years earlier. In March, 1845, he bought a shanty from Irish railroad workers and took it apart for the boards. He borrowed an axe from Bronson Alcott (another odd customer) and cut pines. With the shanty boards and the pines, he set up his hut at Walden. Why did he do this? The best answer is that he was going into the woods to think. The famous book about his time at Walden was not entirely written there. He mined its gnomic sentences from his voluminous notebooks, polishing some of his observations long after the stay in the woods. But without his retreat, he could never have drawn his thoughts into this magnificent reflection. Reading it makes us see what a wonderful thing it is to just go off alone and think.
Thoreau was skeptical of the hurly-burly of the market-place, but he knew how to count his coins, as the first chapter on the economy of his experiment tells us. “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits,” he wrote; “ they are indispensable to every man.” Debt was anathema to Thoreau.
His concern in Walden was with how to best live his own life. The past interested him, but he was leery of an over-eager fascination with the promise of future. He did not put much stock in progress. “We are in great haste,” he observed, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate … We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Thoreau believed in the course of animal and vegetable life around the pond, and in his own observations about that life. He did not believe in the perfectibility of humanity or society, except insofar as people could perfect their responsibility for their own lives.
Even the essay Civil Disobedience, often mistakenly portrayed as a call to social activism, was really a statement of personal responsibility. In it, Thoreau recounted why he went to jail, briefly, for a traditional American act of rebellion: refusing to pay taxes. The famous opening sentence is a general statement of Thoreau’s attitude toward the State: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘that government is best which governs least’: and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”
Thoreau had no dreams of building a better society. He wrote, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live but to live in it, be it good or bad.” His refusal to pay his poll tax does not come from any moral compulsion to right the wrongs of the world, but from the ethical desire to avoid doing wrong himself.
Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published The Maine Woods,about his travels in the far northeast, contained excellent nature writing, but did not reach the quality of Walden. For me, that latter will always be the statement of what it means to be an American contrarian.