Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau

My good friend John Kitterman — writer, English professor at Ferrum College, Thoreau aficionado — reminded me that today is Thoreau's 200th birthday.

Neither his prose nor the insights and observations he captured have aged a bit for me over the half-century or so since I was introduced to him in a junior high school English class. The opening sentence of Walden remains as fresh and compelling as when first published, much less when I first read it:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor my hands only.

Who could stop reading after an opening like that?

Not me — and not, by now, millions of readers across the centuries.

And not just, one hopes, the millions of those readers who encounter Walden because it is assigned. Not a bad way to encounter it, of course — worked for me! — and undoubtedly still the likeliest path to its pages for the young.   

But Thoreau's writing speaks clearly to readers of all ages. He has much to say, and says virtually all of it elegantly and precisely.

He died at 44, having accomplished much, but with much left to be done. As his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully wrote:

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that leave in the midst his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that it should depart out of Nature before yet he had been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

Our Age, in which knowledge, virtue, and beauty are all and each so imperiled, is in need of a Navigator with as steady a hand and as keen an eye as Thoreau.

Fortunately we have had one for two centuries.

Read some Thoreau, and not just on his birthday.

Your world, and our world, will be the better for it.