A Thoreau Primer

I recently finished reading a fascinating book titled The Thoreau You Don’t Know by Robert Sullivan. As a big fan of Henry David Thoreau and his classic Walden, it was fun learning more about his life sequestered in a 150-square-foot cottage he built on friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property and lived in from 1845-1847. His book has been called the bible of simple living, a point supported by Thoreau’s own accounting that he spent all of $28.125 to build his home at Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts.

Much like me, he was a writer who had trained to be a minister before turning to writing. An excerpt from Sullivan’s book speaks to this point: “He had written that a writer publishing in the popular press had more influence that a preacher in a pulpit. Thoreau became a writer who was in no camp completely and, as such, eventually learned to write for two audiences simultaneously, the popular press and a reader he imagined to be like himself, who reads obsessively and is always thirsty for spiritual renewal.”

Another similarity is the era in which we each lived. Sullivan writes, “It’s important to think about the economic climate. As the country reeled from market forces, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as people strained to make a living and saw their social and family life begin to change as a result, Thoreau was about to give a very practical answer to the question that Emerson asked, the question that was not just on the mind of philosophers past and present but on the mind of the country: “‘How shall I live?’”

I was particularly drawn to Sullivan’s depiction of Thoreau as a marketplace minister: “Thoreau had trained to be a preacher and, like Emerson, he was one in the end. He was working in the culture, not apart from it, and the culture was the culture of enterprise, as in business. Business was now a moral term, as in the business of your life. Your commerce was your work in resisting the mass culture, what you are told to do. Your profit was your virtue, your principal your principles.”

For the first several years after I left pastoral ministry to follow journalistic pursuits I struggled from time to time with my calling. It was the faithful words of a friend that finally helped me to break through my self-imposed funk: “You are still in the pastoral ministry, you just traded pulpits.” While I may not track with Thoreau’s transcendentalist leanings, I do sync with his message of simplicity, as well as his means of sharing it through the printed word.