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Monday, August 09, 2004 - Page updated at 08:39 A.M.

Book Review
Still much to learn from writing of Thoreau

150 years after his stay on Walden Pond, there's still a lot we can learn from Henry David Thoreau. New editions of "Walden" celebrate the work with introductions from contemporary authors, wood engravings and photographs.

By Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Special to The Seattle Times

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau, American author and naturalist, who died in 1862.
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"Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate."
— Excerpt from "Walden"

One hundred fifty years ago today, the Boston publishing house of Ticknor & Fields brought out a book by a self-styled hermit/philosopher/naturalist named Henry David Thoreau. "Walden" was an account of an experiment Thoreau undertook in his 20s: to live, simply and in solitude, in a humble hut he constructed by himself on the shores of Walden Pond.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," Thoreau explains in one of the book's most famous passages, "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Initially, "Walden" did not prove to be terribly popular. Despite the fact that the author had close connections with some of the leading American thinkers of his time, including transcendentalist movement godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson (it was Emerson's woodlot, in fact, on which Thoreau lived during his two years at Walden), it took half a decade for the 2,000 copies of the first edition of "Walden" to sell out. Then the book went out of print.

Thoreau was always one to take the long view, however, and posterity has had the last laugh: The book was reintroduced in 1862, the year of Thoreau's death. By then, its messages of intentional living and embracing the value of the natural world had gained in currency.

Coming up "Walden" discussion

What are the lessons of Walden for citizens of the 21st century? The University Book Store will hold a discussion on that topic at 7 p.m. today at its Seattle store, 4326 University Way N.E. (206-634-3400; Co-sponsored by the University of Washington Program on the Environment and the Simpson Center for the Humanities.
"Walden" has never been out of print since. In fact, it has been brought out in hundreds of editions and translated into so many languages that the ripples begun in one little pond in Massachusetts have spread worldwide:

• It has served as a guiding star for the conservation movement — it is in "Walden" that Thoreau decries the excesses of popular culture in his era (just imagine what he'd think about 21st-century America!) and declares, "We need the tonic of wildness."

• The book, which impressed Thoreau's transcendentalist colleagues as being unique in walking the talk (my words, not theirs), has remained a wellspring of inspiration for succeeding generations of nature writers — though perhaps none can match Thoreau's sly wordplay.

• And it has continued to slake the spiritual thirst of legions of readers over time. Cranky or rapturous by turn, Thoreau has a passion for his pond, extolling its unique virtues at length and finally asserting it to be the "distiller of celestial dews" — and that passion amplifies into a thirst for life itself.

I first read "Walden" back in the 1980s when I was a graduate student in American literature.

The fashion in university English departments then: Historical context was out, nitpicking textual analysis was in, and I was miserable. But, one happy experience stood out in my slog through grad school — an independent study focusing on the works of Thoreau.

"Walden" was my refuge. After all, for Thoreau it was all about context: Whether he was encountering ants, owls, bean plants, a thunderstorm, or visitors from the nearby village of Concord (Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Bronson's more famous daughter Louisa May Alcott, and others), Thoreau recognized that they all fit together in a complex world that today we might call an ecosystem.

After earning my master's degree, I was invited a few summers later to teach at Harvard. I took full advantage of the university's library system, which granted me access to the diaries and papers of most of Thoreau's writing contemporaries.

Of course I was thrilled, but my most indelible memories came from heading out to nearby Concord and tramping through the woods of Walden Pond, enjoying — as Thoreau described it — "the earth express[ing] itself outwardly in leaves."

Now the sesquicentennial of "Walden" has inspired a spate of new editions.

Princeton University Press has come out with a set of books in paperback that feature Thoreau's best-known writings — each one introduced by a contemporary American writer.

In the case of this edition of "Walden" (384 pp., $10.95), novelist John Updike offers a long, lively and informative essay that considers the historical context of Thoreau's work. Even while identifying inconsistencies in Thoreau's arguments, Updike celebrates the author's accomplishment in describing "the value, power, and beauty of the unfettered self." The biggest disappointment in this Princeton edition is the unpardonable failure to weed out typographical errors.

Boston-based Shambhala Publications presents a handsome new hardcover edition of "Walden" (319 pp., $24.95) made utterly glorious with dozens of evocative wood engravings by Michael McCurdy. This edition's foreword, by Terry Tempest Williams, begins with a thoughtful and gracefully-written consideration of Thoreau's struggles to reconcile a fiercely-felt "sovereignty of soul" with his growing recognition that he also had responsibilities to the greater community.

Before she is done, however, Williams' essay disintegrates into undisciplined adoration: "Henry, oh, Henry," she gushes, "how can we not address you personally, as a friend, a mentor, our sage?" Thoreau must be spinning in his grave.

Finally, Houghton Mifflin — that developed from the roots of Thoreau's original publisher, Ticknor & Fields — pays homage to its early days with a clothbound, illustrated anniversary edition of "Walden" (285 pp., $28.12). The edition contains a brief introduction by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson, but it is the full-color photographs by Scot Miller that command the most attention. The photos show off Walden's quiet beauty in all seasons, but they minimize, almost to the point of exclusion, the human presence on the pond today. Walden has become a state park, and it is a popular summertime destination for people trying to beat the heat. Not to acknowledge their presence seems disingenuous.

The Houghton Mifflin edition carries the idiosyncratic price tag of $28.12. Readers of "Walden" may recognize that's just half a cent less than what Thoreau spent in constructing his cabin. A portion of the proceeds go to the Walden Woods Project, a nonprofit group working to preserve the land and waters celebrated in Thoreau's writing.

Readers: No matter what the edition, do yourself a favor and revisit "Walden" this summer. Like the pond itself, Thoreau's ideas remain bracing, deep and evergreen.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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