Have you ever committed a small but significant portion of your life to studying and even embodying certain ideas from a book that may have been rooted in lies? No? Not relatable?
This past summer was the first time I stayed in Ann Arbor after exams instead of driving home to Zeeland, Mich. — a town that I don’t hate but that I know very well. As a senior wrapping up my undergraduate degree here at the University of Michigan, summer felt like the perfect opportunity to seek out the corners of Ann Arbor still unfamiliar to me. I wanted to poke around all the coffee shops and bookstores I’d never been to and experience the art fair — start checking some Ann Arbor staples off my “before I graduate” bucket list. It was in this spirit that, one night in June, I decided to go to the U.S. History Trivia Night at a local bar, Good Time Charley’s, with some friends. There are two things I learned that night. First off, in a list of my strengths, U.S. history trivia would be very near the bottom. The second is a new fact that, for a brief moment, rocked me to my very core.
On a Wednesday night in the middle of the summer, Charley’s was rather empty. Only a handful of teams were participating, and our group was still losing. For round two of the trivia, pictures of a bunch of famous historical figures were displayed on a TV, and whoever could name the most won that round. Oprah Winfrey was quite recognizable, as were Mark Twain and Ruby Bridges, but there were a few random, bearded white men that had us all sipping our fishbowls in confusion. When the answers were revealed, we were not in fortune’s favor, but I was surprised to see that one of the images was known asshole and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
I should have been able to recognize Henry David Thoreau. Earlier that summer, I had spent nearly two months in the middle of New Hampshire’s forests, entirely lacking contact with the outside world. All the while, I was treating Thoreau’s nonfiction nature book, “Walden,” like an instruction manual and regularly discussed it with 37 other kids who were doing the same. In short, I spent my spring term taking part in the University’s New England Literature Program, also fondly known as NELP. Thoreau is my favorite chaser of loons, amateur scientist, grumpy anti-consumerists purporting to be friends with a few plants and no one else.
Back in the bar, as I stared at the strange face of the man who I thought I knew so well, one of my companions perked up with an expression on her face like she was about to spill a secret. “Did you know Henry David Thoreau was a complete phony and never actually went and lived in the woods?” She was referring to the book I had pored over all summer, one of Thoreau’s most famous works of naturalist, transcendentalist literature, and montage of journal entries from his time living in the woods.
Now, I know some of you likely just fainted or shot up from your seats with shock and horror, clutching your pearls and shouting “Say it isn’t so!” Within the American education system, some of us had to read “Walden” in high school English class, some of us didn’t, but all of us care about the reputation of our beloved Thoreau. Right? I did, at least.
And the potentially tarnished reputation of Henry David Thoreau broke my brain because, again, I had just spent nearly two months in the middle of the woods of New Hampshire with no phone or internet. I was subject to reading the entirety of “Walden,” buying into a lot of what it had to say and trying to apply it to my own life in a program that is largely dedicated to the study of Thoreau’s works. And someone was telling me he’s a fake? Does that change anything about my whole journey into the woods to “live deliberately”?
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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.” That’s the famous thesis of “Walden,” and one of the most quoted lines of the whole book. During the program, one of the major feelings surrounding NELP was one of urgency. All of us students knew we would never be around the same people in the same circumstances ever again, so we felt the pressure to live deliberately every day, to do everything we could with our limited time together. We all tried earnestly to put Thoreau’s words into practice.
Thoreau’s “Walden” is almost like the bible of NELP; it explains why the program is structured the way that it is. Overlooking a pond of our own, we slept in cabins with no lighting or heat, kept rigorous journals, stayed up till 2 a.m. reading our New England authors, hiked nearby mountains of increasing size and memorized poems. At NELP, I read Moby Dick aloud with others nonstop from 6 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. and ate clam chowder or drove to nearby docks to pass the time. I dreamt up a medieval themed dinner with friends, making costumes all day and giggling about the funny accents we would assume when we announced a feast of drumsticks and hid the silverware. I operated on a system of nine-day weeks, saw a beaver and a porcupine for the first time and put stamps on pieces of birch bark to send back to friends and family. In the first week, students were split into groups of six, driven 45 minutes away from camp with a compass and a map and told to find our way back by dinner. I saw the world from the peak of three different mountains. NELP was a singular experience, idiosyncratic, engaging, enriching, slightly insane, refreshing, rigorous, mind altering, isolating in some ways, rich in community in others and ultimately incredibly rewarding. I felt the most academically fulfilled than I had in a long time.
Long story short, I had a vested interest in getting to the bottom of my Thoreauvian cognitive dissonance. There were a couple questions to answer. First, I had to figure out if the statement was actually true. After a brief scan of what the internet had to offer, I became fairly certain that yes, Henry David Thoreau did build a cabin on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land right by Walden Pond, and he did live there for a time. So where could this “Thoreau’s a fraud” sentiment have originated from?
I have a few theories, one being that some details about his writing were blown out of proportion. It’s true that the narrative of the book is a bit of a lie. Thoreau lived in the woods and journaled about it for two years, but he edited down his entries to appear as if he was there for one year instead. There’s also the nature of the woods Thoreau lived in, which wasn’t exactly as secluded as the prose would have you believe. Many marginalized groups and social outcasts inhabited the forest around Walden pond, including former slaves and Irish immigrants. In researching for this article, I even found out that the name on the man’s birth certificate was David Henry Thoreau. There are certainly incongruities around the author and his writing of “Walden,” but they are well known and documented. I don’t know where my companion got this idea from, but it’s easy to imagine a TikTok somewhere taking these incongruities and simplifying them to “debunk” a long lauded author in the literary canon — because the fall of a literature giant is a potentially juicy piece of drama. There is power and authority that comes with being studied in schools and being analyzed over and over again by the masses. With power comes satisfaction gained by seeing that power get taken away.
Thoreau’s legacy has benefitted from academic authority for decades, as has every other author immortalized in canon. How does that feeling of definitive importance cultivate from inconsequentiality to curriculum? In theory, every book published starts out on the same playing field of being unknown and unread. When a new book is born, opinions haven’t circulated yet, but once they do, the cream rises to the top, and surely it’s reliable to assume that only the best pick up momentum. Playing fields aren’t level for all authors, though. And “good” is subjective.
It’s not just Thoreau that’s had rumors fly around that potentially sully the mythos of their great, genius authorship. It’s been suggested in recent years that F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of classical work like “The Great Gatsby,” plagiarized writings and ideas from his wife Zelda Fitzgerald that made their way into his books. And the author of Shakespeare’s plays may not even be William Shakespeare himself. There are facts and mysteries out there that contradict the idea of the “once and future genius” of literature.
I wonder where the sense of literary importance comes from. I know there isn’t a committee of literature gods who declare unto the world all of the best, most valuable books to all of humanity in a ranked list with the top 100 scattered to the high school curriculum winds. There is no organized, central decision making authority. So where does the sense of wondrous untouchability come from? Quantifiable impact? Qualitative influence? Historical relevance? “Walden” didn’t take off until after Thoreau died, and even then it wouldn’t have garnered the acclaim it has today without Emmerson’s influential support. Maybe the answer, in some cases, is wealth, maybe privilege. Maybe majority rules.
In addition to the drama of debunking famous authors, another narrative mode that the human mind often defaults to is one of placing renowned figures on pedestals. It’s easy to make idols out of authors, especially when time marches ever onward and away from the context of their lives. A classic like “The Great Gatsby” persists into the present day, but the reality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life fades further and further into obscurity. It becomes harder for readers to play architect to rebuild an author’s complexity and nuance by hand. All we see is the genius work they left behind, and that’s the easier image to latch onto. But a myth does not a human being make. Is it really so bad if the author, the myth, the legend isn’t a reflection of reality?
Thus, there’s one last question that I cared to consider: If Thoreau’s falsehood ended up being true, would it have mattered? Did I need Thoreau to be legit in order to justify the value I found in reading “Walden,” in order to take some of its philosophies to heart? It would certainly change the way I read the book, but it wouldn’t change the words themselves. An author’s reputation and life can be tools to understanding a work, not necessarily reasons to dismiss it in its entirety. I can love “Walden” and identify Thoreau as the grump that he was.
Our literary idols don’t have to be perfect. In fact, I think it’s better when we find out they’re not. Seeing a flaw in the maker is a necessary spark to set off alarms of critical thinking. Maybe this tradition of criticizing the books of our education canon is a necessary resistance that keeps us questioning why something is considered important.
Since that moment at Charley’s, playing trivia with friends 161 years after the life of Henry David Thoreau, I have definitely unclutched my pearls. However the realities of Thoreau’s life played out, it can’t detract from my summer among the east coast trees, the unencumbered New England summer breeze, midnight loons singing with that perfect air of mystery and staring at moss until it whispers all its thoughts to me. That’s mine, not Thoreau’s. The author’s words at publication are only half of a book anyway. I, the reader, am the other half. At this point, I am more responsible for the ideas in “Walden” than Thoreau is. As I am with all the books I read. As you, the reader, are too.
Statement Contributor Dani Canan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.