My original idea for this post occurred when I came across the copy of Thoreau’s Walden that I used in high school. Yes, I still have it, one of the few things from those days still around, and no, it hasn’t crumbled and turned into dust, not yet. The book itself is a common type of paperback issued in those days, pocket sized, more or less, and printed on very cheap paper. It’s not the sort of thing designed to last, yet it did. True, the pages are somewhat discolored, yellowed and getting a bit brittle, but it’s still readable and holding together pretty well, all things considered.
I first read Walden, if memory serves, while taking part in a new and rather daring program begun by the Detroit Public School System in 1963 or thereabouts called English DEEP. DEEP stood for Detroit English Educational Program, or something like that. The idea was, again if memory serves, that three days a week you had a class, usually in the afternoon, where you reported in to a teacher, picked up something, anything, to read, and you sat in a chair for an hour and read. I thought that class was one of the very best of my entire high school career. Just think, an hour a day, three times a week of peace and quiet where there was nothing to do but read. It was great. I read Walden, two or three of Steinbeck’s books, including Travels With Charley, which I really enjoyed. Thoreau, however became an established favorite of mine; I understood Thoreau’s rebellion against society — he and I were fellow soldiers in the battle against mindless conformity. Who needs or wants a life of quiet desperation anyway.
With such fond memories dancing in my mind, I picked up my old copy of Walden and began to read my old tome. Just then, though, something distracted me, a cat yelling, the wind in the back yard, a magpie on the front lawn, I don’t remember what it was, but I put the book down to check it out. A day or two later I remembered Walden, conjuring dreams of days long gone. I began to read a few pages and, I thought I heard someone at the door and imagining the grim possibility of a home invasion, dropped the book, picked up the shotgun and went to meet my fate. I tried once more, but in the end, I could go no farther than page two or three. I thought of turning the shotgun on Thoreau, and would have if he wasn’t already dead. What drivel. What could I possibly have been thinking to enjoy this puffed up trash so much? Then, to my horror, the thought occurred to me that I’d become my father! I no longer have much use for idle day dreams and pusillanimous rebellions.
I guess this is a pretty good illustration of the truth of an old saying: Among the young, anyone with any heart is a liberal, among the old, anyone with any brains is a conservative. I no longer love the pond and I think Thoreau’s description of his fellow townsmen, people who worked hard and sacrificed so that their progeny could do better, is uncharitable at best, and rather foolish. What if those people had followed in his footsteps? Who would have anything to eat, or who would have shoes to wear? Thoreau was a prophet for the ’60s and look where it’s got us.
Do I take a lesson from this? Yes, of course. First, it’s remarkable that, even though I don’t notice much difference in the way I think about things, I’ve changed a good deal over the last few decades. I gained a sense of gratitude for those who built this country, and a sense of compassion with so many people today who have to work so hard to make ends meet. It’s true, they don’t have time to go off to some idyllic pond and sit around contemplating their navels, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something quite good and remarkable, living with a real hope of building a better future. It ain’t easy, but it’s a very good thing to do. Those are the ones we should admire, and, as for Thoreau types running around today, maybe they need a good kick where the sun don’t shine.