Why Is Thoreau Alive? A Few Famous Authors Respond.

Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau
Edited by Andrew Blauner

Our 4-year-old son Henry calls it “my rock.” We visit often right next to our home in Concord, Mass., and at the cemetery at Author’s Ridge, the final resting place of Hawthorne and Emerson. The simplest yet most impressive of the tombstones is a small marble slab with one word on it: HENRY. Before Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, he whispered to his sister four words that have always puzzled me, at least until now: “Now comes good sailing.” A strange suggestion that the journey of life can really only begin after death.

Thoreau never realized how popular it would become and could never have guessed. His masterpiece “Walden” was out of print when he fell ill with his last bout of tuberculosis. Today, millions of readers value him and his call to “live on purpose.” “Walden” will likely never run out again, and the first edition Thoreau tried to sell for a dollar is selling by the thousands at auction today.

Why is Thoreau alive? This is the key question answered by a remarkable anthology titled “Now Comes Good Sailing” edited by Andrew Blauner. Anthologies are seldom remarkable. It’s extremely unusual for any number of iconic authors (fewer than 27) to come together to defend their literary heroes, but Blauner’s table of contents reads like “Who’s Who in Smart Modern Prose”: Megan Marshall, Lauren Groff, Celeste Headlee, Pico Iyer, Amor Towles, Alan Lightman, and Adam Gopnik, among 20.

Why is Thoreau alive? Because we need it. Thoreau argued that the busyness of life—the frenetic pace of our work, the demands of our bank accounts, the status we seek and never find—should never be the sole focus of life. As Lightman puts it in his essay, can we free ourselves from the “bump and bustle of the outside world”? Walden Pond’s lesson is this: Our immediate worries often obscure what matters and almost always distract us from the ultimate, from the chance to live and die in the knowledge that we are trying to “really live”. This collection reinforces Thoreau’s wisdom for an age often hard of hearing.

Groff echoes Thoreau’s instruction from Walden: “Look at a pond no more miraculous than any pond in the world, that is, infinitely miraculous, look at your own ponds, whatever shape they may be… look deep.” This is not Narcissus in the pool, but an attempt to see your true self and take into account what you could be. Iyer is particularly good at this point, “Thoreau walked away from the world just to give more,” she writes. Thoreau’s only task was to “heal the scarcity of time.” That’s easier said than done. As Blauner’s collection demonstrates, the task remains for readers negotiating our world of existential anxiety, great injustice, mass conformity, and environmental degradation. Thoreau speaks clearly, urgently for our time, but only if we are willing to listen and live accordingly.

The best essay here is also the most bittersweet: a Thoreau-like elegy titled “Without” by Megan Marshall. Marshall is now husbandless and nothing will bring him back to life. However, this is exactly what the words of “Good Sailing” achieve, expressing the hope that the most meaningful moments, the most meaningful lives, and the writers will never be completely lost. This applies to Henry David Thoreau.

I hope our son Henry continues to turn to the simple tombstone on Author’s Ridge to find meaning and to find himself, adding another pencil or pen to the pile slowly piling up in Thoreau’s tomb. As Amor Towles explains, “his meditations always lead us to better understand ourselves.” As for countless readers, Thoreau’s writings will remain “my rock”.

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