I met Thoreau as a sophomore taking ENG 271. Under Dr. Boone’s enthusiastic and somewhat eccentric tutelage, we as a class had weathered six weeks of Puritan preachers, founding fathers, and slave narratives, so by the time October and the Transcendentalists rolled around, most of us hated the nation’s literature. I, however, was in love.
Call me crazy, but I adored Ben Franklin’s witty prose, Frederick Douglass’s fiery narratives, and Anne Bradstreet’s humble poems. Reading Emerson and getting completely drunk on his grandiose language only fueled my enthusiasm for early American lit, so falling in love with Thoreau felt natural, like the next step of a waltz or hitting a major chord.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau lays out in Walden, “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.” Something about this statement enthralled me, and I spent the rest of the semester in love with Walden Pond. I didn’t care that Thoreau was “boring,” that he rambled about ants and the economy and had this weird love affair with nature. As far as I was concerned, I’d found a soulmate and was happy to have him to myself.
Due to time constraints, we only covered sections of Walden in Dr. Boone’s class. I wanted to finish it, though, and was thrilled to get a copy for my birthday. That was in July. I didn’t crack the cover until November. I’d wanted to finish Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek first, then spent an entire semester toting the book around like my personal Bible. After describing it as “Annie Dillard’s Walden” for so many months, I decided I finally ought to read the real Walden. By then, more than a year had passed since that first fateful encounter in American Lit, and a lot about me had changed. But I still expected to love it.
I shouldn’t have waited with Walden. I should have come home that Christmas and charged right into it while I was still on fire, still impressed, still eager to be swept up in Thoreau’s rich and tangled prose. When I started it last November, I still enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. There was something missing, something not quite right. “I don’t get it,” I told my friend a few weeks ago, having expressed my confusion over finding Thoreau tiresome and too happy. “It wasn’t like this a year ago.” My friend nodded and gave a sad little smile. “You know what it is, right?” she asked. I frowned. “You needed him. You needed those grand ideas and someone larger than life to fire you up and create faith in yourself and in your writing. And now that you’ve got that, he’s…”
Different. A little bit deflated. Not as magical as before. Before was the semester of Emerson and Thoreau, of eat-sleep-breathing “The Poet” and running amok through Whitman’s poems. I look at early American lit and I see this urge to be grand, to grow up, to fill out one’s clothing as if it really belonged to you and not to your older brother. Fall of 2013 was my growth spurt. I entered it wide-eyed and trembling, electric with summer and self-discovery and eager for more, always more. And so of course I fell in love with the greats, with Emerson’s tremblings and Thoreau’s exaltings and Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
Reading Walden was a good experience, but it could have been a great one. Instead, I hemmed and hawed and let the moment pass me by. So what am I saying? I’m saying don’t wait. If an author captivates you, read everything they’ve got. Read until the magic is gone and ignore anyone who moans about your obsession. You’ll grow out of it eventually. And if you don’t, well. Looks like you’ve found your favorite author. 4/5 stars.