On Walden Pond, Where Thoreau
Practiced Self-Resistance & Ate Squirrels

By W. Barksdale Maynard
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Copyright 2002, The Thoreau Society, Inc.

Reprinted by permission of the author and the Thoreau Society Bulletin.
Originally published in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 241 (Fall 2002)
At the request of the author, spelling and grammar errors were allowed to remain.

W. Barksdale Maynard teaches architectural history at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Delaware and is the author of Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 (Yale University Press, 2002) and Walden Pond: A History (Oxford, 2004)

[1]      For the historian researching the history of Walden Pond, it’s not always easy to separate truth from fiction. Even the brochure “20 Key Facts about Walden Pond” issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, the agency responsible for the pond and surrounding state land, is only partly accurate.
  • Walden is not “spring fed,” but rather a flow-through lake.
  • Nor is it true that “the main pond path is an old Indian path”; it was built in the 1930s and has little relationship to the undulating, barely perceptible trail Thoreau saw.
  • [2]      When such “official” sources are wrong, you can imagine how much inaccuracy is to be found elsewhere — much of it unintentionally funny. For example, John A. Herbert’s travel piece in the St. Petersburg [Florida] Times, “For Hiking, Biking, Try Walden Pond.”

    [3]      Yes, “Biking,” notwithstanding the fact that the second sentence of the article reports that things prohibited at the pond include “bikes.” Perhaps Herbert is encouraging us to act in the spirit of what he calls “the definitive book on civil disobedience, Walden, which would have trashed all these modern prohibitions.”

    [4]      Herbert’s descriptions of Walden Pond suggest a somewhat limited familiarity with the place. It is “part of a 400-acre Massachusetts state park. The land was donated by the Concord family of author-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the Hard Rock Cafe chain, Reebok and AT&T.” He supposes that “many visitors in swimsuits approach Walden with the same hushed voices they probably save for church. Nor is there any litter in sight.”

    [5]      As for Thoreau, he “was given a small piece of wooded land by the Emerson family…. He spent a few years there thinking about the meaning of life, and he published his treatise on civil disobedience years later. After Thoreau moved from the cabin in the 1850s, it was used to store grain. By 1870, the cabin had been torn down for scrap lumber and to roof over an outhouse.”

    [6]      From the “postwar replica” [of 1985, actually] in the parking lot “the stone foundation of the original cabin is a 15-minute walk overlooking the entrance to the pond.”

    [7]      Warming to his subject, Herbert adds, “Developers had first envisioned Walden as a site for condominiums and shopping malls…. Thoreau might have liked the naming of complexes after him and Walden Pond.” Thoreau bravely spoke “against slavery and what he saw as economic injustices” before his death; now “he’s buried in the 300-year-old [actually from 1855] Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.”

    [8]      Herbert’s article is amusing in the breadth of its inaccuracies, but the Web offers the most fertile ground for error. The truly devoted Thoreauvian might consider moving to the following development in Lynchburg, Virginia — as advertised on the Web:

    Walden Pond Apartment Homes is just minutes from River Ridge Mall, Wal-Mart, Target, Food Lion, CVS Pharmacy, the Plaza Shopping Center and much more!... Our Jr. Olympic-size swimming pool, lighted tennis courts, fishing pond, fully equipped fitness center, basketball court, clubhouse and unique guest apartment make Walden Pond the place to live…. Comprised of buildings 1400- 2400, Thoreau’s Cove is nearest the pond, gazebo, picnic area and a tot lot. The paved jogging trail curves around it. If you have your own washer and dryer, consider Thoreau’s Cove.
    [9]      On some websites devoted to Thoreau, readers weigh in with observations that make the historian smile.
  • “If one reads for pleasure, than Walden is certainly a buffet of great porportions” — especially the chapter, “Nature.”
  • Another commentator is less enthusiastic: “Henry David Thoreau (whose real name was David Henry Thoreau … maybe he was dyslexic) decided to take a break from civilization for a couple of years and write a flowery book that no one can understand.”
  • “Thoreau was not self-reliant. He couldn’t hold a job…. [He] subsisted mainly on what he could gather on the ground to eat (like a squirrel)…. Thoreau was a 19th century version of a starving artist, tree-hugging hippie and homeless bum rolled all into one.”
  • [10]      Internet “chatrooms” attract procrastinating students who post desperate, night-before-the-deadline queries: “WALDEN EXPERTS PLEASE READ!!!!!” Their pleas are heartfelt:
  • “What is the main idea of civil disobedience?? I was reading through it and the language that was used was soooo flowery and it just went right over my head. can anyone explain it to me?”
  • “I have to do a report on Thoreau’s Walden, and how self resistance is applied … can anyone help out??? or does anyone know where there are quotes from Walden, with what peoples interpetations of what they mean??”
  • “Essay due tomorrow…. Please if anyone could helps me with this. Give me some examples or where to look or just give it straigt out…. Topic: ‘What evidence exists that Thoreau was anti-slavery?’”
  • “Okay, I’m writing a comprehensive essay on Thoreau’s works, philisophical beliefs, and a full biographical sketch [in] two pages…. I don’t think I can do it without cutting something major out. Any suggestions?”
  • “Could someone please help! I have a presentation to do on Civil Disobedience. I want to know what is the importance of Civil Disobedience, what are the important themes emanating from Civil Disobedience, what consructive, and negative critiscisms can be made about Civil Disobedience? In addition could someone tell me of differenr sites i can go to get help on Thoreau’s Waldon Pond. Thanks A Million!”
  • [11]      Assisting these hapless scholars are purported Thoreau Chatroom Experts, cloaked, for some reason, in anonymity. “Freaky Deaky” — who, one suspects, is something less than a Walter Harding — is nonetheless lauded by one fan as “intelligent end a great help to students of Literature.”

    [12]      The Experts encourage scholarship, of a sort. A college student posts, full-text, her groundbreaking essay, “Walden as a 12 Step Program,” in which it is argued that “Thoreau receives guidance from the Pond; similar to the guidance an alcoholic obtains from their A.A. sponsor.” This fires the imagination of an Expert, who chirps, “It seems to me that you might be able to get it published. You might ask your professor if he would be interested in becoming a coauthor.”

    [13]      How did the published-scholar-to-be first become interested in Thoreau? “It was a few weeks ago when he [Thoreau] was the assigned author of the day for my Early American Literature Class…. Until then, I have never heard of him. Actually, I have only read one book for leisure, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Album.”

    [14]      On amazon.com, peanut-gallery reviewers critique Walden. Few of them seem likely to join the Thoreau Society:

  • “Why does it seem that students from around the country are all being forced by their English teachers to read this stinking book!”
  • “I just had the misfortune of reading this piece of junk for my summer reading … the worst book that I had ever read in my whole life!”
  • “The things this dude said made absolutely no sense [and] we get to see what neurosis plagued his diseased mind…. Pages upon pages of vivid description about scenery, the little fighting ants, the whippor-whill, the squirrels under the floorboards, the bees … how they infested his cozy little shack … what do we care about his pests in nature? I mean, how much can you really say about ice melting?”
  • [15]      Leaving the Internet (with relief) and turning to quaint, old-fashioned reality, we may flip through the guestbook at the Thoreau house replica at Walden Pond State Reservation for further insights into public perceptions. Here are dubious tributes:
  • “My dog’s name is Thoreau.”
  • “My dad named me after looking at the sky over Thoreau’s Cove.”
  • The nagging question of Henry’s sexuality is conclusively settled by a visitor from Montana, who writes, “I’m a descendant of Thoreau.”
  • [16]      Visitors offer their favorite Thoreau quotations, including, “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful world.” But alas, those Amazon.comian skeptics are here, too:
  • “He was moocher and he smelled!”
  • “We know Emerson brought him food.”
  • As for his paucity of furniture, “He could of went to Pier One.”
  • One visitor echoes that familiar refrain, “Did he eat squirrels?”
  • [17]      “I liked the movie better,” one tourist writes in the guestbook. This baffles me. I encounter another reference: “Seen the film, now the lake.” I don’t quite understand this either, until a third encounter: “It’s time to re-read ‘On Walden Pond.’ ” Um, could you possibly be thinking of the 1981 movie, On Golden Pond? You know — the one starring that rascally old squirrel-eater, Henry Thoreaufonda?

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