August 9: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was published on this day in 1854. While never a huge draw, Thoreau did reasonably well on the lecture circuit, and he hoped to do better showcasing his new book. This increased demand did not materialize, and six months after publication he was forced to cancel a planned tour of the U.S. and Canada. Thoreau may have been relieved, judging by his journal entries:
To read to a promiscuous audience…the fine thoughts you solaced yourself with far away is as violent as to fatten geese by cramming, and in this case they do not get fatter.
Sometimes when, in a conversation or a lecture, I have been grasping at, or even standing and reclining upon, the serene and everlasting truths…, I have seen my auditors standing on their terra firma…watching my motions as if they were the antics of a rope-dancer or mountebank pretending to walk on air….
Always you have to contend with the stupidity of men. It is like a stiff soil, a hard-pan…. Read to them a lecture on “Education,”…and they will think that they have heard something important, but call it “Transcendentalism,” and they will think it moonshine.
Perhaps Thoreau’s audiences had less difficulty with the message than the messenger. Among those who shared the view that Thoreau was cold-hearted is Robert Louis Stevenson, who famously quipped, “It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish.” But Thoreau had his friends in town, and those in nature included more than fish: crows perched on his shoulder, woodchucks came to his whistle, and a mouse living in the cabin with him liked the sound of his flute, or his Walden message:
If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance… through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This Is, and no mistake….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.