By Kenny Luck
On July 4, 1845, when Henry David Thoreau moved into his cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, he was probably unaware that his abode in the woods, and the impact and influence of that endeavor, would forever echo through time. Thoreau was an uncompromising idealist; an ardent maverick who criticized his fellow man. He urged that man and women ought to live more simply, and more deliberately. “The mass of men,” he famously wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Yet the scope of Thoreau’s message is much wider than social criticism. He speaks of spiritual transcendence in Nature and the unbounded potential of the individual. Thoreau is a dreamer and he speaks to dreamers. In a word, shun dogmatism and demagoguery; see beyond the immediate conventional religious explanations to reap a higher understanding. In our comodified contemporary American society, with the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism, materialism and mass consumerism, Thoreau’s message is needed now more than ever.
Approaching Thoreau from a devotional, rather than an academic point of view, I began collecting short quotes from his works for my own purposes. Most of the quote collecting occurred in the winter months of 2006, when I was a third year undergraduate student. I spent countless hours in my university library between classes pouring over thousands of pages. I cherished each quote and in a short time was able to recite long passages from memory. Commenting on society, nature, government, spirituality and love, there seemed to be a Thoreau quote for every season. After roughly one month my list had expanded into a plethora of pages. Then, I got an idea: Why not share these treasures with others? And so it began.
Choosing which quotes to include and which quotes to ignore is tricky. With the aim of trying to preserve Thoreau’s original intentions, I was careful to not take any passage out of context. No precedent can dictate the proper course of action. However, Thoreau’s lyrical writing style makes it easy to find short, memorable truisms. Much of his best work lay not in the familiar, but in the unfamiliar. As dedicated diarist, he wrote incessantly nearly every day. I found that the wisdom contained in his journal entries rivaled the most complex systems of thought laid out by any philosopher before or since. His correspondences, particularly with Harrison Blake, are even more exceptional. As the two men swapped letters between one another, Thoreau always found new ways to transform even the most mundane subjects into brilliant pieces of insight.
Thumbing Through Thoreau, appropriate for the beginner or devotee, is my attempt to bring together the best pieces of Thoreau’s writings in one collection. It is the result of long hours of hard work by several people, and a determination constantly fueled by one inspiring idea: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined,” Thoreau wrote in the closing of Walden, “he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” In the end, we could all use a dose of Thoreau from time to time.
Kenny Luck is a graduate student at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History/Political Science from the same institution. He writes for The Weekender – an arts and entertainment weekly – and The Independent. He is currently working on his second book. He enjoys recording music, book browsing, and travel.