Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Walden Pond

While I was growing up I entertained a series of prospective careers. Many of my ideas centered around professional sports, but along the way I wanted to be an architect, an astronomer, and a politician. Once I realized the career in sports was absurd, I settled on economics. The only publication we subscribed to was Reader's Digest and under its influence I developed conservative inclinations. I supported Jack Kemp for President in 1988. Making money struck me as the ideal way to help bring down the Evil Empire. Somewhere along the way I got ahold of an issue of Money magazine which listed "money manager" as a particularly lucrative profession. I guess that was the equivalent of what we call a fund manager today. My favorite book was Lee Iaccoca's autobiography. I even wrote him a letter.

Henry Thoreau

Halfway through high school I started reading books, and a couple of them cast dents in my conservative-economist armour, but the decisive blow was landed by Thoreau's Walden. I don't think I ever made it all the way through the book, but I would credit Thoreau with inspiring my lifelong parsimony, my discomfort with consumption, and my inability to enjoy enjoyment. Probably he just confirmed instincts that were already there; I remember being seized with buyer's remorse after laying out 60 cents for a pack of baseball cards. At any rate, Walden began a long decline into the humanities, and after twenty years of book reading I find myself not very enlightened and without much of a career to speak of either.

Over the holidays I read a little of Walden for the first time in 20 years. I was surprised at his libertarianism. I had scoffed at conservatives who cited him approvingly, but Thoreau certainly wouldn't have much use for modern liberalism. He thinks the poor would be better off fending for themselves. I would also have classed Thoreau as an exponent of a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, but it turns out he's more interested in a sort of Puritan laziness. The necessities of life are not all that hard to obtain, he says. There is no reason to be poor unless you really want to. I was probably also influenced at that impressionable age by Thoreau's contempt for other people and his critique of enjoyment. None of this was very appealing on a second reading though.

I bring all of this up because Thoreau is probably the closest thing we have to a native radical writer, and yet his opinions are so far removed from socialism in theory or practice that they hardly occupy the same universe. Even his critique of consumerism is so firmly embedded in an ethic of individualism that no social theory could be coaxed from it. It makes you sense doubly the foreignness of the Soviet experiment, and while maybe that gives us grounds to hope our national character has rendered us immune to the lure of absolutism, it also raises the fear that we are condemned to eternally wander in the woods alone.


  1. It's interesting to think about what Americans, other than Thoreau, might count as radical.... Do the Beats count? I am also interested in how Thoreau's anti-consumption stance might mirror that of the Russian constructivists...

  2. I would think Allen Ginsberg at least would count. Emma Goldman and Malcolm X might be included. Saul Alinsky? It seems that most radicals want to revise the social structure of America or the American character, but not both. That makes them appear to be no more radical than Lincoln in believing the country should just live up to its original identity.

  3. On the subject of founding fathers, I love the discourse of late Soviet politics in that they felt--even Gorbachev--that they merely needed to live up to their founding father (ie, Lenin) and they would get back on the right path.

    But note one thing, by definition, Chicagoans can be neither radical nor intellectual. When Saul Alinsky and Studs Terkel and Roger Eberts are the closet thing you have to the St. Petersburg intelligentsia, you aren't fooling anybody...

  4. Isn't that a variant of the old "if the Tsar only knew what was going on he would save us" line of thought?

    Good point about the Chicagoans...