By Scott Hambrick, Reader-In-Chief
This essay was originally written in April of 1998.
To begin, I want to make sure the reader understands I am not writing a research paper. This is an essay on how I have interpreted Thoreau’s Walden and some of Emerson’s writing. Because this is based on my interpretation, only the works I have chosen to read at my leisure are discussed because they are the ones that have influenced my life. I never purposely researched the work of Thoreau, Emerson, or whoever, in order to construct a work philosophy to practice in my life, it just happened.
I first read Thoreau’s Walden when I was in junior high. Having known hard work already, his book impressed me at a basic level. The story of John Field upset me particularly. Mr. Field worked incredibly hard for incredibly little. He did not own his own home and turned soil with a shovel for “ten dollars an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year” (Thoreau 137). John Field still insisted on using butter, leavened bread and other expensive foodstuffs despite his meager income. This is analogous to my father and many others who worked to pay their home mortgages and car payments and were left with very little money after their debts were serviced. In my eyes, the use of the land for one year after clearing it and tilling it equaled the ten years of homeownership after work of saving and retiring a thirty-year mortgage. The $550.00 per month car payment that is typical now is similar to the expensive foods John Field and his family ate. Seeing the futility in Field’s life upset me greatly.
It was 1988 when I first read Walden, the economy was bad, and we had just had a stock market crash, so my outlook was black. Truthfully, had I read Mao Tse Tsung’s “Little Red Book” then, I might have become a Communist. My fear of becoming John Field was overwhelming because the very picture Thoreau paints of Field’s house and family is appalling. Thoreau had the right idea. His life of books, leisure, and reflection was very attractive to me, and I copied it as best as I could, while still living with my parents in the twentieth century.
I tried to live the life of Thoreau until 1991 when I got my first job. I made $4.35 per hour sacking groceries for a large grocer. I really did not need the money, but I wanted a car. So I worked hard, became a checker, then a grocery stocker, and when I left I was making $7.18 per hour. By now I had had a seven-year-old pickup, sold it, and even made an upgrade to a five-year-old car with the nice stereo, electric windows, and door locks and an air conditioner. Materialism reigned.
I started college in the fall of 1992 and I reread Walden and also read Emerson’s Self-Reliance for the first time. My mature critical eye saw many flaws with Thoreau at this point. I’m sure Emerson wondered why if a man could live ideally under these subsistence conditions described in Walden, did Thoreau himself not live until his death in this manner? Thoreau must have felt the need for something more in his life. I have three acquaintances that have lived lives similar to Thoreau’s at Walden Pond and their stories helped point out what more people need from life than a subsistence and spirituality. I started discussing this lifestyle with each of these men at length and found none of them to be inspired by Thoreau, but each had different motivations.
The first man is an eccentric university professor, Dr. T–. His was not a pure experiment like Walden’s for he continued work at the university throughout this time, and owned the land on which he lived. He lived solely from the food he could kill, grow, or gather during the summer of 1988. Dr. T–‘s motivation was only to see if he could actually thrive under the circumstances. Dr. T– felt the experiment was very satisfying, but was at times boring, citing a 14-day period in which he ate nothing but milk he had gotten from his goat, cucumbers and large-mouthed bass, owing to the poor performance of his garden. At the end of the summer he discontinued the experiment because, as he said, he had met his goal. Dr. T– also claims he left all of his money and clothing save one suit of clothes in his Boston apartment and lived in that city as a homeless street person for two weeks in the early seventies. Not surprisingly, he did not find this experience to be satisfying at all.
James M–, my second rustic acquaintance, is a tile layer. In the late seventies, he quit his middle-management office job and started learning tile-laying, and has chosen to make only enough money from his trade to maintain his 20-year-old van, tiny home, and garden tools. James is a fabulous craftsman and chooses to work only four to five months per year. He has worked for me in the past, and from the modest prices he charged me, and knowing his short work season, he must make $8,000 to $10,000 per year. If he worked a regular 40 hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and charged market value for his services, I estimate his yearly earnings would be $45,000 to $65,000 per year. He is a vegetarian, and grows all he needs to live. James very much enjoys his life, and has lived simply for approximately 20 years, and will continue to do so indefinitely.
Mr. R– my third Thoreauvian, is about sixty years old now, and has lived simply for “as long as he can remember.” He acquired twenty acres of good Verdigris River bottomland from his father when he was in his twenties, and has lived off the vegetables, cattle, and chickens he could raise since then. Mr. R– is an exception amongst my group, for he has no profession or trade. And he certainly does not want a trade. He told me once, “You couldn’t melt a job and pour it on me.” Mr. R–‘s profession as I see it is fishing, napping, and ’coon huntin’.
A few threads common to these stories help point out what makes it possible for these people to live these lives. Firstly, each of these men is a bachelor. Anyone that was in any sort of close commitment would find such an undertaking to be difficult. Thoreau says in Walden, “The man who goes alone can start to-day; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off” (49). Another point held in common is these men kept their place in society, even if they did not maintain it in the societal hierarchy. In Dr. T–‘s case, he still went to work each day, James lives in town amongst the bustle and people he is used to, and Mr. R– never was a very social man, and is most comfortable among the boonies and brambles. Additionally, people tie their identity to their careers or vocations. Ask someone what he or she is. They don’t say, “I am a living, breathing, thinking, individual,” they say, “I’m a fireman, teacher, electrician, Etceteras.” No one I know will give up that part of himself or herself. Mr. R– is what he has always been, a leisurely countryman, even though he would call himself a farmer, Dr. T– continued to be a professor and James is a tile layer. These common men all see themselves as having an identity. Emerson also felt that humans required more than a subsistence living. He actually expressed these thoughts to Thoreau in a letter found in Emerson’s own journal:
My dear Henry,
A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp.
Something else occurred to me at this time. Suppose everyone could live the
Walden lifestyle. It would not work if everyone subscribed to it. The world would be plunged into a Dark Age. The books we all love would become very scarce if the world only worked six weeks per year as Thoreau claims he did while living at Walden pond (47). If the world only worked six weeks per year the iron shovels, axes, ploughs, and hoes he used to cultivate his bean field would become scarce, therefore expensive, and soon we would be reduced to using wooden implements. These wooden implements would render us less efficient, and soon we would be working many more than six weeks per year.
Because I watched my father work and cut and mash and bruise his hands as a diesel mechanic his entire life, I realized Thoreau was right and I wanted to work as little and as pleasantly as possible. Many people fritter their youth and health away for a living and a small retirement. Thoreau saw the futility in this and writes in Walden:
The spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England to live the life of a poet. He should have gone up the garret at once. What exclaim a million Irishman starting from all shanties in the land, “is not the railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in the dirt (36).
I also realized I couldn’t suppress my drive for material goods and advancement. Robinson states Emerson knew that a workable philosophy would require acceptance of “human economic drives” (141). Emerson lived a fairly bourgeois life and sought out a degree of material success. His disdain for poverty is evident when after hearing Thoreau energetically tell of a hermit living in the woods “with respect, but with despair,” Emerson wrote, “Perhaps he has found it foolish and wasteful to spend a tenth or a twentieth of his active life with a muskrat and fried fishes” (Robinson 141). He obviously was a slightly materialistic man. In Self-Reliance, Emerson speaks of a hypothetical upwardly mobile man he admired, a man quite the opposite to Thoreau’s hermit:
A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to congress, buys a township, and so forth in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame at not studying a profession, for he does not postpone his life but lives already. He has not one but a hundred chances (39).
The city doll Emerson refers to here is the young merchant who “fails” in his first year, or the young professional without a job.
Late in 1992, I began working as a driver for a self-made man similar to the one mentioned above, but not as grand. The employees of this little business consisted of the owner, his wife, and myself. The owner and his wife worked together and were seemingly wealthy and very independent. I began to see there was a way to increase my independence and free time while increasing my income. Even Thoreau saw fit to plant two and a half acres of beans in order to meet his “unusual expenses” (37). I began to enjoy and understand the principles of entrepreneurship.
Thoreau also seemed to feel that commerce and enterprise was a noble pursuit. He said, “What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery. It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter. I see these men every day go about their business with more courage and content, doing more even than they suspect and perchance better employed than they could have consciously devised” (80).
Upon leaving the mom and pop business for the University of Oklahoma in July of 1994, I was making $9.75 per hour, a pretty tidy wage for a 19-year-old. I came to Norman, bought my books, paid my tuition, and set about the business of becoming a physician. In my mind, to be a physician was at the pinnacle of vocations. Respect from the community, ample income, helping your fellow man, rigorous order in the form of science, challenging problems, and golf every day all made this look like the gig for me. So, I was ready, with a plan, and no income, none. My studies came to me easily, there was a lot to learn and I did my damnedest to learn all of it. Even with my modest expenditures of about $775.00 per month, I soon learned I needed cash. I lived in a room measuring ten feet by twelve, I had only two pair of denim jeans, some T-shirts, a pair of combat boots (steel-toed of course), no gasoline, and ramen noodles and tuna were my standard fare, and I thought Thoreau would have been proud. I wasn’t though. In September of 1995, a woman asked me to paint her house and do some handiwork for her. I did the work for her and made what I thought was a tidy sum. I began looking for more of this type of work, and found it. Through these means, I worked many hours and supported myself very well for the next six months.
In the fall of 1996, I secured a job with a wealthy orthopedic surgeon. The job took me five months to complete, so I was at the doctor’s home a great deal. I talked to the doctor when he was home, which was rarely, because he worked about ninety hours a week. We talked about his hobbies, his job, and his family. His family life consisted of his merely coming home, his hobbies consisted of buying sports equipment, instead of actually playing, he didn’t have time. And of course, his job took up his entire being. He thought of everything in relation to his medical practice. I don’t have time to play softball because of work. My son is doing well in science because he loves medicine, etc. I was fairly disgusted with the man, but didn’t see how my chasing money was similar to his pursuit of money until I was in the hardware store and saw a water hose like the many he had around his home, and noticed they were over $60.00 each. At that point, I realized there was no reason to work that much in order to squander the proceeds on expensive water hoses, houses, cars, sports equipment, or whatever, if you don’t have time home with your family.
At this point, I was very skeptical about becoming a physician. My grades were excellent, I had a growing business, but my girlfriend of four years and I were having problems, I hadn’t read a book for fun in a year, and I was exhausted. In November of 1996, I decided against becoming an M.D. and focused on spending my time as wisely as possible. My business partner was very annoyed at my changed attitude toward work. I was working about seventy hours per week before, so I hired another employee and cut my own pay and work drastically. This change in my philosophy eventually led to me buying my partner’s half of the business, but it also led to salvaging my relationship with my girlfriend and my eventual marriage to her. I now have a modest income, and have a very casual work schedule I maintain by spending extra money on advertising, in order to spend less time on sales, and paying my employees very well, so that I can delegate more work to them thereby freeing myself further.
At home, we economize and budget carefully. We grow squashes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, and catnip. We don’t shop at the malls, we don’t have cable, we eat a lot of beans, and we invest a lot. We don’t have one chance, we have a hundred.
I am still a microbiology student and am constantly around medical students who are excited about their work and the money they will make. One medical student who I have discussed my lifestyle with is very critical. He asks, why do I drive a twelve-year-old truck with 226,000 miles on it, why do I pay my employees so much, doesn’t that hurt my income, how can you live without a television, don’t you think you’re wasting your potential? I tell him the truck only cost $1,800 and it starts every time, I depend on my employees and owe them much, and how can you live with a television anyway? And lastly, I believe I am using my potential to its fullest by making each dollar as efficiently as possible, and not requiring too many dollars for my happiness.
Today, I have my garden, my bird feeders, my wife (who only works part-time as well), my cats, and no television, and the time to enjoy them all. My wife and I have decided should we have children, one of us will stay at home to teach and raise them, despite the lost income due to only one of us working. These decisions are greatly due to a sensibility I learned from reading Emerson and Thoreau. I don’t believe Walden would have made such an impression if I had not read it first as a teenager. E. B. White explained it best when he wrote, “I think it is of some advantage to encounter the book at a period in our life when the normal anxieties and enthusiasms and rebellions of youth closely resemble those of Thoreau in that spring of 1854 when he borrowed an axe, went out to the woods, and began to whack down some trees for timber” (361). Like Thoreau, our time is becoming priceless.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Poems. Eds. Tony Tanner and Christopher Bigsby. Rutland, Vt: Everyman, 1995.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. Gilman. Vol. 14. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Robinson, David Miller. Emerson and the Conduct of Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government 2nd ed. Ed William Rossi. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.
White, E.B. “Walden 1954.” Walden and Resistance to Civil Government 2nd ed. Ed William Rossi. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992. 359-66.