Becoming Thoreau

Richard Smith as Henry David Thoreau. Photograph by Maria Lewis.

Henry David Thoreau has been haunting me lately. I’ve been settling into a new apartment, decorating and adorning it for hours and hours. One afternoon, the spine of Walden glared at me from the bookshelf and I opened onto “Economy.” Thoreau attacked me, directly, from the page. “Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation,” he’d written. From the midst of a life that’s muddled like a closet with too many clothes, I started to feel like an Ivan Ilyich—fallen from a stepladder, on the verge of contracting a fatal wound as I hang the perfectly banal drape. I don’t know what it is Thoreau wants from me, but I know that money is tight these days—for me, for everyone. The periodic dreams of material luxury that I harbor have been mostly absent for months. Yet I sense that I’ve been frivolous.

Perhaps I’ve invoked the specter of Thoreau myself. As someone with a thirst for eccentric or astringent disciplines—but without a fixed religious tradition to craft and mold these penchants in reliably holy ways—I’ve probably given him too much prophetic authority in my life. More than he’d want or deserve. When he went out to Walden Pond and built a tiny little house in the woods, he was staging an experience, trying to live a radically simple life, creating a report that might be used as a guidebook for those who had the cojones to try it for themselves. But I’ve read his words as a disciple would. I’ve taken him, I suppose, as an early example of someone like myself: ascetically oriented (me in a mild sense, I suppose) yet doctrinally, theologically, philosophically promiscuous.

Right or wrong, I’m not alone. When I made a pit-stop pilgrimage to Walden Pond this summer (between my house in Jersey and a holiday in Maine) I walked out to the site where Thoreau’s little house once stood. The shack was gone, and it in its place stood a pile of stones, a massive cairn—comfortingly marking a trail. Some stones were painted with crudely affectionate images and messages. One was embossed with names and dates of a young man (1972-2006)—a gravestone. Someone had been left to rest eternally in that place. I had the sense that it had been made into sacred ground of sorts—a sanctum sanctorum, a wooded, open-air temple.

When I stopped by to peruse the bookshop on the grounds, the purveyor took note of my reading material (The Spiritual Journals of Henry David Thoreau, The Gita within Walden) and, perhaps, sighted a kindred. We struck up a conversation on Thoreau’s analyses of God, and of the Gita. Turns out that this guy, Richard Smith, is about as close as you can get to a modern-day disciple of the man himself. He’s there doing living history. For more than a decade he has been “becoming” Thoreau: dressing up in meticulous 19th-century regalia, reading his essays in front of crowds, fielding questions (in the first person) from the public, about the man’s personal life and politics. Eleven years ago, he moved to Concord (from Akron, Ohio, where he was working in a living history museum) with his ex-wife (also a living historian) to turn Walden into his sanctum sanctorum. I was impressed by the deliberateness of this passion—or, perhaps, obsession. I started to wonder if he might be the closest I’d get to a ghost. I thought we should sit down for a chat.

Richard: I often wonder what he would think about all of this. Me, doing living history as him. You know, does he like it, does he not like it?

Beatrice: Do you feel like he’s watching? What do you think he’d say?

Richard: I don’t think he would be impressed. Once, I was leading a walk through Walden Pond as Thoreau. I had a group of eighth graders with me. And one asked, “Mr. Thoreau, if you knew that there was a guy 150 years from now pretending to be you, what would you say?” And at first I was really impressed, and I was thinking, “Oh, what a great question.” And without even missing a beat, I said (and I think this was a very “Henry” answer), “I would tell him to get his own life and leave mine alone.” I do think this is what he’d say. On the other hand, I’m also turning a lot of people on to him. So, I’m sure he’d appreciate the PR.

Beatrice: In a sense then, maybe you’ve chosen to be a bit of a Thoreau evangelist?

Richard: Well, I want people to be aware of a few things. I want people to be aware of the fact that Thoreau was a living, breathing, funny, spiritual guy.

Beatrice: You were telling me earlier, when you were talking about discovering the Transcendentalists, that Thoreau had been the one to really… “blow your mind” is the phrase you used, I think.

Richard: It is the phrase I used.

Beatrice: What was it? What did that for you?

Richard: Well, I come from a fairly conservative background. When I was in my early 20s I got pretty involved in the punk scene in Ohio. I sang in a couple of punk bands in the early 80s. You know, I voted for Angela Davis and the Communist Party one year, for president. I was raised very Catholic, and conservative, and Republican. But by the time I got involved in the punk scene I’d become pretty left-wing, pretty “radical.” I was also studying to become an historian, and I was always attracted to the troublemakers in American history. Not just Thoreau, but Abby Hoffman, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Paine. All of the rebels. I really liked them. When I started to read the Transcendentalists, I think it was Thoreau who I was most interested in. I mean, I love Emerson, but he just always seemed a little stodgy to me. Whereas Thoreau—people talk about how his hair was always uncombed. And he wore old clothes.

Beatrice: So once you got into the Transcendentalists, what was it that kept you reading them?

Richard: You know, Thoreau is just a small part of this radical, vibrant group of thinkers in the mid-19th century. People like Theodore Parker, or Margaret Fuller, or Lizzie Peabody. These people are all fighting for women’s rights, they’re fighting for African-Americans’ rights. They’re fighting for an end to unjust war. They’re questioning the government, they’re questioning the church. They’re talking about a pantheistic spirituality. So the radicalism is, I think, what attracted me more than anything else. A lot of old hippies like to say that Thoreau was the first hippie. But I like to say, sometimes, that he was the first punk rocker. He didn’t care what people thought. He questioned the government. Hippies tend to be peacemakers, peace and love. But Thoreau saw nothing wrong with someone like John Brown trying to violently end slavery.

Beatrice: But, isn’t part of punk music about re-directing that violence?

Richard: Absolutely. I don’t want to sit here and say that killing slaveholders was a good thing. But you have to consider what an abomination slavery was in the first place. Thoreau talks about that. He says that if you’re upset about the death of a slaveholder then you should be upset about the institution of slavery.

Beatrice: So it was really the spirit of revolt that attracted you to Thoreau, initially?

Richard: Absolutely. It’s a kind of spiritual radicalism.

Beatrice: What do you mean by that?

Richard: Well, the reason he didn’t pay his poll tax was because he was protesting the Mexican War, and he was protesting slavery. But the reason he was protesting these things was because he was following his conscience. A conscientious man, who followed his conscience—the voice of God—which discerned right from wrong had a reason not to pay his taxes. It’s not right to support the war in Mexico. You know that it’s wrong to support slavery because that’s what your conscience tells you. So I really think he’s coming at his radicalism spiritually. “Civil Disobedience,” while it’s a great political essay, is also a spiritual essay. In Walden he talks a great deal about following your conscience. He’s got a whole chapter called “Higher Laws.” For Thoreau, and for some of the Transcendentalists, there are man-made laws, there are laws that tell you what you supposedly can and cannot do. But in Thoreau’s mind, in the mind of many Transcendentalists, and in Dr. Martin Luther King’s mind for example, there are higher laws that come from God. So, by this view, the things that come from God supersede laws that come from Congress, or Parliament, or the president.

Beatrice: Has this always resonated for you? This idea of higher laws that come from God?

Richard: I guess, being raised Catholic, yeah. I mean, when you’re raised as a Catholic [laughs] you’re very aware of conscience. But as you get older, as I got older, I started to realize that a lot of the rules in Catholicism weren’t really God’s rules. There are a lot of rules Catholics have to follow that I don’t necessarily think come from God. They’re man-made rules. They come from the pope. And the last time I checked, the pope was just a guy.

Beatrice: But what about Transcendentalism and its man-made ideas? How does something man-made like Transcendentalism teach you about higher laws in a way that Catholicism doesn’t?

Richard: Well, I think because the Transcendentalists were trying to talk about innate characteristics that you’re born with. They weren’t trying to be a sect, or even a philosophy. So they might argue that you don’t really have to have a figure like Jesus telling you that you should do unto others as you would have done unto you. If you’re a thinking, feeling, rational human being, you know that it’s wrong to hurt people. You know that it’s wrong to kill, and steal, and murder. You just know. Transcendentalism is a very spiritual movement. But it’s very humanistic.

Beatrice: Do you consider yourself a Transcendentalist? I mean, do you believe that we bear these innate characteristics, as human beings?

Richard: I don’t know that I would consider myself a Transcendentalist. I certainly hold very transcendental ideals. I’m pretty aware of the divinity that’s inside of me. And I’m certainly aware of the divinity that’s all around me. Gods play a really important role in my life. And I worship nature. One thing I’ve learned from Thoreau is that your daily life should be your prayer. I feel really, really blessed that I’m able to live how I live, to do what I do. I definitely feel like I’m being blessed by… whatever it is. I mean, really, I worship several different gods. My favorite god is Krishna. How can you not like a god who’s blue, and plays the flute, and has lots of women following him around? [Laughs.] I also worship the Shawnee creator, who is a goddess. Her name, translated, is Grandmother. So I’m always thanking both Krishna and Grandmother for all of the blessings that come my way. I don’t know. I guess I’m just pretty aware of the divine spark, in me and around me.

Beatrice: Sounds awfully Quaker of you.

Richard: Well, and you know, the Transcendentalists loved the idea of the inner light. And I have to agree. But that doesn’t stop me from drinking beer.

Beatrice: You know, one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’ve been re-reading Thoreau is the fact that “belief” as such doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to him. What you believe doesn’t seem to matter as much as the fact that, as you said earlier, your rituals and practices in daily life becomes a kind of prayer. I suppose I find this profoundly important as well. Say you’re Catholic, for instance, and you go to church on Sundays. You have these rituals in place, and it doesn’t necessarily matter so much what you believe about them.

Richard: Sure, if you murder someone and then go to confession the next week, you’re good.

Beatrice: Well, OK, but I’m thinking more about rituals, about the things you do, and how these things are meant to renew a spiritual life. I mean, I think one of the things that interests me about Thoreau—as someone who studies theology—are these tactical spiritual disciplines. A Catholic, for example, will participate in disciplines that have already been constructed, centuries before. They’re time-tested. For Thoreau, there’s a kind of added challenge. Spiritual disciplines are important, but you make the disciplines up yourself as you go along, depending on your context.

Richard: That’s what Thoreau’s all about. In Walden, Thoreau meets Alex Therrien. He’s a lumberjack, he loves it, it’s what he wants to do with his life. He knows that’s what he’s here for, and he’s living this life. And Thoreau was all about that. Thoreau talks about living the life you imagined. And I guess, in a sense, I’m doing it. I’ve created this crazy career for myself. Kids ask me, “Is it possible to do what Thoreau says we can do?” And I’m like, “Yeah. Look at me. I’m doing what I want to do.” I took this silly hobby of playing dress-up and I turned it into a job. I’ve earned a living for eleven years doing it. When I read the conclusion to Walden, where Thoreau says that if you live the life you imagine you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours, I feel like I’m doing that.

Beatrice: So regardless of whether he’d approve of your particular method, you’re doing what he told you to do. I mean, he might be a little bit uncomfortable, perhaps?

Richard: Yeah. I don’t know if he’d want to be put up on a pedestal.

Beatrice: But do you really put him on a pedestal?

Richard: No, you know what, the more I know him, the less I do. In fact, there are some days when I don’t even like him. I read his journals a lot and, sometimes, I read a comment that he makes about somebody, or something, and I think, “Man, what a dick.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, I don’t know if he’d really like what I’m doing. But I’ve helped him sell a lot of books. Sometimes I imagine that I’m going to die, and go to wherever, and when I get there I’m going to run into Henry and he’s going to be like, “You asshole.” [Laughs.] But, then again, maybe he’ll give me a big thumbs up.

Beatrice Marovich is a writer who studies theories of divinity. She’s currently working on a PhD at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion in Madison, NJ.