Thoreau on America

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal. “There was a need for America.”

Thoreau made that statement in the context of Western literature, as in it needed the wildness of America to shatter the complacency and staid traditions of the typical European fare. In my mind, Thoreau was right. Along came Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, even Emily Dickinson to some extent, and you can see Thoreau’s point was valid.

Thoreau’s statement got me thinking well beyond its original context of Western literature.

There really was once a need for America, to overthrow a monarchy, establish a republic, produce a written constitution, enable social mobility, accept more immigrants than all the other nations of the world combined, create a national park system, to invent some miraculous medical cures, and to defeat the Axis Powers, among other notable accomplishments. Of course it was all accomplished with the destruction of Native Americans and slavery but some good came out of the American experiment.

But when I consider that sentence 150 years after Thoreau wrote it, I really don’t believe it has a shred of relevance today. In fact, the opposite might be true. There is no need for America today, at least the America as represented by the US government (with either party in control of foreign policy), increasing income inequality, mass shootings, growing homelessness, endless and mindless entertainment, fanatical Christianity, consumer capitalism, high tech corporations undermining everything decent in Americans, and the ongoing annihilation of the natural world.

There is definitely still a need for a different, better America that isn’t consumed by fear, division, conspiracy theories, religious absolutism and personal freedom gone totally amok.

Sometimes when I read Thoreau, I wonder if I am wasting my time because his ideas for how to live right are all almost impossible to imagine today.

But, always, I come back around and know I am not wasting my time reading Thoreau. As my life moves into a new phase, Thoreau’s journals, essays and Walden, offer somewhat of a possible model of how to live a quiet, purposeful and creative existence, along a creek or river, perhaps near the ocean. We’ll see. I am thinking about that future life, envisioning. In fact, I have a place in mind.