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Wrote and died before his time arrived
on 13 January 2011
Thoreau died, aged 44, in 1862. Walden: or, Life in the Woods, based on his experiment in subsistence living between 1845 and 1847, was one of only two books published in his lifetime. Neither was a commercial success. His `time' came later, and could plausibly be said to be still continuing. By the end of the nineteenth century a vast amount of his writing was in print, including much taken from the 39 notebooks of daily jottings that constituted his Journal. Each generation since has warmed to one or another facet of his writing - his philosophy, observation of nature, simple living, and refusal to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery and waged the Mexican-American War.
For purists, it is all too easy to pick holes. Thoreau's philosophy was far from rigorous in an academic sense; many of his observations from nature were not scientifically robust; building his log cabin only one and a half miles from his parents' home and continuing to buy essentials in Concord (he was on his way to the shoe-menders when arrested for non-payment of taxes), he cannot credibly be said to have cut himself off from society; and for his refusal to pay taxes he spent only one night in the local lock-up before an aunt paid his debt. But to pick holes would be to risk missing several important points. First and foremost, he did succeed in sustaining himself at a basic level for fully two years. His diet was essentially, though not exclusively, vegetarian; he drank only water; kept no pets or other livestock; and seems never to have even thought of acquiring and maintaining a family. In so doing, he successfully demonstrated that living in such a way demands only a very small cash income, so that it is not necessary to work anything like "full-time", thus releasing much time for walking, reading, contemplation and writing. He derived great personal satisfaction from that lifestyle and took particular pleasure in his cabin, built by his own hands.
The book is not an easy read and a measure of sympathy with the undertaking will be required to get most readers beyond the opening chapters. Even, then, all but the most enthusiastic would have to concede that the book is patchy. However, some of the best patches serve to make the whole worthwhile. Such a passage is a description of a hawk in flight found on page 210 of this edition ("On the 29th of April, as I was fishing from the bank near the Nine-Acre-Corner bridge..."). Incidentally, to get the absolute most out this passage, and the whole book, readers will need to know the length of a perch (as in rod, pole and perch, 40 to a furlong). It is sixteen and a half feet, or 5.08 metres.