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Henry David Thoreau

Author John Cech
Air Date 7/11/2005

Henry David Thoreau Transcript

It’s Henry David Thoreau’s birthday this week, an appropriate time (though any time is good) to introduce children to the workings of this original mind. A philosopher-naturalist, Thoreau offered an alternative set of values to the myth of American success that was already chugging along in the middle of the 19th Century: “A man is rich,” Thoreau wrote, “in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” A group of these aphorisms are collected in the picture book by Thomas Locker, Walking With Henry, that follows Thoreau on one of his rambles into the wilderness that he so loved and celebrated in his work. Locker’s paintings are alive with the luminous textures and moods of the natural world. “We can never have enough of nature,” Thoreau maintained, and to look at the radiant vistas that Locker creates to evoke the New England of the 1800s, we would certainly agree. It’s a message that is increasingly important for children to hear, to inspire their own connections with the wild. And in our ever more materialistic world, it’s a tonic for us to hear words like these:

“In the society of many men, or in the midst of what is called success, I find my life of no account, and my spirits rapidly fail….But when I hear only a rustling oak leaf, or the faint metallic cheep of a tree sparrow, for variety in my winter walk, my life becomes content sweet as the kernel of a nut.”

Thoreau’s famous adventures are also the subject of a trilogy of D. B. Johnson’s books, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and, more recently, Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Climbs a Mountain. In each of these books, Thoreau is anthropomorphized into a large brown bear, and through him Johnson reinterprets an episode from Thoreau’s life — his bet with a friend about whether it is better to cover the distance between Concord and Fitchburg by rail or by foot; his famous sojourn in jail because of his refusal to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery; and the building of his cabin by Walden Pond. The modernist, almost cubist visual style of these books, which has been compared to painters like Cezanne, also illuminates the playful energy that Thoreau brought to his life. In Henry Builds a Cabin, his friends are worried about the little house he is constructing in the woods — that it’s not big enough, bright enough inside, or roomy enough to dance in. But Henry knows that the essence of his shelter has nothing to do with size or light or danceability. On the last page of the book, he joyfully revels in his own, unique perspective when he lets us all in on his secret: “This is just the room I wear when it’s raining!”

Posted in Authors, Literature