On the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau (which was yesterday; I was fishing), Beacon Press asked me to write a little sumthin about about what Thoreau “meant to me as a writer.” Here’s what I came up with, or you can read it in context on Beacon’s blog, the Beacon Broadside, here.
I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.
I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.
At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake.
It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.
What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization.
To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass…
Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.