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On Walden Pond, Where Thoreau Practiced Self-Resistance and Ate Squirrels

by W. Barksdale Maynard
Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 241 (Fall 2002)

Reprinted by permission of the author and the Thoreau Society Bulletin.
Editor’s Note: At the request of the author, all spelling and grammar errors were allowed to remain.

For the historian researching the history of Walden Pond, it’s not always easy to separate truth from fiction.

Even the brochure “20 Key Facts about Walden Pond” issued by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, the agency responsible for the pond and surrounding state land, is only partly accurate.

When such “official” sources are wrong, you can imagine how much inaccuracy is to be found elsewhere—much of it unintentionally funny. For example, John A. Herbert’s travel piece in the St. Petersburg [Florida] Times, “For Hiking, Biking, Try Walden Pond.”

Yes, “Biking,” notwithstanding the fact that the second sentence of the article reports that things prohibited at the pond include “bikes.” Perhaps Herbert is encouraging us to act in the spirit of what he calls “the definitive book on civil disobedience, Walden, which would have trashed all these modern prohibitions.”

Herbert’s descriptions of Walden Pond suggest a somewhat limited familiarity with the place. It is “part of a 400-acre Massachusetts state park. The land was donated by the Concord family of author-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the Hard Rock Cafe chain, Reebok and AT&T.” He supposes that “many visitors in swimsuits approach Walden with the same hushed voices they probably save for church. Nor is there any litter in sight.”

As for Thoreau, he “was given a small piece of wooded land by the Emerson family…. He spent a few years there thinking about the meaning of life, and he published his treatise on civil disobedience years later. After Thoreau moved from the cabin in the 1850s, it was used to store grain. By 1870, the cabin had been torn down for scrap lumber and to roof over an outhouse.”

From the “postwar replica” [of 1985, actually] in the parking lot “the stone foundation of the original cabin is a 15-minute walk overlooking the entrance to the pond.”

Warming to his subject, Herbert adds, “Developers had first envisioned Walden as a site for condominiums and shopping malls…. Thoreau might have liked the naming of complexes after him and Walden Pond.” Thoreau bravely spoke “against slavery and what he saw as economic injustices” before his death; now “he’s buried in the 300-year-old [actually from 1855] Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.”

Herbert’s article is amusing in the breadth of its inaccuracies, but the Web offers the most fertile ground for error. (Appropriately, Herbert’s article is online at www.sptimes.com/News/ 090901/Travel/For_hiking__biking__t.shtml) The truly devoted Thoreauvian might consider moving to the following development in Lynchburg, Virginia—as advertised on the Web:

Walden Pond Apartment Homes is just minutes from River Ridge Mall, Wal-Mart, Target, Food Lion, CVS Pharmacy, the Plaza Shopping Center and much more!... Our Jr. Olympic-size swimming pool, lighted tennis courts, fishing pond, fully equipped fitness center, basketball court, clubhouse and unique guest apartment make Walden Pond the place to live…. Comprised of buildings 1400- 2400, Thoreau’s Cove is nearest the pond, gazebo, picnic area and a tot lot. The paved jogging trail curves around it. If you have your own washer and dryer, consider Thoreau’s Cove.

On some websites devoted to Thoreau, readers weigh in with observations that make the historian smile.

Internet “chatrooms” attract procrastinating students who post desperate, night-before-the-deadline queries: “WALDEN EXPERTS PLEASE READ!!!!!” Their pleas are heartfelt:

Assisting these hapless scholars are purported Thoreau Chatroom Experts, cloaked, for some reason, in anonymity. “Freaky Deaky” — who, one suspects, is something less than a Walter Harding — is nonetheless lauded by one fan as “intelligent end a great help to students of Literature.”

The Experts encourage scholarship, of a sort. A college student posts, full-text, her groundbreaking essay, “Walden as a 12 Step Program,” in which it is argued that “Thoreau receives guidance from the Pond; similar to the guidance an alcoholic obtains from their A.A. sponsor.” This fires the imagination of an Expert, who chirps, “It seems to me that you might be able to get it published. You might ask your professor if he would be interested in becoming a coauthor.”

How did the published-scholar-to-be first become interested in Thoreau? “It was a few weeks ago when he [Thoreau] was the assigned author of the day for my Early American Literature Class…. Until then, I have never heard of him. Actually, I have only read one book for leisure, Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Album.”

On amazon.com, peanut-gallery reviewers critique Walden. Few of them seem likely to join the Thoreau Society:

Leaving the Internet (with relief) and turning to quaint, old-fashioned reality, we may flip through the guestbook at the Thoreau house replica at Walden Pond State Reservation for further insights into public perceptions. Here are dubious tributes:

Visitors offer their favorite Thoreau quotations, including, “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it’s still a beautiful world.” But alas, those Amazon.comian skeptics are here, too:

“I liked the movie better,” one tourist writes in the guestbook. This baffles me. I encounter another reference: “Seen the film, now the lake.” I don’t quite understand this either, until a third encounter: “It’s time to re-read ‘On Walden Pond.’ ” Um, could you possibly be thinking of the 1981 movie, On Golden Pond? You know—the one starring that rascally old squirrel-eater, Henry Thoreaufonda?

Picture credits: Pool: www.waldenpondliving.com
Bill Amend, At Least This Place Sells T-Shirts: A Fox Trot Collection.
© 1996 - Permission requested.
Thoreau House Interior: Calliope, Inc.


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Updated Feb. 20, 2010