The American Scholar

Looking Back From the End of the World

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, when my daughter was about to turn two, my wife and I took her on a trip to Walden Pond. As we approached the place where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood, with my daughter riding up on my shoulders, I said to her: “That’s where the man lived who ruined your father’s life.”

Ruined in a mostly good way, I meant. I discovered Waldenwhen I was 16 and never quite recovered. The way my life was ruined was that I began to question the values of the system I found myself in. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind,” Thoreau wrote, and I hollered, “Amen!” In this way, Thoreau was like a more profound, less musical version of getting stoned and listening to Pink Floyd, but the effect was more lasting. I began to keep a journal in high school, and I keep one to this day. After college, the sentences from Thoreau’s book were still rippling outward through my life, affecting the choices I made. To hell with law school or any normal career. I would become a writer. I would value solitude. And I would move to my very own Walden.

I have been thinking about Thoreau as the COVID-19 virus sweeps across the country. The obvious stuff—he was America’s original social distancer—and the not so obvious. Thoreau can serve as a model of self-reliance, reminding us that pulling back from the world, which at the moment will save lives, has its less dramatic virtues. Having long been a corrective to our compulsive national habits of overbusyness and consumption, he can inspire just such a corrective now, but only if we try to dig below the cliché of him. Because, as it happens, Thoreau was not all flowers and acorns, and this man, who died at 44, had some profound and sturdy thoughts not just about nature but about death and disaster, too. There will come a time soon, after the pandemic has subsided, when we will try to make sense of what has happened, when we will tell a story about where we are and where we are going. And about how we have changed. For me, at least, Thoreau’s ideas will be part of that story.

LET ME FIRST ISSUE A WARNING and disclaimer. I am wary of anyone who offers “lessons” from a moment of crisis. September 11 should have taught us that most of these immediate insights are disposable. And I understand that urging people to read Walden if they are sick and dying right now, or if they know others who are, is a little like the frontier priest pushing the Bible. On the evening I began typing this essay, my sister, who works as a palliative care chaplain at a hospital, texted me to say that she was tending two patients with COVID-19. One of them was 58, the other 37. By the next day, both had died and my sister was preparing “grief packages” for their families (the younger patient had a small child).

For so many people, this is a time of complication, distress, and worry—for the sick and dying, and for a long list of others as well. Friends who are at home trying to do their jobs, if they still have jobs, while taking care of young children. My mother, isolated in her nursing home, living out an experiment in solitude that is both unchosen and more extreme than Thoreau’s. My niece who was stuck in England, having just visited Spain, when things got hairy. The woman I work with most closely at the office, an “admin” in the lingo of

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