Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden.
On August 9, 1854, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, A Life in the Woods was published by Ticknor and Fields, in an initial print run of 2,000 copies, which sold for a dollar each (the equivalent of about $35 today). Though the book was received well, it wasn’t an instant blockbuster—it took five years for Thoreau to sell out that first printing.
Since then, of course, Thoreau’s ode to simple living and self-reliance—which details the two years he spent living in a 10-by-15 foot cabin near Walden Pond—has become a staple of high school curriculums and a mainstay of the American literary canon. “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible,” John Updike wrote in 2004. “Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century—Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), to which we might add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854) as a nation-stirring bestseller and Emerson’s essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground—Walden has contributed most to America’s present sense of itself.”
Of course, Thoreau’s legacy has also been the subject of a few queries. For instance: Did he actually live on Walden Pond? Would he really have wanted us to buy these lavender sweatpants? Does it still count as self-reliance if your mother does your laundry? Should everyone actually shut up about the laundry thing? Is Walden a beautiful treatise on the natural world and man’s place in it? Or is it, as Kathryn Schulz put it, “the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people”? And are we all just tired of hearing about him by now? At least that last question has an obvious answer.
Virtuosic in his use of literary forms, nurtured and unbounded by his identities as a Black man, a gay man, an intellectual, and a Southerner, Randall Kenan was known for his groundbreaking fiction. Less visible were his extraordinary nonfiction essays, published as introductions to anthologies and in small journals, revealing countless facets of Kenan’s life and work.
Flying under the radar, these writings were his most personal and autobiographical. This powerful collection is a testament to a great mind, a great soul, and a great writer from whom readers will always wish to have more to read.
Start reading now.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
–HENRY DAVID THOREAU
In other (old)
news this week
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is performed for (possibly) the first time, with Richard Burbage in the title role, at Hampton Court Palace (August 7, 1606) • Italo Calvino’s letter of resignation from the Italian Communist Party is published in L’Unita (August 7, 1957) • The profoundly lovable 22-year-old John Keats returns from a walking tour of Scotland with the first signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him (August 8, 1818) • Legendary bookshop and publisher City Lights puts out its first book, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World (August 10, 1955) • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf get married, “quietly, with no party” (August 10, 1912) • James Joyce’s story “The Sisters,” which would become the first story in his 1914 collection Dubliners, is published in the Irish Homestead (August 13, 1904)
I love borders. August is the border between summer and autumn; it is the most beautiful month I know.
Everyone thinks that having a talent is a matter of luck; no one thinks that luck could be a matter of talent.