Why you should care

Because sucking the marrow out of life sometimes means getting a little on your shirt.

The nonprofit organization that oversees the birthplace of the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau recently announced its intention to honor the famous naturalist’s legacy by taking him “off-grid again.” How? By launching a campaign on Indiegogo to raise $25,000 for the installation of a solar photovoltaic system that would power the historic site.

It’s now been 168 years since Thoreau began his famous two-year “experiment” in simple living at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, but his legacy remains powerful – albeit not yet solar-powered – in American culture. And whether it’s because of the economic downturn in recent years or a newfound desire to connect with nature or both, many young Americans in the so-called millennial generation have decided, or been forced, to start their own experiments in simple living.

Thoreau’s experiment certainly epitomizes America — but not in the ways you might think.

Can Thoreau’s endeavor still be held up as model to those seeking to get back to the basics? His experiment certainly epitomizes America — but not in the ways you might think.

A kind of mythology has grown up around Thoreau and Walden Pond in popular culture. Most Americans think of Thoreau as a philosopher-hermit who lived alone in the woods with his transcendental thoughts and rows of beans. Walden has become a state of mind, and Thoreau himself has come to represent an iconic countercultural figure — the literary world’s Che Guevara.

In truth, Thoreau’s experiment at Walden was closer to the 19th-century equivalent of a genre modern Americans would find quite familiar: the reality show. Thoreau’s cabin was not in the unexplored wilderness but rather about 1.5 miles from his family’s home in Concord. But it had that contrived authenticity that reality television so relentlessly strives to capture. And Thoreau himself was every bit as self-conscious about his choices as most reality contestants.

small cabin with fireplace at far end, bed by a window and desk opposite.

the interior of a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin is seen near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass

Source Michael Dwyer/Corbis

Like many millennials, Thoreau was not particularly drawn to a conventional career in law, medicine or business.

When he embarked for Walden, Thoreau was a 20-something Harvard grad from a relatively well-off pencil-making family. Like many millennials, Thoreau was not particularly drawn to a conventional career in law, medicine or business, and so he’d meandered from place to place during his 20s seeking out different experiences — and working a number of jobs, including at his parents’ pencil factory and as a tutor and handyman in the household of a mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who bought the land at Walden Pond on which Thoreau would live during his experiment.

In his landmark book, Thoreau informs readers that he went to Walden to “transact some private business.” The business was, of course, his first book — something Thoreau had been planning for several years. For the young aspiring writer, Walden represented not only a chance to strike out on his own in a challenging environment but also to do something unique — something that would further his own development and his own ambitions. In many ways, he was not so different from many recent college students today. He was desperate to make a difference and always hungering for an authentic experience that would bring self-fulfillment, but he was also eager to self-promote and launch himself in a crowded field.

Exterior view of a small cabin in the woods during the day

The Not So Simple Life

Source Lee Snider/Corbis

Some have called Thoreau a privileged hypocrite for not maintaining a true hermit’s life — for having dinner out with friends, entertaining guests, buying some supplies in town, and making frequent visits to his parents’ house down the road (presumably to eat and do laundry if he was like any other cash-strapped 28-year-old). And, to be fair, Thoreau never set out to be the enlightened hermit he has become. But he was a trailblazer, one who embodied the very American virtues of self-promotion and self-improvement. He was a Whole Foods yuppie-hippie before there was Whole Foods, and a self-help guru before the age of the self-help industry.

Still, if Thoreau were alive today, we know where you would likely find him, if he really was like many millennials. Probably not in the woods among the bean rows, but eating chocolate-covered raisins at his parents’ computer while blogging furiously about clean-energy policies, civil liberties and the quest for a simple life.

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