Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

28 OCTOBER, 2013

Thoreau on Not Finding a Publisher and What Success Really Means

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“Sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.”

A century before Anaïs Nin’s prescient discontent about the state of publishing and 160 years before our present-day grumblings, Henry David Thoreau — one of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, who penned some of the most enduring and influential texts in Western literature — confronted the tribulations of publishing as he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his moving elegy for his brother John. Unable to find a publisher for the book, he paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1,000 copies — but only 300 were sold. True to his belief that success comes from within rather than without, the legendary poet, philosopher, and abolitionist considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry from October 28, 1853, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — the same timelessly fantastic tome that gave us Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau and his irresistibly quotable wisdom on friendship and sympathy.

Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 remains one of the history’s most rewarding and notable diaries. Complement it with Thoreau’s philosophy adapted in a picture book and his ever-timely reminder of what success really means.

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Henry Builds a Cabin: Thoreau’s Joyfully Minimalist Life at Walden, Illustrated for Kids and Full of Wisdom for All

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“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

In September of 1992, a young man by the name of Chris McCandless perished in the wilderness after resolving to live outside of consumer culture, as close to nature as possible. His story, still the source of ongoing controversy, became the book Into the Wild, which then became the movie of the same title, which gave us one of the best film soundtracks ever. Despite its tragic ending, McCandless’s tale is infused with the ideas and ideals of another man who left the city for the woods to attempt a simple life more than a century earlier: Henry David Thoreau. In the forest around the shores of Walden Pond, he built himself a tiny cabin 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, snugly containing only his bed, a writing desk, and a table with three chairs. He built it himself, with the help of a few friends, using old boards and bricks. The total cost was only $28.12½ — a masterpiece of material minimalism in every sense.

Henry Builds a Cabin (public library), the sequel to artist and author D. B. Johnson’s infinitely delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, adapts the tale of Thoreau and his cabin in vibrant illustrations, once again casting the beloved transcendentalist as a lovable bear named Henry. The story is inspired by this famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, presaging the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” by a century:

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Johnson’s vibrant, distinctive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations invite us to spy on Henry while he builds his cabin as his friends, one by one, question his modest choices.

First, his friend Emerson, who helps Henry raise the beams, questions the size of his dining area:

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too small to eat in!”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads Emerson to a bean patch he has planted behind the cabin and proclaims:

When it’s finished, this will be my dining room.

Then, as Henry is nailing the boards on the roof, his friend Alcott arrives and brings his own skepticism.

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too dark to read in!”
“It’s brighter than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads him to a sunny spot next to the cabin and exalts:

When it’s finished, this will be my library.

With more visitors come more questions about the comfort and practicality of the cabin, but Henry refutes each with his cheerful resourcefulness. Finally, on July 4, 1845, he moves into his cabin and blissfully munches on beans in his “dining room,” enjoys a good book in his “library,” and takes pride in his tiny cabin built with heart and humility.

The end of the book features this endearing breakdown of Thoreau’s cabin construction budget:

  • Boards $8.03½
  • Used shingles $4.00
  • Laths $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows $2.43
  • One thousand old bricks $4.00
  • Two casks of Lime* $2.40
  • Hair* $0.31
  • Mantle-tree iron $0.15
  • Nails $3.90
  • Hinges and screws $0.14
  • Latch $0.10
  • Chalk $0.01
  • Transportation $1.40
    • TOTAL: $28.12½

      *lime and hair were used to make plaster

Complement Henry Builds a Cabin with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then revisit some of Thoreau’s timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg: Lovely Illustrated Children’s Adaptation of Thoreau’s Philosophy, Full of Universal Wisdom for All

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An existential walk into what money can and can’t buy.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one’s day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture’s cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.

That’s precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) — an absolutely wonderful children’s story told through Johnson’s vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life — one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry’s friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors — including some of Thoreau’s equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less “efficient,” is the better way to get to Fitchburg — more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.

Johnson tells young readers:

Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.

As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear’s experience of life.

While Henry’s friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.

While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.

While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson’s study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.

While his friend cleans out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house for 10 cents, Henry takes delight in a bird’s nest he discovers in a swamp 12 miles from Fitchburg.

On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry’s friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.

In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson’s gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:

His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. “The train was faster,” he said.

Henry took a small pail from his pack. “I know,” he smiled. “I stopped for blackberries.”

More than a mere children’s primer on Thoreau’s philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.

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