For some reason, I came across Henry David Thoreau’s words “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” and they catapulted me back to my undergraduate tenure at Harvard College, when those same words, read by an anxious working/middle-class boy plunged into the heart of the land of privilege, freed him from his anxiety and guided him forward.
I had read Walden, of course, as one who had chosen to double-major in American history and literature, and the muscular surety of his words helped anchor me as I swam in a sea of abstractions and vapors.
I decided I would do my thesis on the school he and his brother, John, ran in Concord, where they put into practice pedagogical ideas that ran counter (of course) to the reigning practices of the day. I had decided to go into teaching myself, and studying Thoreau and his ideas seemed like the perfect subject matter.
I loved doing the research for my thesis. Many days were spent at the State House in Boston reading through town reports written in a Palmeresque flair, enveloped in the toasted mustiness of centuries-old rag paper.
On other days, I strapped an Underwood typewriter in a hard-shell case on the back of my bike and rode the 15 miles to Concord Public Library to read through letters, memoirs, histories and other artifacts to understand the social context in which Thoreau and his brother worked, rapping out my notes on index cards.
On those days, I also spent time at Walden Pond itself to take the air. When Thoreau lived there, the book he wrote was not Walden but A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a buddy story about a journey he and his brother had made. The book is a eulogy to John, who had died of tetanus in 1842. In other words, he lived on Emerson’s land by the pond as he grieved for the death of his friend and companion. Walden, written later, came out of that grief and was, in its way, a rejection of the finality of death—death not as erasure but as transformation so that some of what we enjoyed in living with the living person would journey along with us as we made our own way to our own ending.
I did my thesis (it lives somewhere in the reliquary of Widener Library on the Harvard campus), and I did go on to teach high school students for many years.
The declarative words of Thoreau, both in the triple repetition of the single “simplify” as well as the statement of his independence in the same chapter that begins with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” carried me along many a day as I worked my way through the Harvard jungle to emerge into a clear plain and a reachable horizon. The aroma of old inks, the velocipedic exhaustion, my 30-pound IBM Selectric with the backspace delete function (magic device!), the flow from confusion to affirmation through grief—these I treasured because they anchored me in the real, which kept me sane.
And as far as I know, I still have the sanity about me.