"He will not settle": Will Howarth on Thoreau
Wandering the web, I ran across something new by Will Howarth, in American Scholar. Howarth, as some of our readers will know, is a local-boy-made-good. A 1958 grad of SHS (of whose Hall of Fame he is a member), this son of Mayor Nelson Howarth has taught at Princeton since 1966. He is a former president of the Thoreau Society, former editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau and served as president of the Center for American Places.
In his new piece, titled “Reading Thoreau at 200,” Howarth asks why it is that the seminal work of the great American transcendentalist is held in such scorn today. It's a good read, as some might put it – some 4,000 words – but Howarth does not (as Thoreau sometimes does) overstay his time. He's lived with Thoreau for decades years now, and is clear-eyed about his constant companion. From the piece:
From the 1920s to the early 2000s, Walden was required reading in hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school and college survey courses. Today, Thoreau is taught far less widely. The intricate prose of Walden is a tough read in the age of tweets, so much so that several “plain English” translations are now marketed . . .
The path to Walden is, increasingly, neglected and overgrown. I constantly meet undergraduates who have never hiked alone, held an after-school job, or lived off schedule. They don’t know the source of milk or the direction of north. They really don’t like to unplug. In seminars, they look up from Walden in cautious wonder: “Can you even say this?” Thoreau worries them; he smells of resistance and of virtue. He is powerfully, compulsively original. He will not settle.
And while we’re at it, allow me to recommend his graceful reminiscence of Springfield published by the Washington Post in 1983, occasioned by his visit to attend his 25th high school reunion.