Reading Thoreau in quarantine

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I have never been angrier with Henry David Thoreau.

I can see him, the terror of Walden Pond, laughing at us even now. I used to roll my eyes when he spoke of the “cheapness” of society and the joys of solitude. I said, “Couldn’t be me!” and then went to a fast-food drive-through instead of a cabin in the woods, because I have never been one for self-reliance. But now, the tables have turned. With the outbreak of COVID-19, many of us now find ourselves isolated in our homes for an indefinite period of time, avoiding nonessential contact beyond jobs and basic household maintenance. We have all become miniature Thoreaus in the making.

Nevermind, of course, that we do this for public safety, while Thoreau was just a philosopher with too much time on his hands. Nevermind the fact that his retreat into the woods wasn’t quite as ground-breaking or disciplined as it’s made out to be. It’s too late for historical revision, especially when it comes to Thoreau. He’s inspired generation upon generation with thoughts of tranquility and self-mastery, and now we’re all stuck playing in his court. The lure of isolation works upon us even now.

Already writers and artists across the United States are grappling with themselves, trying to figure out what they’ll do with their government-mandated vacation. It’s as though productivity itself has become part of the national crisis, another resource we’re lacking. Special quarantine contests for poetry and short fiction are springing up online, while rumors of the next “Great American Novel” seem to plague the internet more than the actual virus itself. And then there are those half-inspirational, half-condescending tweets: Did you know Isaac Newton discovered calculus in quarantine? Did you know Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” in quarantine? Did you know Britney Spears single-handedly ended the Cold War and restored the ice caps while in quarantine?

In every tweet, every self-effacing joke, I hear Thoreau’s ghost howling with delight. His words, twisted into new meaning, echo through the nation: “I got into social distancing because I wished to work deliberately.”

If only! In the past two days, I’ve eaten two frozen pizzas and woken up past noon because I stayed up playing video games after my work shift. How’s that for living deliberately? The way things are going now, I can’t help but scoff at anyone who believes social isolation is a one-way ticket to creative breakthroughs. When I look at my creative attempts over the last few days, I want to grab Thoreau by the shoulders and shout, or at least grab a copy of “Walden” and shake it angrily. I want to cry out, “You could have had it all! You could have been out in public! You could have walked down the streets of Boston and met a thousand beautiful strangers and marveled at the intricacies of civilization! Your mother did your laundry for you!”

But the problem is, it isn’t just Thoreau. It’s Kerouac. It’s Whitman. It’s London. All those “Great American Novelists.” The allure of a life untouched by society has wormed its way into everything we see and hear, shaping the way we perceive ourselves and our responsibilities. The myth of American individualism, of American isolation, infects our consciousness. It’s enough to make me wonder, as I stare at the empty mugs on my desk and the dirty clothes piled up on my floor: Is all of this supposed to mean something?

These are thoughts that drove me to sneak into my mother’s room and grab her old paperback of “Walden.” At first, my mission was a vindictive one: I looked for holes in his argument, for some sort of flaw that would absolve me of my guilt. Guilt over what exactly? For not writing the next “Great American Novel” at age 19, I guess. For not finding enlightenment in the middle of a public health crisis.

But instead of vindication, I found this: “Let every one mind his own business. … Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?” I read the words over and over. I said them out loud, reconciling the Thoreau on the page and the Thoreau in my head. And for some reason, I felt at peace. I was no longer haunted by the pressure of productivity, nor by the fear of squandering my solitude. I exorcised the ghost, allowed him to rest as I do now. And you should too.

Writers of America: I release you. Open up your laptop and write every day if you wish, or write absolutely nothing at all. But whatever you do, don’t drive yourself in circles over some glorified idea of what isolation should look like, not when there are bigger fish to fry. And when the proverbial skies begin to clear and the CDC tells us we can go into crowded areas again, be grateful for the big, bustling world around you. Not everything has to be done alone. 


Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].