Have you noticed how Thoreau keeps coming to these paradoxical conclusions? The swiftest traveler goes afoot. The richest person is the guy in the shack who owes no one and whose time is his own.
And the greatest monument to human civilization? Well, here’s what it’s not:
“Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”
What would be a great monument to a nation or a people? He suggests that the Bhagavad-Gita is more admirable “than all the ruins of the East.” Granted, it’s not surprising that a person who writes books should value books over all the things he doesn’t make. Henry was a man of ideas.
But back to the question. I think Walden itself is one of the best and most important books by an American writer. I want to hold it up and say, Yes, this is us! This is a truly American book! — even though if I’m honest I have to admit that Thoreau was and remains an oddball among Americans. But in many ways he is how many Americans would like to think of ourselves: strong-minded, self-reliant, unimpressed by wealth or appearances, a free man and no one’s subject, well-read but distrustful of hierarchies, experts, and orthodoxies. Along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson’s poems, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, this is the best of nineteenth century America.
But what about your country? Nearly half the readers of this blog live in countries other than the US. What are your greatest cultural “monuments,” whether books, buildings, or anything else? (They need not be the obvious or usual answers.)
(About “A Year in Walden”)