Thoreau and the “different drummer” (Walden 204)

Thoreau lived in an age in which learned people were still in awe of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which were seen as representing a golden age of civilization that the modern world had yet to recover. Similarly, the United States was often seen as a young and backwards nation that was culturally inferior to Europe. But Henry, though he loved the classics as much as anyone, was unconcerned:

“Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.”

Title page of the edition of Leaves of Grass that Thoreau read. (New York Public Library)

Title page of the edition of Leaves of Grass that Thoreau read. (New York Public Library)

Can you imagine Walt Whitman saying anything like this? — Whitman, who celebrated America with his own quirky, egalitarian patriotism? Whitman, who wrote:

“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

Thoreau agreed, and for all his admiration of ancient writers he did not believe in some unattainable golden age of yore. But rather than argue his case here, rather than sound his barbaric yawp as Whitman would do, he merely shrugs his shoulders. Why worry? Just be the best pygmy you can, he says with a wink.

And then he delivers what is perhaps the most quoted line in this oft-quoted book:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Thoreau and Whitman seemed wary of each other the only time they met, in 1856 in Brooklyn, shortly after their (eventually) famous books were published. In time they came to respect and admire one another’s work from afar. In 1888, more than a quarter century after Thoreau’s death, Whitman wrote:

“One thing about Thoreau keeps him very near to me: I refer to his lawlessness — his dissent — his going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses.” (Quoted in Richardson, Henry Thoreau, p. 349)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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