Henry David Thoreau hasn’t aged well, particularly since his death 159 years ago. Through modern eyes, the 19th century author looks like an out-of-touch dreamer, a privileged loafer. The guy who avoided a real career to live in a cabin in the woods now has his words relegated to hiking guides and inspirational notecards.
A counterpoint, if I may. Thoreau couldn’t be more relevant to this moment, to us. While his words lean idealistic, his professional life was far more pragmatic. Read in context—knowing what preceded his escape to the cabin and what followed it—Walden becomes a guide to professional reinvention. Considered a formative piece in the canon of American literature, the book has at times been described as a personal declaration of independence and a manual for self-reliance.
Consider this. Thoreau graduated from college as the country reeled economically from the Panic of 1837. Jobs were sparse; businesses were failing. New technologies changed how people lived, worked, and shared information. And around the world, people were catching a mysterious lung disease without a cure. Thoreau caught it, too.
It wasn’t an ideal time to ponder professional fulfillment, but economic uncertainty and a pandemic can compel one to rethink life choices.
While his Harvard classmates flocked to secure careers in finance and law, Thoreau explored his options. He became a teacher, but his stand against corporal punishment forced his resignation. The job in his father’s pencil factory? Meh. He worked as an editorial assistant, a job that brought him joy but no pay; he shoveled manure, a job that brought him pay but no joy. He struggled to be a freelance writer through all of it, as tricky an endeavor then as now.
By the time Thoreau went to the woods, he faced a question as devastating as it is ordinary: How can I make a good living while living a good life?