Category Archives: General

Life Book

“Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine,” E.B. White wrote of “Walden” in a 1953 New Yorker piece. “It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest.”

The other day a Google alert that feeds me regular notice of Thoreau’s appearance in media across the web, offered me a link to a reflective piece that had just appeared on Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey’s pleasureable essay opened at the end of E.B. White’s life and then rolled back through his long attachment to Walden and the many copies White owned, read and gave away, including a 1964 edition (complete with a rain-shedding duraflex cover) to which he wrote the introduction.

Thoreau and White Credit: Wikimedia

Thoreau and White
Credit: Wikimedia

The traced arc of White’s connection to Walden made me look back over my own, a mostly pleasant stroll through seasons of learning and teaching, and that, in turn, brought on reflections from over three years of writing for The Roost. How many books and writers could both sustain my interest and provide so many points of thinking and writing departure? Answer: one.

If one accepts White’s proposal, the question follows: how do you know when you’ve picked up and read your life-book? For me the answer arrived slowly. My first reading of Walden was hardly a reading at all. Assigned the book in a high school English class, I turned dutifully to it on evening one and fell promptly asleep. The pattern continued through the three weeks we considered sections of the book, and there was also an alarming transference to class time, where my chronic head-bobbing intensified, lowering my teacher’s already low estimation of me. I missed entirely Thoreau’s discontent with the sort of schooling I was sleeping through, and I missed his affection for the outdoor world where I felt truly animated. I did benefit from the cautionary message of this sleepy passage years later when I began to teach Walden, but my first meeting with Henry Thoreau was akin to passing someone of the street.

Jump to college and a reading with a touch more adhesive. I got – mostly by listening to lectures – some of Thoreau’s central critique of his (and, by extension, my) world, and I noted that the place he went for insight and wisdom was like mine, wooded and hilly. All good, but not exactly a scrivmance.

Then there was the long, oblique approach to my life’s work, teaching. By the time I landed in an English Department some 20 years along, I knew quite a bit about teaching and writing and a lot about being outside, but I’d not returned to Walden, though as a journal editor, I’d received any number of pieces to which it was important. Then, a year or two into my English career, my department chair said, “So here we are in Concord, and, since Phil retired, no one’s been teaching Walden. You spend too much time in the woods. How about you?”

Of such questions long affection is born. I arrived at my life-book late, much later, for instance than White did, but, after 25 years of readings, teachings, and any number of epiphanies, major and minor, I’m still turning its pages, still awake to its possibilities. I keep Walden handy.

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In Philadelphia

Henry Thoreau and Pope Francis

By Corinne H. Smith

“To Philadelphia. 7 A. M., to Boston, 9 A. M. to New York, by express train, land route. … Arrive at 10 P. M.; time, four hours from New York, thirteen from Boston, fifteen from Concord. … [The next day I] Looked from the cupola of the State-House, where the Declaration of Independence was declared. The best view of the city I got.”

No, these words weren’t written by Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia. They’re from Henry David Thoreau’s journal from November 1854. Our favorite transcendentalist had made the journey south by train to the City of Brotherly Love in order to deliver a lecture at the Spring Garden Institute. It was the only time he visited the place, and it was the farthest south he would ever travel.

Most likely, you have seen some of the footage from Pope Francis’s time in Philadelphia. He was a busy man. Among other activities, the Pope gave a speech in front of Independence Hall. He attended the World Family conference. He rode along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway several times. He attended an evening concert and conducted a mass on a special stage set up in front of the Museum of Art. Thousands upon thousands of people came from around the world to catch a glimpse of him, to be blessed by him, and to eagerly listen to his messages. Many more watched him on live broadcasts from home.

By comparison: Henry Thoreau was hardly famous when he was here. He had just published his second book, “Walden; or, Life in Woods.” But instead of talking up his time at the pond to his Tuesday-night audience, Henry had decided to give the lecture he called “The Wild.” Eventually it would become the second half of his essay, “Walking.” It now includes two of the most quoted Thoreau sentences we know today: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World;” and “In short, all good things are wild and free.”

Thoreau reached Philadelphia on Monday night. He had all of Tuesday to tour the city. Thanks to his escort — Emerson friend and local Unitarian minister William Furness — he hit some high spots. Literally. Mountain-lover Thoreau climbed eight stories to reach the top of the cupola of Independence Hall and to get a higher view of downtown. He also climbed the hill behind the Fairmount Waterworks along the Schuylkill River, in order to see the city from its western edge. Then he and Furness spent time examining the exhibits at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Thoreau was amused to see that the moose on display in Philadelphia was not as large as the one he had seen in Maine the year before.

Independence Hall in 1852

Independence Hall as depicted in 1852

By comparison: Pope Francis spoke to thousands of people – not only in front of Independence Hall; but also in front of the Museum of Art, which now stands upon that hill next to the Fairmount waterworks. When he rode along the parkway in the Pope-mobile, he passed right by the Academy of Natural Sciences. The museum is in a different building and in a different part of the city than it was in 1854. But it still has a moose on display. It turns out that Pope Francis and Henry Thoreau stopped in some of the same places and followed some of the same routes across the city, 161 years apart.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall in 2015, 12 days before Pope Francis’ arrival

Alas! According to our best information, Henry Thoreau’s lecture was barely noticed by Philadelphians. No review of it appeared in the newspapers. Even Reverend Furness hadn’t been able to attend it. Furness wrote to Emerson that from what one of his parishioners had said, it sounded as if “the audience was stupid & did not appreciate him.” A scholar in the 1960s was only slightly more polite when he summed up his research on Thoreau’s trip this way: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that his impact on Philadelphia was even less than a soft thud.” (Charles Boewe, “Thoreau’s 1854 Lecture in Philadelphia,” English Language Notes, December 1964.) Henry Thoreau’s message of the importance of having wild areas to explore must have fallen on few and deaf ears.

By comparison: In 2015, it’s good to see that SOMEONE has delivered a series of successful speeches in Philadelphia, and to a massive and receptive audience, at that. And on this American trip, Pope Francis continued to repeat his concerns about saving the environment. What do you know? Perhaps “The Wild” is finally Landing with a loud thud here.

Corinne H. Smith will be speaking on “Henry David Thoreau: From Concord to Philadelphia … and to Us Today,” at the Philips Autograph Library, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 17, 2015, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, see



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Rising to Go

The entrance to the National Library of Ireland looks out over an attractive courtyard that fronts the parliament building. Once inside the library, a quick right turn takes you through a hallway of Joyce photos with a short bio that notes Joyce’s early aspiration as a singer and then down a flight of stairs for a visit with William Butler Yeats. Having long admired Yeats’ poetry, I was eager to get there. As I descended, I heard a voice that sounded like creaky furniture: ” I will arise and go now…” And my mind filled in the next words – and go to Innisfree. The rhythm set up in my head, and I mouthed the words as the old, rough-jointed voice read on. That must be Yeats himself, I thought, and it was. The poem ended, and for the next reading a famous Irish actor took over, sailing me to Byzantium.


Well that was a worthy beginning, I thought, and then I began to nose into the corners of this permanent exhibit, looking over notebooks and letters and manuscripts, with their fascinating cross outs and emendations. Not far in, my eye was drawn by an opened volume with a familiar word on its title page – Walden, it said. And there was Yeats’ personal copy of Walden, with a note beside it pointing to the book as inspiration for The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I read the poem again. Of course…there in its early lines is the cabin that the poet will build, and, a little later, the rows of beans that he will sow. And there, as solace when the poet returns to the gray world of the village, is the memory of the isle, the lake, the “bee-loud glade” to which he can return if he chooses.


It’s an early poem in Yeats’ work, and much greater poems followed, among them the always prescient Second Coming, but the need to step away, if only for a while, resonates for the young Yeats, and for many of us. Often, I think, we read our poets with the same hope.


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