Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Making a Living Is More Than Work

Thoreau’s loafing and the purpose of life.

Jonathan Malesic

Walden Pond Revisited (detail), 1932–33, by N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945); Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, USA, bequest of Carolyn Wyeth/Bridgeman Images.

At one point in his 1854 prose paean to simple living, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau recounts his acquaintance with a Canadian woodchopper named Alec Therien, “a true Homeric or Paphlagonian man.” Therien is a jolly character, given to rolling on the forest floor with laughter and seasoning his speech with exclamations like “by George!” and “Gorrappit!” Thoreau admires him for his skill at his craft, his oneness with his animal nature, and his lack of guile.

Walking past Thoreau’s cabin one day, Therien observes, “How thick the pigeons are! If working every day were not my trade, I could get all the meat I should want by hunting,—pigeons, woodchucks, rabbits, partridges,—by gosh! I could get all I should want for a week in one day!”

Thoreau plays the remark for a joke, but there is a serious, paradoxical point here. Thoreau’s “experiment” at Walden Pond was meant to show that industrial society had multiplied human work for no good reason, that a good life was attainable with limited consumption and labor. In fact, he tried to show, the good life is attainable only through simpler living that liberates the person to strive toward higher ends. Therien seems to grasp this, yet he keeps working for the sake of his “trade” and despite the fact he could meet his weekly needs with just a day’s effort. Is he free of the Protestant ethic that burdens so many of his contemporaries, or is he still stuck within its iron cage?

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