Thoreau in the Bronx

Is the overexamined life worth living? Three views from the playground.

| May / June 2003

ACROSS THE LITTLE river that defines the northernmost finger of Manhattan is the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. During the three years we lived there, I took graduate courses at Columbia and taught at five other colleges to earn diaper money. My family and I were immigrants from Brooklyn, 15 miles to the south. We moved because Riverdale was an easy commute to Midtown, where my wife, Judy, had a new job as a reporter at a leading business weekly. Our oldest daughter, Katie, was then a year old. I was with her from dawn until evening, when Judy?s return released me either to take or to teach an evening course downtown.

Of the classes I took, my favorite dealt with Henry David Thoreau. His classic 1854 work Walden told the story of a young man walking away from daily life to live as simply as possible in a shack he had built beside Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Many scholars have pointed out that Thoreau?s cabin was hardly isolated?he remained within walking distance of Concord?s town center and regularly walked to the homes of friends and family for hot meals. Still, I was tremendously drawn to the very idea of what Thoreau had done?to live deliberately, as he wrote, without any unwanted compromise with society. Struggling as I was to make my way through graduate school, earn money, help raise my daughter, and be a good husband, the notion of throwing it all over and walking off into the woods to live by my own compass was enticing.

Early in Walden, Thoreau wrote: ?Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the facetious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.? This struck a chord. As a happy dad but a tired one, I could see what he meant. But would taking up a solitary outpost in the woods tutor my soul in a way that the company of my wife and baby daughter could not? I had trouble believing that. Most days began for me with my wife waking me at about seven, as she dressed for work and headed out. Katie woke a bit later, and we?d have breakfast. Then we?d bundle up and head for a nearby park to play for an hour or so.

The park was a classic city spot?no grass, lots of concrete, a fierce steel jungle gym, and a sandbox bearing more resemblance to kitty litter than beach. There was another father I?d see every so often, a man who had completed a Ph.D. in Russian literature at Columbia, then spent years making a living painting houses. He had finally settled into a career in public-health research, working mostly from home. He knew Thoreau forward and backward, and we enjoyed talking about books. Eventually, a couple of moms joined our circle, and every few days I could look forward to engaging book talk at the playground.

Sooner or later, I asked nearly everyone I met in those days what I called ?the Thoreau question.? Thoreau had summed up his goals at Walden Pond with these words: ?I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.? My question was this: How would you go about living deliberately and confronting only the essential facts of life?

The Russian-literature expert stood with me on a cool fall day as his 3-year-old son wrote his name again and again on the park?s concrete floor and my daughter plucked the last petals of October flowers growing nearby. ?I am living deliberately,? he said. ?I love Thoreau, but I resent his implication that a man like me?living with my wife and my son as part of a family, going to work because I need the paycheck, going to the supermarket because the family needs food?that I?m a victim, that I?m a conformist. I know I?m making compromises day to day, but that?s only because my ambitions are greater than Thoreau?s were. Or not greater; maybe more connected. I?m part of a family, and he was not. That?s a choice I make every day; it?s deliberate, and it gives my life meaning. I couldn?t live alone on the edge of a pond without my family. That would not be sucking the marrow out of life for me; that would be hiding from my destiny. It would be a kind of exile.?

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