I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months with Henry David Thoreau and Walden. After years of carrying around a tiny copy of the book in a succession of backpacks and purses, I feel like I’m finally really getting what Thoreau was trying to say. From the wonders of a vegan lifestyle to the joys of frugality, even to a radical argument for rejecting rigid gender roles*, ol’ Henry really was on to something.
It was something kind of irritating, though? For all its cultural cachet and literary importance, Walden is a pretty run of the mill self-help volume. “I went to the woods to learn how to live simply and you can too!” is a gross oversimplification, but what better use is the internet than to let me oversimplify complex things?
So, as I’m finishing up my thesis on Walden, and growing more fond of yet irritated by Thoreau, I started idly wondering what he might do with the power of, say, Twitter. Would he harass the powerful? Proselytize to the meat- and dairy-eaters? Whine about having to get a job? Post an endless stream of #nofilter shots of wildlife and woodlands?
No, say I! He’d do what he does best and become some sort of pearl-dropping guru, doling out advice to people who probably don’t always actually want it. And so: @thoreauscope.
@keithpunla_ Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.
— Henry David (@thoreauscope) May 21, 2015
(It’s a Twitter API bot that waits for people to post something with one of a few key phrases, then replies to them with a randomly selected quote from Walden. I wrote it myself with Node.js! And someday when there isn’t a deadline looming, I’ll
fix up my code write up exactly how.)
*Seriously, though, he did! My thesis is all about how moving to the woods was in part to reject the expectations Thoreau felt constrained by as a man: that he must earn his living by participating in capitalist structures, that he was expected to marry and have children, that he should act as all the other men in town did. By getting the hell out and building a home barely big enough for himself (…and the occasional strapping young Quebecois, cough cough), Thoreau was all but standing in the middle of Concord and shouting, “You’ll never take me alive, traditional masculinity!!”