By Corinne H. Smith
1975: I turned eighteen years old. I was a freshman at Clarion State College in Clarion, Penna. Daddy was 46, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna. Mom worked as a nurse at a local clinic. We lived on Dale Avenue in West Hempfield Township. The #1 popular song on the radio on my eighteenth birthday was “That’s the Way (I Like It)” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Mom snapped this photograph.
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.
The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones.
~ Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
During my sophomore year (1972-1973) at Hempfield High School, we were assigned to read the essay “Civil Disobedience” in Harold Sachwald’s English class. It’s not too strong a statement to say that this experience changed the course of my life. I still remember our teacher’s animation in sharing the classic tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visit to the jail cell of Henry David Thoreau, who was spending the night under arrest for non-payment of the Massachusetts poll tax.
“Henry, what are you doing in there?” Waldo supposedly quipped.
“Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Henry is said to have answered.
It’s a fabricated scene that many an English teacher has used to enliven the analysis of Thoreau’s essay. And in Mr. Sachwald’s classroom back then, it grabbed me. (Today I know better. Emerson didn’t visit Thoreau in jail, and this exchange never happened. It’s more likely that when the two men next chatted, Waldo asked his protégé why he had failed to pay the tax and had chosen instead to serve his time in jail. And Henry replied, “Why did you not?” Which I think is still a good story with a good message.)
I was an only child who felt that she was under the daily scrutiny of a domineering mother. Thoreau’s spirit of independence and inclination toward non-violent protest immediately resonated with me. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right,” Henry wrote. Wow. I sure wanted to drink more water from this well.
We learned enough details about Mr. Thoreau that I knew I wanted to keep this relationship going. I had to read Walden next. I knew it would affirm not only my yearning for independence but also my strong connection with Nature. So during my junior year, I checked out the copy from our school library. It was several inches thick, had a leather spine, and was probably from the 1930s or 1940s. It had a leafy decoration on the cover and a few nice engravings that illustrated each chapter. But I couldn’t quite get into it. The opening section on “Economy” had me stymied. I still sensed that the contents would be important to me, so I kept renewing it and kept hoping that I would someday understand it. I carried the book around for months and months. Finally, I returned it to the library, heavily fingerprinted, but left unread.
Without further prompting from Henry, however, I was already starting to think and to act like a non-conformist. I had done some personal introspection and contemplation. I had penned my own philosophy of life document. And when it came time to create my senior year class schedule, I abandoned the academic track. I knew I’d never be able to handle the prescribed regimen: two periods daily of a Humanities course that required tons of reading; Calculus; Probability & Statistics; Physics. Add Band and Hempfield Singers, and there was scarcely room to breathe. Are you kidding me? I had already applied for admission to Clarion State College. When I got accepted during the last week of our junior year, I was the first person in our class to get a college acceptance letter. I was validated. I could take whatever I wanted for my last two semesters at Hempfield High School. I loaded up on literature courses and signed up for Creative Writing.
In the spring of 1975, my elective American literature class included the reading of Walden. This was a class for which I earned no recorded grade and only half of one academic credit. I bought my own paperback -- ironically enough, at Walden Books in the Park City Mall -- so that I would be free to underline the good parts. I even liked the way this edition looked, with its funky and colorful 1960s cover showing a solitary individual, sitting under a tree, gazing across a body of water. I paid 75 cents for it. I wanted to be that person.
|My first copy of Walden, along with one of the used copies I always seem to find and buy.|
I’ll admit that it took the intervention of teacher Thomas McVey for me to finally begin to digest Thoreau’s prose. Suddenly nearly every page contained at least one nugget that I felt was inspirational and worth saving: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” for instance; “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” for another. I underlined them all with my see-through blue Bic pen. These were powerful words for a teenager to consider, especially one who was on the verge of carving out her own place in society. I took the philosophy of Walden to heart. I became hooked on Henry for life.
Simultaneously, I realized that what I was reading in Walden echoed what I was listening to on Rocky Mountain High and on my other John Denver albums. In addition to the love of nature and to the power of the individual, there were similarities in the timing of coming of age. John Denver sang that he had found his spiritual home in Aspen, where he had been “born in the summer of his 27th year.” Coincidentally, Henry David Thoreau was 27 years old when he moved to his house at Walden Pond. He would turn 28 eight days later. But still. How could I ignore the parallel?
In fact, 1975 was probably the year I made a list of Walden passages and John Denver lyrics and analyzed their agreement in thought. I wish I still had this list. I never did learn if John Denver ever read any of Thoreau’s writings. This was a question I meant to ask him in person, decades later.
In August 1975, I headed off to Clarion State College to major in library science and German. The town of Clarion lay in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, across the mountains and five hours away from home. Yay.
I quickly looked up Henry David Thoreau in the card catalog at the Carlson Library. When I first found the shelves where his books were located, I’m sure my jaw dropped. There sat a 20-volume set of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, bound in sturdy library buckram. I hadn’t known that such a thing existed. I decided that I wasn’t really interested in the first six volumes, which consisted of Walden and the rest of the book-length travel narratives. I figured I could read them anytime, some day in the future. Instead, it was the 14 individual volumes of his journal that intrigued me. Surely the raw material here would yield the kind of literary gems and life lessons I had found in Walden. I checked out the first one and began copying my favorite passages on lined notebook paper, gathering the pages together to save for personal reference. After all, I would never be able to afford to have my own copies of these books.
And that’s how it went. I checked out the journal volumes, one by one, over the course of my four years as an undergrad. On occasion I carried them outside, to read in a more peaceful and natural environment than my dorm room offered: like the cemetery on Second Avenue, at the western end of the town of Clarion. My second college roommate, Susan Weinheimer (now Hart), knew that I was working my way through the series. She found the Thoreau shelf in the library and quietly put a few little yellow sticky notes in the journal volumes that remained untouched. I laughed whenever I came upon them in my reading. Who knows? A few of her notes may still be left there, if she put them in books that I had already finished.
Encounters and inspirations from Thoreau have continued to resurface throughout my lifetime. But reading Walden and turning to his journal in 1975 are events that set the stage for what was to come. And yes, I still have the sheaf of blue-lined notebook pages that contain all of the vital quotes I culled from the journals I read at Clarion. I refer to them from time to time … even though I now own a two-volume condensed set of Thoreau’s journals.
|The old notebook sits atop the two-volume Dover Publications set that has since come my way.|
[Portions of this post and its general contents previously appeared in three sources: My book, Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey (Green Frigate Books, 2012); “A Thoreau-ly Told Story” in Clarion … and Beyond: Clarion University News for Alumni and Friends, April 2013; and “MY Walden,” a post for The Roost, Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, August 16, 2013.]