Thoreauly fishy editing

Maybe you’re a scholar and loved the slender little book so much you joined the Church of Walden of Latter-Day Conservationists. Maybe books referred to as “deep” or “thoughtful” bore you so much you won’t watch film adaptations, much less read Walden. Or maybe you’re an angler and only want to know how deep Walden Pond is and whether the bass are hitting crank baits.


Some men go fishing without knowing it is not fish they are after.

— Henry David Thoreau

Whether you did so eagerly or with clenched teeth, if you’ve been a student in America you’ve either read Henry David Thoreau or know that INC doesn’t always mean incorporated. During his life, Thoreau’s classic Walden (Life in the Woods) was anything but a hit. It took five years to sell the initial press run of a whopping 2,000 copies. Thoreau was little noted during an all-too-brief life. But his legacy has done nothing but grow since his death in 1862. One reason is that his works include iconic quotes that inspire journeymen writers to grumble, “I wish I said that!”

Henry David Thoreau

In the event I ever get to the point of this little essay, it will revolve around a famous Thoreau quote and illustrate how little editing it takes to make unbelievers and new-age theologians (“WE are God!”) sound more like the Gospel of Matthew.

Henry D. was a Thoreauhly complicated critter. Notables who cite him as influential in their lives and work include Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway. Before you deduce that reading Thoreau will only get you shot, take note that his admirers also included George Bernard Shaw, John Muir, B.F. Skinner, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, who lived to 94, 78, 76, 76 and 72 with nary a case of lead poisoning.

The country knows not … how great a son it has lost.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson in tribute to Thoreau

Thoreau was more than an essayist and naturalist. His extensive body of work includes many poems. He worked (briefly) in his father’s pencil factory, and later put food on the table as a surveyor. He was a political activist who would likely be a Libertarian today, and once spent a night in jail rather than pay poll taxes he deemed unjust.

The government is best that governs not at all.

— Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau detested slavery and was a staunch supporter of abolition. Contemporaries said that John Brown’s execution profoundly impacted Thoreau. In fact, some are convinced that his death from tuberculosis, coming just two years later at the age of 44, was hastened by his sorrow.

I was so deeply moved that I read it (Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience) several times. and became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.

— Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s no way to know for sure, but it’d be borderline insane not to think that Thoreau, if alive today, would have Al Gore on speed dial, drive a Volt and wear shoes a size small to reduce his carbon footprint.

Time alone with nature didn’t make Thoreau lonely, or make him think: They helped him think. He worried about the environment before the industrial revolution had even ended. Before cars and motorcycles and boats and planes. Before coal-burning power plants. Before the proliferation of oil wells on land and sea. Wild guess: Thoreau wouldn’t be a big fan of plutonium, either, and LAX, ORD and ATL wouldn’t be on his bucket list.

Thank God man cannot fly and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau, by all accounts, took his Transcendental beliefs to the grave. He was certainly not religious in a church-going sense, but he was a spiritual man. His mention of God with a capital G in the previous quote suggests an openness to the notion we are not alone. But he harbored no love for organized religion or any government one iota larger than what was imperative.

The inspiration for this essay was the following Thoreau quote, one I would like to say is a fruit of scholarly pursuits. But, I’d be lying. Truth is, I stumbled on it purely by chance in a “Can you guess who said this?” email. I stayed long enough to establish that it was Henry David Thoreau, and not Henry VIII, O’Henry, Henry Fonda, Henry Kissinger or Fonzie; but not long enough to get the sales pitch for solar panels (HDT would approve) and TrueGreen (not so much).

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

— Henry David Thoreau

I’ve done a lot of copy editing, but fixing Jimmy Olson’s running account of a high school track meet is less daunting than presuming to improve the work of Henry David Thoreau. On the one hand, I can brag that, like him, I love ponds, don’t care if I catch a fish, and have labored all my life in obscurity. The difference, of course, is that he gets more famous as time goes by, and I’ll be even more obscure in 150 years.

I’ll be under that cracked, bent-over tombstone you can’t quite read; in a grave that’s no more manicured “perpetually” than my guaranteed vault is still dry. So much for my good looks, boyish charm and efforts to be Thoreau when writing and editing: From dust to dust …

BUT … I am going to be so bold as to make two tiny changes that you might not even notice if I hadn’t just alerted you. Without changing a single word or substituting a single letter, I’ve taken a quote that is entirely consistent with Thoreau’s transcendentalism and made it entirely consistent with Christianity. Sorry, Hank, but you have to trust your editor. I think it’s better this way.


If one advances confidently in the direction of His dreams, and endeavors to live the life which He has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

With apologies to Henry David Thoreau

“Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The Gospel of Matthew 4:19

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