The comic book is not the first medium that comes to mind for conveying the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, but it’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised. I stumbled upon Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino at a small local bookstore several years ago and was immediately drawn to the thin tome. In this graphic novel, distilled passages are fused with a minimalistic art style to create a unique work that captures the essence of Thoreau’s physical and spiritual sojourn at Walden Pond. It has since become one of my favourite interpretations of the famous transcendentalist’s work, serving as a handy and accessible resource for Thoreau’s exploration into nature, culture, and self.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, requires little introduction. One of the most iconic and enduring works in American history, it is “part personal declaration of independence, social experience, voyage of spiritual discovery, and manual for self-reliance” (wikipedia). It is a chronicle of Thoreau’s two-year experiment living at a cabin he constructed near Walden Pond at the edge of Concord, Massachusetts. Inspired by friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hoped that time immersed in nature and solitude would help him gain insight into humanity’s relationships with nature and society.
Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden does not strive to be the definitive or an authoritative version of the timeless text. The artist takes a different approach, exploring the experience of staying at Walden Pond through sparse illustrations and a careful selection of passages drawn from Walden, Civil Disobedience, Walking, and Thoreau’s personal journal.
Art Meets Philosophy
“In this book, John Porcellino has captured the spirit of Walden. You may regret that not all of Thoreau’s words are here, but I do not. His words are among the most quoted of any writer and are found everywhere today. What could not be found until now are the countless moments of silence that Thoreau experienced at Walden Pond. Porcellino faithfully re-creates those moments of quiet reverie, of Thoreau sitting in a sunny doorway or in the woods, soaking up the passing of time.” (D.B. Johnson, Foreword)
Like The Man Who Planted Trees, Thoreau at Walden is an example of visuals complementing and enhancing the power of a narrative. Porcellino seems to have truly taken Thoreau’s message to heart, utilizing an art style that is both simple and deliberate. Here the comic format is used expertly to facilitate the passages and musings. Unlike the condensed and compact narratives of a novel, the reader is not pressured to skim and skip ahead. The eyes are allowed to linger on an image, permitted the opportunity to explore the intentional subtleties of the artist. Each wordless panel brilliantly captures long still moments of contemplation, each providing a literal and figurative window of Thoreau’s world.
It is this understanding that makes Porcellino’s work unique and powerful: His ability to provide a glimpse into Thoreau’s heart during his most private and introspective moments. One Amazon.com reviewer stated that “anyone can relay a person’s words. It takes a special talent to relay a person’s peace of mind.” I couldn’t agree more.
Appealing to a Newer Audience
Too often, there is a perception that classical works are locked away in dusty old tomes, indecipherable to all but those with the tools of academia. Conveying the core concepts espoused by Thoreau in a thin comic bypasses this notion. The combination of approachable art and minimal text makes it a perfect introduction of Henry David Thoreau, even for children and young adults. It serves as a contemporary call for introspection and self-reflection, a message that is sorely needed in today’s fast-paced world. Environmentalists, survivalists, gardeners, social activists, people seeking simple living – the compilation of Thoreau’s powerful and succinct ruminations speak deeply to them all.
The introductory section by D.B. Johnson is informative and brief, providing Thoreau’s life history in a few short pages. The panel discussions at the end of the book serve to flesh out many of Thoreau’s more significant ideas, providing considerable depth and context to the illustrations and passages. Coupled with the excellent companion guide created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Thoreau at Walden becomes one of the best resources for environmental educators and teachers to stimulate discussion around notions of simplicity, contentment, and communion.
A Simple Yet Difficult Way to Live
In the prologue, Thoreau sees his fellow men leading “lives of quiet desperation”. He pities those who are continually pressured by ambition or social norms to participate in the proverbial rat race, frequently at great personal cost. He muses on how easily we can fall into ruts, deferring to convention and peer pressure, resigning to the notion that this is what life must be. Despite being in an individualistic society, we often see what others are doing and follow suit, becoming trapped in a cycle of “keeping up with the Jones”. Our cynicism grows because we are unable or are afraid to entertain the possibility of a different way of life and living.
I find it fascinating that Thoreau came to this conclusion in the 19th century. If anything, the rat race has only gotten significantly worse a century and a half later. We are exponentially more productive now than the people who lived in Thoreau’s time, yet more of us are perpetually unfulfilled, overstressed, and unhappy than ever before.
- Are we also burdened and owned by our possessions?
- Do we also lead lives of quiet desperation?
- Do we believe that there is no other way to make a meaningful life?
Troubled by these thoughts, Thoreau sought to examine life and society from a different perspective. During his time at Walden Pond, he attempted to excise everything in life that a man did not need, and in doing so, found contentment in what remained: Meaningful work, good physical health, an appreciation for nature, and time and energy to cultivate the inner self. One of my favourite passages of the book comes right at the end:
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” (p. 88)
To me, this more than anything conveys his assertion that “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a past-time.” Life is to be enjoyed, because joy can be found here on earth, simply achieved if we could only acknowledge and accept it. In the process of quieting the soul, Thoreau breaks free of the trappings and destructive pitfalls of superfluous materialism, attaining a form of inner sustainability that allows him to live comfortably and happily with himself and with the surrounding environment. I believe this is a powerful and much-needed idea in today’s times.
As I wrote in my Alone in the Wilderness entry, the type of minimalistic and ascetic lifestyle some people practice is not for everyone. But most can afford to take some of the ideas from Thoreau to heart, to slow down and reflect, to question one’s core values and assumptions in what constitutes a meaningful and soul-fulfilling life.
Next Up: Not your average dystopia.
Porcellino, John (2008). Thoreau at Walden: From the writings of Henry David Thoreau. The Center for Cartoon Studies. Hyperion Books for Children, New York.
Images of Thoreau at Walden © 2008 by The Center for Cartoon Studies.