Why do I have this sense that it was inevitable that I’d discover Thoreau only late in the game? One obvious reason is that as a know-it-all teenager I knew all about Thoreau: he was great to taunt Emerson who stood outside the jail asking why Waldo wasn’t in with him, where he should be. I knew he was a neighbor on a river just over from mine. I knew he had a beef with the local church and would rather be walking than be an observing Christian. Of course I also knew he liked — how shall I say it — camping. He was a known quantity, I knew him and a lot of my running and basketball buddies didn’t. My musical buddies weren’t likely to have an interest. So on through college and years teaching college he remained a high school sweetheart, a first love remembered well, but left behind as I moved on to — what shall I say — more challenging writers. I learned from my philosophy profs that he was not a philosopher. And that was decades before I began to learn that you could be a philosopher who found philosophy in George Eliot, Dickinson . . . or Thoreau.
In grad school, I actually heard Cavell lecture on Walden. But I took his interest as quirky, a circus act, an extravagant hobby a Harvard Prof could indulge but a grad student or young professor better not. You get the picture: I knew all about him, and he was not where it was at; in the academy, that is: I could dream of him on long hikes in the Sierras. It was quite an accident that brought me to reopen Cavell-on-Thoreau well into my philosophical career, and to begin reading the Journals, and A Week, and Cape Cod, and with a bittersweet shock of recognition, realize what I had been missing all those years. I had never read a sentence of his slowly! Thinking I knew him when I didn’t at all. I’ve know him all my life, and I’ve just started to get to know him, or maybe . . . struggle and love as I will, I’ll never know him.
Now I read and reread those sentences, word by precious word always amazed, a mitzvah, a blessing. Maybe like Jacob, wrestle and love him as I will, with my broken hip — he’ll always slip away. (But ah what a wrestle . . .)