The Millions

Returning to Walden

You only need to wade a few steps into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden before tripping over these words: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” For an author like Thoreau, an active and outspoken abolitionist, the insensitive aphorism seems like a profound contradiction of his character. In A Fugitive in Walden Woods, author Norman Lock imagines an appropriate response to such a statement, delivered by the novel’s narrator, Samuel: “It is much, much worse, Henry, to be driven by a vicious brute whom law and custom have given charge over one’s life than by an inner demon.”

Lock’s premise is clever: In the summer of 1845, just as Thoreau embarks on his experiment in simplicity on Walden property, the Virginia slave Samuel Long cuts off his own hand, slips his manacle and — as the law of the day held — steals himself away from, and . The community is sympathetic to Samuel’s struggle, but the contrast between their extreme privilege and Samuel’s hardship often strains their attempts at genuine human connection.

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