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Issue: Fall 2009
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The Thoreau Society eNewsletter: Fall 2009 - Founded in 1941, The Thoreau Society, Inc. is the oldest and largest organization devoted to an American author.  The Society exists to stimulate interest in and foster education about Thoreau's life, works, legacy and his place in his world and in ours, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life.

Welcome to the first issue of our eNewsletter.  We will feature excerpts from our publications:  The Thoreau Society Bulletin and The Concord Saunterer:  A Journal of Thoreau Studies in this and future issues.

Thank you for your interest.  The Thoreau Society--through its publications, library collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, and Annual Gathering each July, as well as through its programs and events during the year--is a tremendous resource for scholars, enthusiasts, and life-long learners interested in Thoreau and Transcendental Concord. 

We are committed to improving access to information about Thoreau's life, works, and legacy.  We welcome your feedback. 


Mike Frederick
Executive Director, The Thoreau Society

P.S. Autumn is a time of reflection, and I'm reminded today of how time weaves its way through Walden and through each of our lives.
New Office Address
The Thoreau Society
The Thoreau Society is happy to announce
it has completed its office move to the birth home of Henry D. Thoreau at 341 Virginia Road, Concord, Massachusetts, 01742.
Our office phone numbers have not
changed, and you can continue to
reach us at 978-369-5310.

The Thoreau Society Shop at Walden Pond and the Friends of Walden Pond, an activity of the Thoreau Society, continue to operate at the Walden Pond State Reservation.
"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains."
                            Chapter Two, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived for"
The Thoreau Society Bulletin - Excerpt from p. 3-5
ISSN 0040-6406 Number 247 Spring 2004 
Henry D Thoreau
Obscure Film Recalls Thoreau Craze of Thirty Years Ago
W. Barksdale Maynard

Who wouldn't like to meet Henry Thoreau,
sit down with him in  conversation? In 1975,
this dream came true for four famous Americans in Talking with Thoreau, written and directed by Richard Slote for Encyclopedia Britannica films. Hard to find today, this 29-minute educational movie stands as a fascinating relic of the twentieth-century Thoreauvian heyday. Talking with Thoreau was shot partly on location at Walden Pond and at Roland Wells Robbins's Thoreau house replica in his backyard in the nearby town of Lincoln. Most of the film consists, however, of indoor conversations between Thoreau, played by actor Barry Primus, and four illustrious visitors to his cabin, actually a set. These visitors are not actors, but the real conservationist David Brower, psychologist B. F. Skinner, civil-rights activist Rosa Parks, and former United States Attorney General Eliot Richardson, in a time-travel scenario that is simultaneously intriguing and ludicrous.

The movie is nothing if not earnest, with close-up shots of a meditative Thoreau alternating with sequences in which he walks dreamily along the pondshore to the moody music of a flute. Those involved in the project had not always been so highbrow; Richard Slote had help in directing the film from Paul Asselin, associate producer of The Honeymoon Killers (1970), a "dark humorous thriller about a fat nurse and a Spanish gigolo who murder rich but lonely women."  Later Asselin directed The Making of Star Wars (1977). Their choice for Thoreau, Barry Primus, has appeared in countless movies and television shows, including such un-Thoreauvian offerings as Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989) and The Women of Spring Break (1995). His blow-dried coif aside, Primus made a plausible Thoreau, though at 37 he was ten years older than his subject was when living at Walden, and one gets no sense of the experiment as a product, specifically, of youthful enthusiasm.
When he strolls Walden's paths, they are unmistakably the eroded ones of the 1970s, with railroad ties stacked as cribwork. But as we shall see, these anachronisms are nothing beside the extreme implausabilities presented by the device of time-travel.

The first visitor to the house is David Brower, who like later guests sits in a chair beside the window, a desk at his side, against which the rapt Henry leans. Sad-faced Brower somewhat recalls a small-town minister in his earnest preachiness, which doe-eyed Thoreau absorbs with a smile.  He asks Brower, "I wonder, could I come back to Walden here again in your century and have the same experiences that I have now?" Brower gloomily replies, "I'm afraid you couldn't.... You would have overflights of jets [and] all the extraneous noises that our sudden discovery of vast amounts of energy have enabled us to set loose in the world."

By way of illustrating how technology has corrupted mankind, Brower tells how he once took a commercial flight over the North Pole and saw the aurora borealis shimmering majestically outside the window. Wanting others to enjoy the spectacle, "I asked the stewardess, well, shouldn't the captain tell the people about this, on the public address system? And she said, 'Oh no, the passengers wouldn't want the movie interrupted.' " At this one cannot help but wonder how much Thoreau-listening intently-would have known of jets and in-flight movies. Ironies abound: we are being scolded for liking to watch films even as we sit watching a film; Thoreau, here showcased as a proponent of authenticity and anti-technology, is in fact an actor bathed in Klieg lights; and Brower-being paid for his time?-perches in front of a movie-set window with a fake landscape "outside" to espouse lofty back-to-nature doctrines.

The next guest is received coldly. "I'm B. F. Skinner, Harvard University; I think you were there briefly. I want to explain to you why I took the liberty of calling a book Walden Two after your Walden One. I did it because I not only very much admire your book, but I think the two books are really on the same theme. I really believe we are both interested in the possibility of redesigning a way of life. If you don't like the life that the society hands you, go off and try something of your own." This flattery does nothing to soften Thoreau toward the dome-headed Skinner, whom he eyes warily. Eventually Henry says, "Professor Skinner, you alluded to me in one of your books ... as an outrageous romantic, a pernicious character." (Thoreau's grasp of literature has never seemed more impressive than in this
learned allusion to Beyond Freedom and Dignity, written 109 years after he was buried.) Skinner replies sheepishly and with a hint of a smile, "Well, I didn't-when I wrote that-I didn't know I was going to meet you when I wrote that, or I should have softened it up a bit, I think."

Apparently glad to be rid of Skinner, Thoreau clutches a red apple and listens benignantly to Rosa Parks describing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He remarks, "It's one of the things we have in common-that we're both jailbirds." Parks, prim and polite, seems to adore Thoreau: "If Dr. King hadn't been the leader that he was, reading your writings, our movement would not have been the success that it was, so we owe you a great debt of gratitude, and by our protests we hope to continue the work that you began."

Finally the chair beside the wooden table is filled impressively by Eliot Richardson in a business suit. A puffy scarf (green, of course) flung around his neck, Thoreau in this scene disconcertingly resembles a Students for a Democratic Society activist staring down a 1960s college dean. Again unfazed by the bewildering time-travel implications, he asks if Richardson would have arrested him for his refusal to pay taxes. "Certainly," Richardson replies, "And I think that you should have been subject to the enforcement of law." At this, Thoreau furrows his brow and gnaws a finger. A subsequent exchange meanders, at last, into the decidedly surreal:

     Thoreau: "When you were asked to fire Special Prosecutor
     Archibald Cox in the Watergate case or resign your own office as
     Attorney General under Richard Nixon, did you find that decision 
     Richardson: "Well, it probably wasn't really any harder for me than
     it may have been for you to decide not to pay your taxes."

Absurdities aside, Talking with Thoreau is a valuable document of the 1970s Thoreau cult, now slipping into distant memory. Of the four visitors, Skinner and Brower are no longer living. Roland Robbins's Thoreau house, so prominently featured, is now gone--it was to be removed to the Institute at Walden Woods about 2000 but proved too rotten to reassemble. At 64, Barry Primus continues to appear in television shows and movies. Among his credits, ironically, is that he was casting director for the film that many confuse with Thoreau's Walden, the 1981 hit On Golden Pond. One wonders if Primus recalls his role as Henry in an obscure film of almost 30 years ago, in an earnest era of back-to-nature and zealous Thoreauvianism that is gradually being borne away from us by the stream of time.
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