Yesterday I called Henry David Thoreau a crackpot, which is unfair. He's not a crackpot. He's a crank.
But there is a certain divine energy in every man, but sparingly employed as yet, which may be called the crank within, - the crank after all, - the prime mover in all machinery, - quite indispensable to all work.
That's from "Paradise (To Be) Regained" (1843), a review of a book by a genuine crackpot. It summarizes Walden pretty well: one man's search for the indispensable crank within. I may be taking the quotation out of context. A bit.
We need cranks to keep us honest. When Thoreau claims that he lived in a little house by Walden Pond rather than, say, a cave, because "[i]n such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, limes and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient qualities" ("Economy"), he does not really mean much of it. He's goading the reader, perhaps goading himself. He might have instead built a capacious tub in downtown Concord, if Diogenes had not already pinched the idea.
There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once - for the root is faith - I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say. For my part, I am glad to bear of experiments of this kind being tried; as that a young man tried for a fortnight to live on hard, raw corn on the ear, using his teeth for all mortar. The squirrel tribe tried the same and succeeded. ("Economy")
If squirrels could do it, why can't you, huh? No, Thoreau knows that we're not squirrels. I hope that last line, at least, reveals the laughter in Thoreau's eyes, or pen. Whatever Thoreau might or might not have done in reality, Walden is writing, metaphor, and play. He has a taste for the paradox, and a taste for the parable, like other well-known useful cranks.
I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity, but I should be proud if no more fatal fault were found with my pages on this score than was found with the Walden ice. Southern customers objected to its blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds. The purity men love is like the mists which envelop the earth, and not like the azure ether beyond.
Part of my title is borrowed from a recent Jackson Lears review essay in The New Republic. The part about John Muir is pretty good.