Who knew that Henry David Thoreau, during his more than two-year solitary retreat in the Massachusetts wilderness, whittled erotic woodcuts and routinely was antagonized by an exceedingly clever raccoon? Writer Michael McGrath spent three days this spring tweeting from Thoreau’s perspective, one minute unleashing a one-liner oozing with wisdom and the next admitting he had read that one-liner on a bathroom stall. Thoreau’s friends — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and a cast of woodland creatures — play supporting if not villainous roles. To think, all this led to one of the most beloved and widely read pieces of American literature to date.
McGrath’s exercise works about as well as a one-man show can work. It’s possible he could have benefited from some conversation or banter, from giving voice to Emerson, Alcott and the raccoon. These figures seem distant and undefined. But perhaps that was intentional by McGrath. Perhaps it’s meant to simulate Thoreau’s solitude, the distance he likely felt from the rest of civilization. Actually, it seems only fitting now that McGrath should go it alone, as Thoreau did for two years, two months and two days at his cabin near Walden Pond.
McGrath manages to keep his concept from growing stale. Thoreau’s failed attempt to catch the raccoon with a glop of apple butter, to which the raccoon helps itself to more of from Thoreau’s cupboard, is kind of cute. Predictably, we’re all richer for the experience come the last tweet. Thoreau has found a little balance in his life and seems at least marginally adjusted (though, at last check, he was searching for a fake girlfriend to accompany him to a party of Emerson’s — he wanted to make Alcott jealous). And I learned to live a little more deliberately; at least I think I did.