Historian Richard Smith has been practicing ‘living history’ by dressing up as Thoreau for over a decade. Photos by Katrina Margolis
By Katrina Margolis
Hometown Weekly Reporter
For many, Henry David Thoreau remains a writer read in high school. His general principles and beliefs stick around somewhere within the brain, but he’s largely forgotten throughout most of the day. For some, however, Thoreau is a beacon of how one should live, his principles becoming deeply engrained and his writings a way of life. This is exactly how historian Richard Smith feels about Thoreau. Last Wednesday, Smith gave a performance of “Walking; or The Wild” at the Sherborn Community Center. Smith’s rendering of this piece may be the closest replica of a Thoreau lecture one can get in the United States today.
For more than a decade, Smith has been “becoming Thoreau,” practicing living history through these presentations. A Concord resident, he moved from Ohio in order to be closer to Walden. After his presentations, Smith even answers questions about Thoreau in the first-person. The essay that he presented Wednesday was first delivered in 1851. Though he did not like to give lectures, Thoreau considered “Walking” one of his seminal works, and a lecture he enjoyed giving.
Smith’s presentation is set in 1855. “You have come to hear a lecture by a man that some of you may not be familiar with,” Smith wrote, setting the scene. “His book, Walden, has been out for just over a year and it isn’t exactly a best seller, so many of you probably haven’t read it. … He has a reputation for being a hermit as well as being quite odd.” Called an abolitionist, or worse, a Transcendentalist, Thoreau had a mixed-bag of reception while he was alive.
Smith presents these lectures and also does other types of Thoreau-based events, such as guiding tours of Walden Pond to eighth graders. His commitment to his role is absolute. However, Smith wonders if Thoreau would appreciate what he is doing.
“Once, I was leading a walk through Walden Pond and someone asked, ‘Mr. Thoreau, if you knew that there was a guy 150 years from now pretending to be you, what would you say?’” Smith said. “Without even missing a beat - and I think this was a very ‘Henry’ answer - I said, ‘I would tell him to get his own life and leave mine alone.’”
Despite the fact that Smith believes Thoreau might not have appreciated his performance, he also does admit that he’s turning a lot of people on to Thoreau - so he’s sure he would appreciate the PR.