The Punk Rocker Who 'Becomes' Thoreau

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Iconic contributor to this magazine Henry David Thoreau is the kind of writer that a lot of people really fall in love with. He identifies and skewers the consumer behaviors we associate with the modern era with such precision and wit that he resonates with us today.

But few people, not even the most dedicated greens enchanted by Thoreau's environmental ethics, can match Richard Smith's dedication to the man. Smith practices "living history," dressing up as and acting like Thoreau. There's a fascinating profile of him in the religion magazine Killing the Buddha by Beatrice Marovich:

Turns out that this guy, Richard Smith, is about as close as you can get to a modern-day disciple of the man himself. He's there doing living history. For more than a decade he has been "becoming" Thoreau: dressing up in meticulous 19th-century regalia, reading his essays in front of crowds, fielding questions (in the first person) from the public, about the man's personal life and politics.

Eleven years ago, he moved to Concord (from Akron, Ohio, where he was working in a living history museum) with his ex-wife (also a living historian) to turn Walden into his sanctum sanctorum. I was impressed by the deliberateness of this passion -- or, perhaps, obsession. I started to wonder if he might be the closest I'd get to a ghost. I thought we should sit down for a chat.

Richard: I often wonder what he would think about all of this. Me, doing living history as him. You know, does he like it, does he not like it?

Beatrice: Do you feel like he's watching? What do you think he'd say?

Richard: I don't think he would be impressed. Once, I was leading a walk through Walden Pond as Thoreau. I had a group of eighth graders with me. And one asked, "Mr. Thoreau, if you knew that there was a guy 150 years from now pretending to be you, what would you say?" And at first I was really impressed, and I was thinking, "Oh, what a great question." And without even missing a beat, I said (and I think this was a very "Henry" answer), "I would tell him to get his own life and leave mine alone." I do think this is what he'd say. On the other hand, I'm also turning a lot of people on to him. So, I'm sure he'd appreciate the PR.

Read the full story at Killing the Buddha.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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