Title: Living the life of Henry David Thoreau
For most people, Henry David Thoreau remains someone who exists only between the pages of books issued at the beginning of high school literature classes someone who might pop up on a quiz instead of one of our society's great nonconformists. Dr. Kevin Radaker, Anderson University's English Department chair, is changing that.
Within the past decade Radaker has donned Thoreau's characteristic beard, unruly hair and demure period clothing to deliver more than 200 presentations across the nation. Riveted, audiences stare at Radaker as he paces the stage as Thoreau, offering up his disdain for conformists, sloth, and those who toil for material things.
"I wish to live deliberately," Radaker quoted, clenching his fist for emphasis and offering it to the audience. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
Radaker's life as Thoreau began in 1991 when he was selected by the Chautauqua Society to embody the ecologically minded author. Chautauqua, a nationally celebrated group that offers interactive education on historically significant humanitarians, has toured for more than 20 years offering programs to local communities.
Radaker, who received a fellowship from Chautauqua, traveled with the group in the early 90's playing Thoreau. Other literary figures of Thoreau's time were represented by actors some of whom had performed internationally. Although not a trained actor, becoming Thoreau is not difficult for Radaker; he has read every word Thoreau has written from the popular to the arcane.
"I began reading Thoreau when I was 16," Radaker said. "I found him fascinating. The part of his writings that appealed to me was his plea for us to be nonconformists. It gave me the moral courage not to do things my peers were doing."
So knowledgeable is Radaker of Thoreau's work and philosophy that, after his performances, he invites questions from the audience on any work or idea of Thoreau's.
"Every time I get up there, I get questions that I haven't quite heard before, but I can't recall ever being stumped," Radaker said. "Occasionally someone will ask a question that the moderator has a hard time with." A moderator is used to take the questions from audience members and then deliver them to Radaker/Thoreau.
The moderator at Radaker's recent AU performance stumbled over a complex question from an audience member regarding a perceived discrepancy of philosophies in "Walden."
After asking the student to repeat the question three times, the moderator, who was familiar with Thoreau, shook her head and furrowed her eyebrows. Radaker stepped in and answered the complicated question eloquently and explained himself until the student nodded his approval.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have of Thoreau, according to Radaker, is that he was a hermit who retreated into the woods because he shunned society.
"He only spent two years in the woods," Radaker said. "It was more of a writer's retreat. And when he lived at the pond he had many visitors and went into the village."
One theory as to why Thoreau retreated to Walden for those two years was that he needed a quiet place to write. Before going to Walden, Thoreau lived in his parents' boarding house that was a constant hub of activity.
Radaker, who teaches at Anderson University, will continue to deliver his rendition of Thoreau across the country. He has engagements pending throughout 2000.
"The longer I do this the more exciting, fascinating it is to realize the variety of venues that are willing to let me do Thoreau," Radaker said. "This year I will speak at Rocky Mountain National Park, several high schools, and a private college in Wisconsin. Thoreau covered such a rich variety of topics."
---Keri S. McGrath is a feature reporter for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.