History of Literature

American literature

Henry David Thoreau


Henry David Thoreau



Henry David Thoreau

American writer

born July 12, 1817, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.
died May 6, 1862, Concord

American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, renowned for having lived the doctrines of Transcendentalism as recorded in his masterwork, Walden (1854), and for having been a vigorous advocate of civil liberties, as evidenced in the essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849).

Early life
Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. Though his family moved the following year, they returned in 1823. Even when he grew ambivalent about the village after reaching manhood, it remained his world, for he never grew ambivalent about its lovely setting of woodlands, streams, and meadows. Little distinguished his family. He was the third child of a feckless small businessman named John Thoreau and his bustling, talkative wife, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. His parents sent him in 1828 to Concord Academy, where he impressed his teachers and so was permitted to prepare for college. Upon graduating from the academy, he entered Harvard University in 1833. There he was a good student, but he was indifferent to the rank system and preferred to use the school library for his own purposes. Graduating in the middle ranks of the class of 1837, Thoreau searched for a teaching job and secured one at his old grammar school in Concord. But he was no disciplinarian, and he resigned after two shaky weeks, after which he worked for his father in the family pencil-making business. In June 1838 he started a small school with the help of his brother John. Despite its progressive nature, it lasted for three years, until John fell ill.

A canoe trip that he and John took along the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839 confirmed in him the opinion that he ought to be not a schoolmaster but a poet of nature. As the 1840s began, Thoreau took up the profession of poet. He struggled to stay in it and succeeded throughout the decade, only to falter in the 1850s.

Friendship with Emerson
Sheer chance made his entrance to writing easier, for he came under the benign influence of the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had settled in Concord during Thoreau’s sophomore year at Harvard. By the autumn of 1837, they were becoming friends. Emerson sensed in Thoreau a true disciple—that is, one with so much Emersonian self-reliance that he would still be his own man. Thoreau saw in Emerson a guide, a father, and a friend.

With his magnetism Emerson attracted others to Concord. Out of their heady speculations and affirmatives came New England Transcendentalism. In retrospect it was one of the most significant literary movements of 19th-century America, with at least two authors of world stature, Thoreau and Emerson, to its credit. Essentially it combined romanticism with reform. It celebrated the individual rather than the masses, emotion rather than reason, nature rather than man. Transcendentalism conceded that there were two ways of knowing, through the senses and through intuition, but asserted that intuition transcended tuition. Similarly, the movement acknowledged that matter and spirit both existed. It claimed, however, that the reality of spirit transcended the reality of matter. Transcendentalism strove for reform yet insisted that reform begin with the individual, not the group or organization.

Literary career
In Emerson’s company Thoreau’s hope of becoming a poet looked not only proper but feasible. Late in 1837, at Emerson’s suggestion, he began keeping a journal that covered thousands of pages before he scrawled the final entry two months before his death. He soon polished some of his old college essays and composed new and better ones as well. He wrote some poems—a good many, in fact—for several years. Captained by Emerson, the Transcendentalists started a magazine, The Dial; the inaugural issue, dated July 1840, carried Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and his essay on the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus.

The Dial published more of Thoreau’s poems and then, in July 1842, the first of his outdoor essays, “Natural History of Massachusetts.” Though disguised as a book review, it showed that a nature writer of distinction was in the making. Then followed more lyrics, and fine ones, such as “To the Maiden in the East,” and another nature essay, remarkably felicitous, “A Winter Walk.” The Dial ceased publication with the April 1844 issue, having published a richer variety of Thoreau’s writing than any other magazine ever would.

In 1840 Thoreau fell in love with and proposed marriage to an attractive visitor to Concord named Ellen Sewall. She accepted his proposal but then immediately broke off the engagement at the insistence of her parents. He remained a bachelor for life. During two periods, 1841–43 and 1847–48, he stayed mostly at the Emersons’ house. In spite of Emerson’s hospitality and friendship, however, Thoreau grew restless; his condition was accentuated by grief over the death in January 1842 of his brother John, who died of lockjaw after cutting his finger. Later that year he became a tutor in the Staten Island household of Emerson’s brother, William, while trying to cultivate the New York literary market. Thoreau’s literary activities went indifferently, however, and the effort to conquer New York failed. Confirmed in his distaste for city life and disappointed by his lack of success, he returned to Concord in late 1843.

Move to Walden Pond
Back in Concord Thoreau rejoined his family’s business, making pencils and grinding graphite. By early 1845 he felt more restless than ever, until he decided to take up an idea of a Harvard classmate who had once built a waterside hut in which one could loaf or read. In the spring Thoreau picked a spot by Walden Pond, a small glacial lake located 2 miles (3 km) south of Concord on land Emerson owned.

Early in the spring of 1845, Thoreau, then 27 years old, began to chop down tall pines with which to build the foundations of his home on the shores of Walden Pond. From the outset the move gave him profound satisfaction. Once settled, he restricted his diet for the most part to the fruit and vegetables he found growing wild and the beans he planted. When not busy weeding his bean rows and trying to protect them from hungry woodchucks or occupied with fishing, swimming, or rowing, he spent long hours observing and recording the local flora and fauna, reading, and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). He also made entries in his journals, which he later polished and included in Walden. Much time, too, was spent in meditation.

Out of such activity and thought came Walden, a series of 18 essays describing Thoreau’s experiment in basic living and his effort to set his time free for leisure. Several of the essays provide his original perspective on the meaning of work and leisure and describe his experiment in living as simply and self-sufficiently as possible, while in others Thoreau describes the various realities of life at Walden Pond: his intimacy with the small animals he came in contact with; the sounds, smells, and look of woods and water at various seasons; the music of wind in telegraph wires—in short, the felicities of learning how to fulfill his desire to live as simply and self-sufficiently as possible. The physical act of living day by day at Walden Pond is what gives the book authority, while Thoreau’s command of a clear, straightforward but elegant style helped raise it to the level of a literary classic.

Thoreau stayed for two years at Walden Pond (1845–47). In the summer of 1847 Emerson invited him to stay with his wife and children again, while Emerson himself went to Europe. Thoreau accepted, and in September 1847 he left his cabin forever.

Midway in his Walden sojourn Thoreau had spent a night in jail. On an evening in July 1846 he encountered Sam Staples, the constable and tax gatherer. Staples asked him amiably to pay his poll tax, which Thoreau had omitted paying for several years. He declined, and Staples locked him up. The next morning a still-unidentified lady, perhaps his aunt, Maria, paid the tax. Thoreau reluctantly emerged, did an errand, and then went huckleberrying. A single night, he decided, was enough to make his point that he could not support a government that endorsed slavery and waged an imperialist war against Mexico. His defense of the private, individual conscience against the expediency of the majority found expression in his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” which was first published in May 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” The essay received little attention until the 20th century, when it found an eager audience. To many, its message still sounds timely: there is a higher law than the civil one, and the higher law must be followed even if a penalty ensues. So does its consequence: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Later life and works
When Thoreau left Walden, he passed the peak of his career, and his life lost much of its illumination. Slowly his Transcendentalism drained away as he became a surveyor in order to support himself. He collected botanical specimens for himself and reptilian ones for Harvard, jotting down their descriptions in his journal. He established himself in his neighbourhood as a sound man with rod and transit, and he spent more of his time in the family business; after his father’s death he took it over entirely. Thoreau made excursions to the Maine woods, to Cape Cod, and to Canada, using his experiences on the trips as raw material for three series of magazine articles: “Ktaadn [sic] and the Maine Woods,” in The Union Magazine (1848); “Excursion to Canada,” in Putnam’s Monthly (1853); and “Cape Cod,” in Putnam’s (1855). These works present Thoreau’s zest for outdoor adventure and his appreciation of the natural environment that had for so long sustained his own spirit.

As Thoreau became less of a Transcendentalist he became more of an activist—above all, a dedicated abolitionist. As much as anyone in Concord, he helped to speed fleeing slaves north on the Underground Railroad. He lectured and wrote against slavery, with “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lecture delivered in 1854, as his hardest indictment. In the abolitionist John Brown he found a father figure beside whom Emerson paled; the fiery old fanatic became his ideal. By now Thoreau was in poor health, and when Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry failed and he was hanged, Thoreau suffered a psychic shock that probably hastened his own death. He died, apparently of tuberculosis, in 1862.

To all appearances, Thoreau lived a life of bleak failure. His neighbours viewed him with familiarity verging on contempt. He had to pay for the printing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; when it sold a mere 220 copies, the publishers dumped the remaining 700 on his doorstep. Walden (the second and last of his books published during his lifetime) fared better but still took five years to sell 2,000 copies. And yet Thoreau is now regarded as both a classic American writer and a cultural hero of his country. The present opinion of his greatness stems from the power of his principal ideas and the lucid, provocative writing with which he expressed them.

Thoreau’s two famous symbolic actions, his two years in the cabin at Walden Pond and his night in jail for civil disobedience, represent his personal enactment of the doctrines of New England Transcendentalism as expressed by his friend and associate Emerson, among others. In his writings Thoreau was concerned primarily with the possibilities for human culture provided by the American natural environment. He adapted ideas garnered from the then-current Romantic literatures in order to extend American libertarianism and individualism beyond the political and religious spheres to those of social and personal life. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why,” Thoreau asked in Walden, where his example was the answer, “should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” In a commercial, conservative, expedient society that was rapidly becoming urban and industrial, he upheld the right to self-culture, to an individual life shaped by inner principle. He demanded for all men the freedom to follow unique lifestyles, to make poems of their lives and living itself an art. In a restless, expanding society dedicated to practical action, he demonstrated the uses and values of leisure, contemplation, and a harmonious appreciation of and coexistence with nature. Thoreau established the tradition of nature writing later developed by the Americans John Burroughs and John Muir, and his pioneer study of the human uses of nature profoundly influenced such conservationists and regional planners as Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford. More important, Thoreau’s life, so fully expressed in his writing, has had a pervasive influence because it was an example of moral heroism and an example of the continuing search for a spiritual dimension in American life.

Major Works
The most significant and enduring works by Thoreau are listed here in order of original publication; when he made substantial revisions, especially in the essays, the volumes in which the revised versions first appeared are likewise noted:

“Ktaadn and the Maine Woods” (1848; revised and expanded in The Maine Woods, 1864); A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849); “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849; republished as “Civil Disobedience” in A Yankee in Canada, 1866); Walden (1854); “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860; republished in A Yankee in Canada); “Walking” (1862; republished in Excursions, 1863); “Life Without Principle” (1863; republished in A Yankee in Canada); and Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (posthumously, 1993).

The Writings of Henry Thoreau, 20 vol. (1906, reprinted 1982), is the standard “Walden” edition of Thoreau’s books, essays, and journal. It is being replaced by the Princeton Edition of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (starting in 1971 with the publication of its version of Walden) which is producing books of high textual and editorial quality. Collected Poems, ed. by Carl Bode, enlarged ed. (1964, reissued 1970), brings together the many versions of the poetry he wrote, particularly in his younger days.




Author: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
First published: From 1842 to after Thoreau's death


To the nonspecialist, Thoreau's significant works could be numbered on the fingers of both hands. Of these undoubtedly the first to come to mind would be Walden, his most famous book, and perhaps A Week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers. But almost as famous and perhaps even more influential have been several of his essays, which were written on various occasions for different purposes, and generally on rather widely ranging subjects. More than his two famous books, his essays vary in quality from the nearly banal to the profound, from the useless to the useful. To the reader genuinely interested in the life and writings of one of America's greatest and most influential writers—as well as perhaps our most outstanding true Transcendentalist—all his works are fascinating. But since many do concern closely related subjects and treat these topics in a similar manner, a selection of the works can give the heart of the essays.
Thoreau's earliest essay, possibly, is one named "The Seasons," written when he was only eleven or twelve years old. As would be expected, it is of importance only to the close specialist. There are also in existence at least twenty-eight essaysvand four book reviews that Thoreau wrote while a student at Harvard. These, too, are of greater interest to the student interested in the young Harvardian than to the readers looking for the Thoreau of mature ideas and style.
His first published essay was "Natural History of Massachusetts," printed in 1842. This work does more than promise the later man. It is, in fact, the mature thinker and observer already arrived. Drawn chiefly from entries in his journals, which he had begun to keep after graduation from Harvard in 1837, it reveals his characteristics of Transcendentalism and his keen eye for observation, an eye that was to make him acclaimed by many people as one of America's best early scientists. It reveals Thoreau's pleasure in viewing the world around him and his detachment from the world of men. He believes, for example, that one does not find health in society but in the world of nature. To live and prosper, a person must stand with feet firmly planted in nature. He believes, also, that society is corrupting, is inadequate for man's spiritual needs; when considered as members of a society, especially a political organization, men are "degraded." As a scientist, Thoreau catalogues many aspects of natural phenomena in Massachusetts; he notes, for example, that 280 birds live permanently in that state or summer there or visit it passingly.
Among Thoreau's best essays is another early one, "A Winter Walk," published in 1843, the material of which was taken mainly from his journal for 1841. As was generally the case with Thoreau, this essay is lyrical and ecstatic, the lyricism being augmented by the inclusion of various bits of Thoreau's own poetry. Thematically the essay is strung on a long walk on a winter's day and the observations and meditations of the author as he progresses. Both his observations and meditations are mature, virtually as vivid and sound as those given in the later Walden. His reactions to the physical walk are immediate and sharply detailed. He likes to walk through the "powdery snow," and he feels that man should live closer to nature in order to appreciate life fully. In a Wordsworth-ian-pantheistic point of view, he feels that plants and animals and men, if they would conform, find in nature only a "constant nurse and friend."
Thoreau's most famous essay is "Resistance to Civil Government," published in 1849 and renamed, after Thoreau's death, "Civil Disobedience," the title by which it is known today. As is often the case, this essay grew directly from an experience by the author, this time Thoreau's one-night imprisonment for nonpayment of his taxes, taxes which he claimed would go to finance the Mexican War and were therefore, in his mind, immoral. The influence of this essay has been profound, far-reaching, and long-lasting. It served Gandhi as a guidebook in his campaign to free India from British rule; it also served the British Labour party in England during its early days; it offered model and hope for the European resistance against Nazi Germany, and it has aided, more recently, the struggle for civil rights in the South.
The essay is a bristling and defiant reaffirmation of the individualism of man, of his moral obligation to restate his individualism and to act on it. Government, any government, is at best an expediency. Thoreau heartily accepts the precept "That government is best which governs least." a thesis which logically leads to the conclusion "That government is best which governs not at all." Government, however, still exists, but it is not unchangeable; "A single man can bend it to his will." Government, in Thoreau's eyes, was far from pure and beneficent. He felt that he could not have as his government those institutions which enslaved certain races and colors. Therefore he felt compelled to resist his government. He felt that ten men—even one—could abolish slavery in America if they would allow themselves to go to prison for their belief and practice. Men of goodwill must unite. Every good man must constitute a majority of one to resist tyranny and evil. Democracy may not be the ultimate in systems of government, he concludes, in a ringing statement of man's political position: "There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."
One of Thoreau's notable essays is "A Plea for Captain John Brown," published in 1860, one of three on the same person, the other two being "After the Death of John Brown," delivered at the Concord memorial services for Brown, held the day the raider of Harper's Ferry was hanged, and "The Last Days of John Brown," written for a memorial service on July 4, 1860. The earliest essay of the three justifies the actions of Brown because generally he tried to put Thoreau's convictions into action.
"Walking," published in 1862, was taken from his journal written some ten years earlier and used as material for lectures in the early 1850s. It is an enthusiastic reaction to the joys of walking, "for absolute freedom and wildness," in which Thoreau in effect boasts that the course of progress is always westward, drawn probably from the mere fact, as has been pointed out, that around Concord the best walking country was to the southwest. Extremely lyrical, the essay sometimes surfaces into sheer nonsense, as in the statement that "Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all other mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past." Such comments caused a more deeply dedicated thinker, Herman Melville, to react with great scorn and frequently to satirize Thoreau's easy optimism.
"Life Without Principle," published more than a year after Thoreau's death in 1863, was likewise drawn from the journals during the author's most powerful decade, in the early 1850s. Delivered in 1854 as "Getting a Living," it is a ringing statement on the dignity and real worth of the individual, of the man. It is the voice of the self-reliant man calling all individuals to the assertion of their self-reliance so that they can live like men and live fully. Thoreau feels that most men misspend their lives, especially those who are concerned merely with getting money: "The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse." To be born wealthy is disastrous— as he says in one of his pithy statements—it is rather "to be stillborn." The wise man cannot be tempted by money. He must be free, as Thoreau was convinced, feeling that his "connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient."
The world must be composed of individuals and must live not for the moment but for eternity. "Read not the Times. Read the Eternities." America must reform. "Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant." In other ways America has not lived up to her potential. She is not the land of the free. "What is it to be free from King George and continue to be the slaves of King Prejudice? What is it to be born free and not to live free?"
The everyday routines of life are necessary, to be sure, but they should be "unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body" so that the mind—the better parts of men—can rise to the greater and noble aspects of living so that they will not discover at death that life has been wasted.
This essay is Thoreau at his best. He is characteristically the Transcendentalist, the individualist, voicing his opinion without reserve, pithily and most tellingly. Thoreau was perhaps more than other nineteenth century American writer circumscribed in his subjects for writing. Therefore his essays are repetitious. He liked to brag that he was widely traveled in Concord. But, though perhaps narrow in breadth, Thoreau's writings are shafts reaching to the essence of man's being. And a half dozen essays represent him truthfully and succinctly.




Type of work: Essays
Author: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Type of treatise: Autobiography and nature notes
Time of treatise: 1845-1847
Locale: Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts
First published: 1854


More than a naturalist's record of finely observed phenomena, Walden is a major philosophical statement on the American character, the uses of a life of simple toil, and the values of rugged independence.


The Story

Early in the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his family home in the village of Concord, Massachusetts, to live for two years by himself in a rude house that he had constructed beside Walden Pond, in a far corner of Concord township. While there he wrote in his journal about many of the things he did and thought. He was not the owner of the land on which he settled, but he had received the owner's permission to build his house and to live there. His objective was really to live simply and think and write; in addition, he proved to himself that the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and fuel could be rather simply obtained for a man who desired only what he needed.
As early as March, 1845, Thoreau went out to Walden Pond and cut the timber he needed for the framework of his house, doing all the labor himself. When that was done and the framing in place, Thoreau bought a shanty from an Irish railroad worker. He then tore down the shanty and used the boards for the sidings of the house, even making use of many of the nails already in the boards. By July, then, the house was ready for his occupancy. Before the advent of cold weather the following fall, Thoreau also built himself a fireplace and a chimney for cooking and heating purposes. He also lathed and plastered the interior of the one-room house, in order that it would be warm and comfortable during the cold New England winter.
Having done all the work himself, and having used native materials wherever possible, he had built the house for the absurdly low cost of twenty-eight dollars. In addition to providing himself with a place to live, Thoreau believed he had taught himself a great lesson in the art of living. He was also vastly pleased that he had provided himself with a place to live for less than a year's lodging had cost him as a student at Harvard College.
In order to get the money needed to build the house, Thoreau had planted about two and a half acres of beans, peas, potatoes, corn, and turnips, which he sold at harvest time. The land on which they were grown was lent by a neighbor who believed, along with everyone else, that the land was good for nothing. In addition to selling enough produce to pay his building expenses, Thoreau had enough yield left from his gardening to provide himself with food. But he did not spend all his time working on the house or in the garden. One of his purposes in living at Walden Pond was to live so simply that he might have plenty of time to think, to write, and to observe nature; and so he spent only as much time in other labors as he had to. He had little respect for possessions and material things. He believed, for instance, that most men were really possessed by their belongings, and that such a literary work as the Bhagavad-Gita was worth more than all the towers and temples of the Orient.
Thoreau was quite proud of how little money he needed to live comfortably while at Walden Pond. The first eight months he was there he spent only slightly more than a dollar a month for food. In addition to some twenty-odd dollars he received for vegetables he raised, his income, within which he lived, was slightly more than thirteen dollars. His food consisted almost entirely of rye and Indian meal bread, potatoes, rice, a little salt pork, molasses, and salt. His drink was water. Seldom did he eat large portions of meat, and he never hunted. His interest in the animals that lived in the woods and fields near Walden Pond was the interest of a naturalist. Although he spent some time fishing, he felt that the time he had was too valuable to spend in catching fish to feed himself.
For the small amounts of cash he needed, Thoreau worked with his hands at many occupations, working only so long as was necessary to provide himself with the money his meager wants required. He kept as much time as possible free for thinking and studying. His study consisted more of man and nature than of books, although he kept a few well-selected volumes about him at all times.
While at Walden Pond, summer and winter, Thoreau lived independent of time: he refused to acknowledge days of the week or month. When he wished to spend some time observing certain birds or animals, or even the progress of the weather, he felt free to do so. About the only thing to remind him that men were rushing pell-mell to keep a schedule was the whistle of the Fitchburg Railway trains, which passed within a mile or so of his dwelling. Not that he disliked the railroad; he thought it, in fact, a marvel of man's ingenuity, and he was fascinated by the cargoes which the trains carried from place to place. But he was glad that he was not chained to the commerce those cargoes represented. As much as he sometimes enjoyed the sound of the train, he enjoyed far more the sounds of the birds and animals, most of which he knew, not only as a country dweller knows them, but as the naturalist knows them as well. The loons, the owls, the squirrels, the various kinds of fish in Walden Pond, the migratory birds, all of these were part of his conscious existence and environment.
People often dropped in to visit with Thoreau, who frankly confessed that he did not consider people very important. He failed, in fact, to tell who his most frequent visitors were. He preferred only one visitor at a time if he were an intelligent conversationalist. Whenever he had more visitors than could be accommodated in his small house with its three chairs, he took them into his larger drawing room, the pine wood which surrounded his home. Few people, it seems, came to visit him, perhaps because he was a crusty kind of host, one who, if he had nothing better to do, was willing to talk, but who usually had more to occupy him than ordinary conversation.
During the winter months Thoreau continued to live comfortably at Walden Pond, though his activities changed. He spent more time at the pond itself, making a survey of its bottom, studying the ice conditions, and observing the animal life which centered about the pond, which had some open water throughout the year.
After two years of life at Walden, Thoreau left the pond. He felt no regret for having stayed there or for leaving; his attitude was that he had many lives to live and that he had finished with living at the pond. He had learned many lessons there, had had time to think and study, and had proved what he had set out to prove twenty-six months before, that living could be extremely simple and yet fulfill the individual.


Critical Evaluation

Few contemporaries of Henry David Thoreau would have predicted the enormous popularity his small volume, Walden, would win in our century. Author and work were virtually neglected during Thoreau's lifetime. Locally, he was considered the village eccentric; even his great friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson was disappointed because his young disciple seemingly frittered away his talent instead of "engineering for all America." After Thoreau's death in 1862, his works attracted serious critical attention, but unfavorable reviews by James Russell Lowell and others severely damaged his reputation. Toward the turn of the century he began to win favorable attention again, mainly in Britain. During the Depression of the 1930s when most people were forced to cut the frills from their lives, Walden, whose author admonished readers voluntarily to "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" became something of a fad. In the 1960s, with new awareness of environment and emphasis on nonconformity, Thoreau was exalted as a prophet and Walden as the individualists' bible.
Walden can be approached in several different ways. Obviously it is an excellent nature book. During the Romantic era, many writers—Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Emerson, Whitman, to name a few—paid tribute to nature. But Thoreau went beyond simply rhapsodizing natural wonders. He was a serious student of the natural world, one who would spend hours observing a wood-chuck or tribes of battling ants, who meticulously mapped Walden Pond, and who enjoyed a hilarious game of tag with a loon. Like Emerson, he saw nature as a master teacher. In his observations of nature, Thoreau was a scientist; in his descriptions, a poet; in his interpretations, a philosopher and psychologist; and certainly he was an ecologist in his insistence on man's place in (not over) the natural universe, and on man's need for daily contact with the earth.
Walden may also be considered as a handbook for the simplification of life. As such, it becomes a commentary upon the sophistication or "refinement" of frequently distorted values and devotion to things of civilized society. Thoreau admits the necessities of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, "for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success." He then illustrates how we may strip these necessities to essentials for survival and health, ignoring the dictates of fashion or the yearning for luxury. "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life," he asserts, "are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." With relentless logic he points out how making a living has come to take precedence over living itself; how a man mortgages himself to pay for more land and fancier clothing and food than he really requires; how he refuses to walk to a neighboring city because it will take too long—but then must work longer than the walk would take in order to pay for a train ticket. He questions our dedication to "progress," noting that it is technological, not spiritual: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, having nothing important to communicate."
Perhaps the most serious purpose of Walden and its most powerful message is to call men to freedom as individuals. One looks at nature in order to learn about oneself; one simplifies one's life in order to have time to develop that self fully; and one must honor one's uniqueness if one is to know full self-realization. It is this emphasis on nonconformity that has so endeared Thoreau to the young, who have adopted as their call to life these words from the final chapter of Walden: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
There is an ease, a clarity, a concreteness to Thoreau's prose that separates it from the more abstract, eloquent, and frequently involuted styles of his contemporaries. The ease and seeming spontaneity are deceptive. Thoreau revised the book meticulously during the five years it took to find a publisher; there are five complete drafts which demonstrate how consciously he organized not only the general outline, but every chapter and paragraph. For an overall pattern, he condensed the two years of his actual Walden experience into one fictional year, beginning and concluding with spring—the time of rebirth.
Pace and tone are also carefully controlled. Thoreau's sentences and paragraphs flow smoothly. The reader is frequently surprised to discover that sentences occasionally run to more than half a page, paragraphs to a page or more; syntax is so skillfully handled that one never feels tangled in verbiage. Tone varies from matter-of-fact to poetic to inspirational and is spiced with humor— usually some well-placed satire—at all levels. Even the most abstract topics are handled in concrete terms; Thoreau's ready use of images and figurative language prepares us for twentieth century Imagist poetry.
Taken as a whole, Walden is a first-rate example of organic writing, with organization, style, and content fused to form a work that today, over one hundred years after its publication, is as readable and perhaps even more timely than when it was written. In Walden, Thoreau reaches across the years to continue to "brag as lustily as Chanticleer ... to wake my neighbors up."



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