Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Walden is an account of the two years during which Henry David Thoreau built his own cabin, raised his own food, and lived a life of simplicity in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s idea was that one’s true self could be lost amid the distractions of ordinary life. His experiment consisted of stripping away those distractions, living deliberately instead of automatically, and following the inclinations that arose within him in the solitude, silence, and leisure of his simplified life. He retreated from nonessentials to explore what remained as the core of human identity, assuming that human identity is not based on one’s profession or possessions or social connections.
Thoreau was a faithful, lifelong journal-keeper, and Walden is an artful reworking of journal entries from his time in the woods. It is a masterpiece of one of the master writers of Transcendentalism. One reason that Walden is exemplary as a work of Transcendentalism is that the book makes the idealistic assumption that there is a true self to discover. Walden is also a Transcendentalist work in other ways. It is the record of an eclectic intelligence considering life from many perspectives. Thoreau observed and appreciated nature keenly; Walden details a naturalist’s perceptions of the animals, plants, and seasons of the Concord woods. Thoreau was also a witty and merciless social critic. Walden is laden with his...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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. Thoreau 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 obtained rather simply 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 was 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 his house, even making use of many of the nails already in the boards. By July, the house was ready for his occupancy. Before the advent of cold weather the following fall, Thoreau built himself a fireplace and a chimney for cooking and heating purposes. He also lathed and plastered the interior of the one-room house so 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, Thoreau had built the house for the absurdly low cost of twenty-eight dollars. In addition to providing himself with a place to live, he 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 he needed to build the house, Thoreau had planted about two and one-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. He did not spend all of his time, however, 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 was needed. He had little respect for possessions and material things. He believed, for example, that most people are really possessed by their belongings, and that literary works such as the Bhagavadgt (c. fifth century b.c.e.) are worth more than all the towers and temples of the Orient.
Thoreau was quite proud of how...
(The entire section is 1205 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In 1845, when he was twenty-seven years old, Thoreau built a one-room cabin on Emerson’s land in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, less than two miles from Concord. He borrowed an axe, bought the boards from an Irish railroad worker’s shanty, and erected a ten-by-fifteen-foot building. He moved into his new abode on the symbolic date of Independence Day.
There he lived austerely, growing beans and doing odd jobs, living on a simple diet, and spending less than nine dollars for food during the first eight months. His plan was to simplify his life, to “live free and uncommitted,” working about six weeks a year in order to have the remaining forty-six weeks free to read, write, live in intimate relationship to nature, “affect the quality of the day,” and demonstrate the Transcendental belief in “the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” He summed up his experiment by writing:I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close; to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean . . . to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.
Feeling that most people live hurried, complicated “lives of quiet desperation,” “frittered away by detail,” he urged them to simplify. Citing the case of an Indian craftsman whose baskets people would no longer buy, Thoreau set an example for poor students and for would-be artists, who fear being unable to make a living by their writing, painting, music, or sculpture. Believing that many people were enslaved too much by working at unfulfilling jobs to provide themselves with material objects, he showed that if they will do with less, they can find the freedom to pursue their heart’s desire. Like Thomas Carlyle, the...
(The entire section is 912 words.)