Few contemporaries of Henry David Thoreau would have predicted the enormous popularity his small volume Walden would eventually win. 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 Robert Louis Stevenson severely damaged his reputation. Toward the end of the nineteenth century he began to win favorable attention again, mainly in Britain. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when most people were forced to cut the frills from their lives, Walden, which admonishes readers to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” became something of a fad. In the 1960’s, with new awareness of environmental issues and emphasis on nonconformity, Thoreau was exalted as a prophet and Walden as the individualist’s bible.
Walden can be approached in several different ways. It can be viewed as an excellent nature book. During the Romantic era, many writers, such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, paid tribute to nature. Thoreau, however, went beyond simply rhapsodizing natural wonders. He was a serious student of the natural world, one who would spend hours observing a woodchuck or tribes of battling ants, who meticulously sounded and mapped Walden Pond, 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. Certainly he was an ecologist in his insistence on humanity’s place in (not power over) the natural universe and on the 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 on the sophistication, “refinement,” frequently distorted values, and devotion to things of civilized society. Thoreau...
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