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 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 people 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 people mortgage themselves to pay for more land and fancier clothing and food than they really require; how they refuse 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 the 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, have nothing important to communicate.”
Perhaps the most serious purpose of Walden, and its most powerful message, is to call people 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 the self fully; 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 over successive generations; many young readers 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.”
Thoreau’s prose exhibits an ease, a clarity, and a concreteness that separate 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; five complete drafts demonstrate how consciously he organized not only the general outline but also 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.
The pace and tone of Walden 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; the syntax is so skillfully handled that one never feels tangled in verbiage. The 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 one 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, more than 150 years after its publication, is as readable as 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.”