Walden (Ethics (Ready Reference series))
Thoreau’s two-year experiment of living at Walden Pond was on one level an effort to determine whether a person really needed the material possessions that were considered essential in mid-nineteenth century America. His book demonstrated that one could attain the good life by living in harmony with nature supplied only with the bare necessities. The first chapter, entitled “Economy,” demonstrates that human needs are few; thus, there is no need to exploit nature to attain them. Much of the rest of the book attacks the acquisitive spirit. At bottom, Thoreau argues, materialistic values indicate not enterprise but a basic lack of spiritual self-reliance. In Thoreau’s ethic, ownership of the land is invalid. Humans should act as stewards rather than squires.
Thoreau’s own love of nature is illustrated in the intricate detail with which he describes the seasons, flora and fauna, natural processes, and Walden Pond itself. If he measures and documents, plumbs the depths of the lake, scrupulously counts every penny spent in the building of his house, and ponders his profit after selling produce from his garden, it is to show that empirical science does have a use, but that it should be subordinate to a guiding spirit that respects and loves the natural environment rather than exploits it. Walden continually demonstrates “correspondences”; that is, clear relationships between the ethical life of humankind and...
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New England Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered on the premise that divine truth is present in all things and that truth, or God, is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God.
The term ‘‘transcendental’’ was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason, ‘‘I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori’’ (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavad Gita (which Thoreau reports that he read in the mornings) and the Vedas (which Thoreau references several times), among other Eastern scriptures.
The New England transcendentalists did not confine themselves to literary pursuits but also tried to put their philosophy into practice. Some, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, focused on educational reform. Peabody and...
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The setting of Walden is integral to its themes, although Thoreau did not set out to write a book about nature. He wanted a quiet place to write, so he secured Emerson's permission to build a cottage on his land near Walden Pond. The pond was only a mile from Thoreau's mother's house and within walking distance of town. Thoreau moved there in early July of 1845.
Thoreau's first tasks, as recounted in Walden, relate to his survival—planting a garden so that he can sell the produce for money to build his cabin, then building the cabin, and finally winterizing it. He meticulously records this work in his writing and reflects on its meaning. What evolves during the two years that Thoreau lives at Walden Pond is a book about humankind's relation to nature, and how self-sufficiency makes individualism possible.
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Thoreau wrote Walden in the first person. He explains on the first page that, although ‘‘I’’ is omitted from most books, ‘‘it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.’’ In addition, he explains that the book is all about Thoreau himself. ‘‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,’’ he assures readers.
Because of its first-person narration, and because it is based on journals, readers often assume that Walden was written ‘‘off the cuff’’ or that its organization is informal or accidental. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thoreau spent seven years after his stay at Walden rewriting and revising his manuscript. He structured the book to suit his dual purposes of explaining how he lived and of urging readers to apply his experiences to their own lives. He compressed twenty-six months into one year for his narrative, beginning and ending in spring, the season of rebirth. Within the general structure of a one-year span, Thoreau organized his material by topic, rather than strictly chronologically. For example, the chapter ‘‘The Village’’ comes during the ‘‘summer’’ season of the book, but not every incident related in it actually took place during summer.
Walden is rich in densely detailed descriptive passages that make use of so much figurative language...
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Unlike his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau has a sense of organic form, and as a result Walden—in contrast to many of Emerson's essays—is more than a collection of brilliant, briefly stated ideas. Thoreau revised the book at least seven times after writing the first draft during his stay at Walden. As usual, sections of it were tried out on audiences at his lectures, and rewritten according to their reactions. Walden is Thoreau's best book, for it displays his keen insight and his skill as a prose stylist.
Thoreau's actual stay at Walden lasted two years, two months and two days. The book presents a single year, beginning in early spring 1845, when he starts work on the cabin, and ending the following spring after the ice has melted on the pond. The chapters are carefully linked to assure continuity. Thoreau employs metaphors with a skill that makes his work a prose poem surpassing the traditional poems he wrote during his lifetime. The pond itself is a central metaphor, its purity a standard to which all humans should aspire. Metaphors suggesting rebirth and renewal are frequent, and express Thoreau's almost missionary zeal.
Thoreau's imagination reworked his experience into an American myth. He drew freely from other sources, especially his journals, in his revisions of Walden. His account of his life and thought at Walden Pond struck a strong responsive chord in the American consciousness. Although Thoreau often sounds like a...
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Thoreau considered himself a reformer, and he genuinely wanted to change human lives for the better. He was distressed by the poverty he saw in the Concord area, but was convinced that the answer to poverty was not philanthropy. Thoreau felt a personal responsibility for the poor but believed that the inner person had to change before gifts or donations would do any good. So he preached to those poor people he met on his walks.
"We need the tonic of wildness..." Thoreau says in the chapter of Walden entitled "Spring." He was a pioneer conservationist who insisted that the primitive, wild side of human nature required the wildness of nature as a counterpart. He predicted that the exploitation of the West was inevitable once the business interests of the country realized that they could obtain resources there. He admits in Walden that he has a grudging admiration for the energy of commercial enterprises, but feels that it is energy applied for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the section of the book called 'The Ponds," he says to his contemporaries: Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth."
For a book that, on its surface, seems like a sentimental discussion of human interaction with nature, Walden has stirred deep resentment and critical attack from both individuals and governments. Critics who have disliked Walden object to Thoreau's belief that the individual rights of human beings take precedence over all other...
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Compare and Contrast
1850s: Walden Pond (about half a mile long and with a total area of about sixty-one acres) and much of the land immediately around it are owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. While the land was once heavily forested, many of the trees are being cut down as fuel. The particularly cold winter of 1851–1852 takes a heavy toll on Walden Woods. The few local residents are described by Thoreau in Walden, including a fortune teller, a potter, and railroad workers. People who live in Concord, a mile and a half away, come out to the pond to fish and swim, and they use the surrounding land for hunting, berry picking, and picnicking, as well as for a source of fuel.
Today: Walden Pond and the land around it are a National Historical and Literary Landmark owned by the state of Massachusetts. (The Emerson family donated the land to the state in 1922 so that it would be preserved.) The land is the site of the Thoreau Institute, which has a twelve-thousand-square-foot Education Center and a fivethousand- square-foot Research Center on the grounds, housing a reading room, archives, staff offices, and other facilities. About 750,000 people visit the site each year. Walden Pond is still used for swimming.
1850s: In Walden, Thoreau recalls hearing trains’ whistles as they passed the western end of Walden Pond during his stay, and he describes the many ways in which railroads are changing American...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why do you think the essay "Economy" is by far the longest chapter in Walden?
2. What does Thoreau hope to achieve at Walden Pond?
3. Which do you prefer, the sections of the book devoted to Transcendentalist philosophy or those in which Thoreau describes the living things around his cabin? Is his idealism ever completely absent anywhere in the book?
4. What kind of reading does Thoreau recommend? Why does he dislike newspapers?
5. Thoreau praises solitude, but insists he is not a hermit. Is this contradictory?
6. What famous event in Thoreau's life is mentioned briefly in the concluding paragraph of "The Village"?
7. Why are such detailed descriptions provided in "The Ponds"? What symbolic value do they have for Thoreau?
8. What is a paradox? Does Thoreau make good use of paradoxes in Walden?
9. In his descriptions of the various seasons at Walden, which season does Thoreau seem to prefer? Why?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Seven centuries before Thoreau, a Japanese philosopher, Kamo Chomei, carried out an experiment similar to Thoreau's by living in a cabin in the woods. Compare Hojoki, Chomei's account of his stay there, to Walden. Hojoki is included in the Norton Anthology of Oriental Literature.
2. Thoreau was fond of reading religious books such as the Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, respectively. What use has he made of ideas derived from these sources in Walden?
3. Thoreau's Journals, written between 1837 and 1861, contain many of the ideas that he worked into books such as Walden. Compare the writing in the Journals to that in Walden. How is it similar or different?
4. Thoreau's first two books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden, both involve water, rivers and ponds. Compare the two books. How is the imagery the same? How does it differ?
5. Compare the books of a modern nature writer such as Edward Hoagland or John McPhee to Thoreau's Walden. How do the approaches differ? Do these more recent books feature an underlying philosophy such as transcendentalism?
6. Compare Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, to Walden.
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Topics for Further Study
Would you want to spend a year or two living as Thoreau lived at Walden Pond? Why or why not?
Thoreau refers to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and to Hindu gods and scriptures throughout Walden. Do research to learn about these two religious systems and then explain why you think Thoreau made frequent references to them. What aspects and elements of these religions make them compatible with Thoreau’s ideas?
Thoreau kept detailed financial records to show how much money he earned and how much he spent on various things. What does this tell you about him? Does this trait seem consistent with other aspects of Thoreau’s philosophy and behavior, or not? Explain your answer.
Spend a period of time—an hour or a day—in natural surroundings and away from other people as much as possible. Your ‘‘Walden’’ may be a backyard or a park. Take notes on what you observe. Later, write an essay about your experience in which you include both information from your notes and reflections about how the experience affected you.
Imagine that you are Thoreau and have just been set down in the middle of an airport in a big American city in the twenty-first century. Write a page in your journal describing what you see, hear, and feel.
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A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, like Walden, mixes observations of natural phenomena with discussions of their symbolic significance. The Maine Woods and Cape Cod read more like pure travel literature. In these last two books Thoreau encountered forms of nature not easily reconcilable to his faith in an external world friendly to man. In Cape Cod he describes the purely destructive force of a storm at sea. In The Maine Woods he writes of climbing Mt. Katahdin, New England's second highest peak; he reaches the summit, possibly only the sixth person ever to do so, and is shocked by what he finds there: a grey, barren expanse, strewn with rocks and totally indifferent to human existence. Thoreau's confidence in a benign nature did not outwardly change, but a reading of his Journals reveals that he sometimes continued an adherence in his published books to ideas that he had privately abandoned.
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What Do I Read Next?
‘‘Walden’’ and Other Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an excellent introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a collection of Thoreau’s major works, including additional nature writing and political essays such as ‘‘Civil Disobedience’’ and ‘‘A Plea for Captain John Brown.’’ First published in 1937, the collection was republished in a new edition in 2000.
Essays: First and Second Series (1990), edited by Douglas Crase, collects the major essays of Thoreau’s mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. These essays were originally published in two separate volumes in 1841 and 1844, and they express philosophies and attitudes very similar to those found in Walden.
My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), by John Muir, is the most popular work of the famous conservationist and, along with Walden, is a classic American nature journal. Muir was just a young man in 1869, when he spent the summer helping to drive a large flock of sheep through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Years later, when his diary of that summer was published, it inspired thousands of Americans to visit the area that later became Yosemite National Park.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), by Annie Dillard, is sometimes cast as a modern Walden. In it, Dillard records observations made over the course of a year at Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The book won a Pulitzer Prize...
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For Further Reference
Anderson, Charles R., ed. Thoreau's Vision: The Major Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973. Includes most of Thoreau's better short pieces and provides a good analysis of Thoreau's essays.
Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Provides a different perspective on Thoreau's writings based on a close study of his imagery. The violence of many images in the works seem to Bridgman to indicate a deeply pessimistic, possibly even a pathological personality.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Regarded as the best biography of Thoreau.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press, 1941. Matthiessen first convincingly demonstrated Thoreau's skill in writing Walden. After nearly fifty years this work remains one of the best books on the classic nineteenth-century American writers.
Pillai, A. K. B. Transcendental Self: A Comparative Study of Thoreau and the Psycho-Philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985. Drawing extensively on Walden, Pallai, a native of India, shows a close parallel between Thoreau's thinking and that found in traditional Indian religion.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. A good, brief study of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bagnall, Nicholas, Review of Walden, in New Statesman, December 5, 1997, p. 57.
‘‘New Publications,’’ in Boston Daily Journal, August 10, 1854, p. 1.
‘‘New Publications,’’ in Salem Register, August 10, 1854, p. 2.
Trent, W. P., J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren, eds., ‘‘Thoreau, Walden,’’ in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Vol. 16, Oxford University Press, 1907–21.
‘‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods,’’ in Lowell Journal and Courier, August 10, 1854, p. 2.
White, E. B., ‘‘A Slight Sound at Evening,’’ in The Points of My Compass, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1962.
Myerson, Joel, The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, Cambridge University Press, 1995. In addition to essays covering all of Thoreau’s major works, this volume also includes essays discussing the author’s friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his changing reputation over the years, and other topics.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, University of California Press, 1986. This well-reviewed and highly regarded biography includes discussions of Walden and Thoreau’s other major works.
Smith, David Clyde, The Transcendental Saunterer: Thoreau and the...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A representative selection of some of the best criticism of Thoreau’s Walden published since Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of “Walden” (1972). Although primarily a celebration of Thoreau, some essays question his solipsism and his debt to Emerson.
Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of “Walden.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. The prelude to the contemporary reading of Thoreau’s masterpiece. Cavell argues that Walden’s mysteries can be learned by giving the fullest attention to all Thoreau said.
Myerson, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains a very complete record of critical reaction to Walden beginning with early reviews by Horace Greeley, George Eliot, and several anonymous reviewers of the day. The book also contains reprints of more than a dozen twentieth century essays examining such topics as the structure of Walden and its language.
Ruland, Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Walden”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent source of discussion for Walden. Nine short essays and twelve shorter viewpoints by critics and...
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