Based on the reading of Walden, how does Thoreau challenge us to develop social identity?

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chsmith1957 | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Thoreau spent two years at his house at Walden Pond in order to learn “to live deliberately,” “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” and to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This endeavor was only a slight retreat away from civilization, however, for the center of the Concord settlement was just a one-mile walk away. But the separation gave him time to think, to write, and to figure out what was important to him. Thoreau didn’t believe that other people took enough time to live deliberately and to scrutinize every choice. His complaints echo throughout Walden:

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?  We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. (“Where I Lived and What I Lived For”)

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.  From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.  (“Economy”)

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?  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. (“Conclusion")

Thoreau thought some value lay in doing what he did at the pond:

Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (”The Village”)

But he frowned upon imitators. Each person had to take the time to find his own identity and his own path, and to figure out how he related to the society that surrounded him:

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account ...  I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.  The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.  (“Economy”)

In this manner, Walden was not meant to be a guidebook for independent living. At the very least, however, it was a prod for others to find their own Waldens where they could live deliberately, escape the industrialized world’s fate of quiet desperation, and develop their own notions of social identity.

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