Contrast Thoreau's Walden with Emerson's Self-Reliance.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thoreau's main concern in Walden is simplicity; Emerson's main concern in "Self-Reliance" is being true to one's inner calling regardless of what society says.

Walden is an account of Thoreau's time living just outside of Concord in a small cabin next to Walden Pond. His goal was to "front life" or strip away all the extras and non-essentials that prevent us from living fully and deeply. He wanted, as he puts it in Walden, to suck the marrow out of life, to live life at its most essential—and he does this as an experiment. Walden documents how little sustenance it takes to live and what Thoreau learns and experiences as a result of living in the simplest possible way.

"Self-Reliance," in contrast, does not document Emerson's own experiments or experiences in being true to his inner core. However, it is a generalized statement of the need for each individual to find his own destiny rather than conform to what the world says he or she should be doing. For example, rather than talking minutely about his own life, Emerson makes such proclamations as “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” 

There is a great deal of overlap in the thought of the two men, but their works differ in terms of focus. Walden focuses on Thoreau; "Self-Reliance" focuses on general principles.

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Emerson's essay is concerned with trusting oneself by tapping into one's intuition and inner divinity and with learning experientially, instead of blindly trusting what others believe and think they know.  He also promotes the embrace of nonconformity, for he believed that "imitation is suicide." The essay's motto is "Trust thyself."  He also believed that consistency was an obstacle to personal growth.  Emerson asserts that spontaneity and direct experience were two ways that a man could live authentically, instead of in the shadow of others or a society that demanded conformity.

Thoreau's Walden is a longer work written as a result of his two-year stay in a cabin he constructed at Walden Pond.  It was an experiment in which he lived out some of Emerson's ideas about social independence in "Self-Reliance," but he was also deeply concerned with man's relationship with nature and the rejection of materialism.  There are sections of Walden in which Thoreau keeps meticulous records of his expenditures to prove that humans confuse needs and wants.  He states that thinking about owning various farms in the area is actually more satisfying than buying them because multiple farms would demand too much of him and spiritually impoverish him by tying him down to a single place and vocation. 

lusie0520 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In both works, the authors are deeply concerned with and invested in the natural world. They revere nature and it is through their relationship or special connection with it that they express their individuality. They used their connection with nature to form their identities. Emerson’s approach is a practical one: he states we must remember to study nature to find the lessons it has to teach us; he also warns that, in getting away from those lessons and his connection with nature, man becomes overly concerned with what he has created.  Emerson knows that we must live in the world we have created, but he strongly reminds the reader to experience the solitude of nature to reflect.

Thoreau, on the other hand, took a more hands-on approach to his beliefs.  He built a cabin at Walden Pond, and he went there to live, in solitude, with no one around for miles.  Here, he reflects on living a simple life, away from all the technology and modern conveniences of his time.  Though some may say Thoreau’s experiment was not a success, Thoreau himself did not believe this.  He felt it was in the natural environment that men learn the lessons they need to carry with them into the technologically advanced normal world.

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Self-Reliance

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