Walden Questions and Answers
by Henry David Thoreau

Walden book cover
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How does Walden appeal to modern generations?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Relying on self, getting in touch with nature, listening to one's one voice rather than the clamor of the crowd, living a simpler life--all good things for any time and place.  Certainly in our high-tech, materialistic, this is a voice of reason and caution and individuality.  I think the whole idea of just going away somewhere and leaving behind all the "trappings" of civilization is appealing today.  Thus the commercials featuring vacations in secluded spots and throwing away the blackberry.  It's a romantic concept, I think, and there is plenty of validity to it.  I do, however, find it ironic that most people think Thoreau lived in complete isolation and contemplation on some pond.  He actually walked into town (Concord) every day and was visited by plenty of people regularly during his time at Walden.  In fact, he says he left, in part, because he and others had worn a recognizable path, the beginning of a rut, and his time there had served his purpose.

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The ideas of Walden influenced greatly the children of the 1960s.  Known as "flower children" or "hippies," many moved from cities to live in communes in the West and lived off the land, casting from them material possessions and becoming their individual and natural selves.  Unfortunately, many of them had to come "from the woods" because their project did not work out.  Unknowledgeable of husbandry, they virtually starved.

Walden's passive resistance when he protested slavery by not paying a tax that profited slavery as he, instead, spent a night in jail had a profound effect upon Mohandas Ghandi who taught his people to use this form of resistance against Imperalist Britain in India.  When they lay on the tracks before the British trains, the English, civilized more than other Europeans, would not run over them; negotiations followed.  Eventually, Ghandi led them to independence.

Moved by the great Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King employed this passive resistance during the Civil Rights Movement as blacks staged sit-ins and other forms of quiet protests against segregation.  Dr. King himself spent a night in jail like Thoreau and wrote a letter from this Birmingham, Alabama, jail that paraphrases Thoreau:

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

Finally, modern naturalists have joined forces to save Walden Pond.  In 1990, the popular musician and songwriter Don Henley (formerly of the rock group the Eagles) founded the Walden Wood Project to protect a part of Walden Woods under threat of real-estate development.  Henley later spoke of how Thoreau and Emerson contributed to his "spiritual awakening" and his commitment of the preservation of Walden Woods:

Thoreau's writing struck me like a thunderbolt.  Like all great literature, it articulated something that I knew...

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borkdog | Student

Walden chiefly persists because it is a beautiful book, animated by forceful, provocative ideas and rendered in precise, descriptive prose with the fluid rhythm of poetry.
Thoreau is widely perceived as a naturalist, and if Walden were simply a touchstone of the environmental movement it might be worthy of consideration. But in all truth the book is better understood as a kind of spiritual autobiography, albeit one which encompasses a subtle — at times not-so-subtle — satire of the civilization from whence its author is in retreat.
Waldenis a book that sustains and survives comparisons to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Thoreau means to show us how we can live better, how we can live without so much and — more importantly — how we come to know what to want.

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epollock | Student

Seen initially as eccentric and derivative, both Thoreau and his masterpiece, Walden, have undergone drastic reevaluations over time. Thoreau has been viewed as moralist, environmentalist, political phi-losopher, and guru. Beginning with an overview of Thoreau's successive "images," we will focus our investigation on Walden, with an eye toward its special appeal to the young. Thoreau's views on personal freedom lead him to the conviction that civilized life, with its rampant materialism, constitutes an absurd prison. Thoreau goes to the woods to encounter reality in its elemental form, and in so doing he establishes a kind of quintessential American dream that lurks behind (or beyond) the writings and the lives of countless Americans. Yet Thoreau is no less fascinating as stylist than as moralist, and his pithy metaphors and aphorisms are now part of our everyday language. Ultimately Walden intrigues us today as a meditation on our rich, sometimes tragic, relationship to nature, a relationship highlighted by contemporary thinking about the environment. The life of Walden, a piece of literature forever fresh, is inevitably to be contrasted with the life of Walden Pond, an at-risk tourist spot in Massachusetts.

Thoreau's contemporaries regarded him as a shadow to Emerson, and his philosophy of "self-reliance" and American promise does resemble that of Emerson, who was his mentor. But, unlike Emerson, Thoreau also stands tall in the history of political dissent, and perhaps taller still as champion of the environment. In Walden, he gives us not only the poem of the earth, but the still more seductive poem of our "home" in the woods: an ecstatic opportunity to discover reality, that of nature and of the self. It is enough, Thoreau says, to "know beans," thereby suggesting how ephemeral and superficial our ordinary projects are. This homespun pragmatism, a coming-to-terms with the basics, is what ultimately seduces in Walden; it remains eternally appealing in a society that has lost its contact with the land.

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