How does Walden reflect key aspects of transcendentalism?

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In Walden, Henry David Thoreau made a significant contribution to New England transcendentalism. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century movement of intellectuals and writers who believed that there is a divine essence in all aspects of nature and humanity. In addition, they also generally were progressive regarding...

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In Walden, Henry David Thoreau made a significant contribution to New England transcendentalism. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century movement of intellectuals and writers who believed that there is a divine essence in all aspects of nature and humanity. In addition, they also generally were progressive regarding feminism and were against slavery. The movement borrowed broadly from German transcendentalism.

Thoreau and other transcendentalists criticized contemporary society for its conformity and urged people to find a distinct and individual connection to the universe. Thoreau did this when he lived by himself with nature and wrote about his increased awe and love of it. In Walden, Thoreau recorded his time communing with nature while living simply at Walden.

He talks about why he went to Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...” Similar to other transcendentalists, Thoreau does not want to conform and live by rote without thinking about what he does; he wants instead to think about nature and recognize and appreciate man’s relationship to nature. By doing so, and by eliminating so much that other people find important, Thoreau can discover what is actually important to him. For instance, he writes,

A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period. Old shoes will serve a hero longer than they have served his valet... But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?

Thoreau can eliminate the superficial external factors that other people find so important in order to find “something to do” that will make him happy.

He also says, “All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” For Thoreau, the universe is a miraculous scene of change, beauty, and nature. He sees a bird and notes that “though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that [he] could see where he broke the surface when [he] did not hear him.” Thoreau marvels at the loon, at the stillness of Walden Pond, and at the general beauty of nature, which is very much a transcendentalist philosophy.

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Three themes of Transcendentalism are self-wisdom, nature, and social reform.

Thoreau moved to Walden Pond from his parents’ house in order to write his first book (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers), to figure himself out as an individual, and to find his rhythm as a creative writer. Here are several quotes from the book to indicate this self-wisdom aspect of his undertaking:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. ~“Where I Lived and What I Lived For”

I learned this, at least, by my experiment:  that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. ~ “Conclusion”

While at the pond, he continued his study of nature. Many of the chapters contain his natural observations – as do the journals he kept for nearly all of his life. You’ll find many in the “Winter Animals” and “Spring” chapters. In the latter comes this passage:

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. ~ “Spring”

As for social reform, it was while Thoreau was living at the pond that he went to town, was arrested for nonpayment of the state poll tax, and was put in jail for one night. He was taking a stand against a meaningless tax that the state authorities could use in any way they chose, including furthering the nation’s war with Mexico and continuing to support the returns of fugitive slaves to the south. He wrote about this incident in more depth in his essay known as “Civil Disobedience.” But he also mentions it in “The Village” chapter here, in the third and last paragraph:

I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house. … But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. ~ “The Village”

So there you go! All three bases are covered in Walden.

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