Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

Krutch’s study, although not written for young adults, remains one of the most cogent interpretations of Thoreau’s life and work. Dealing with his subject holistically, he avoids the technicality and tedium of the overintellectualized studies that philosophers and thinkers so often invite. Thoreau emerges as an imperfect—that is, human—philosopher of...

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Krutch’s study, although not written for young adults, remains one of the most cogent interpretations of Thoreau’s life and work. Dealing with his subject holistically, he avoids the technicality and tedium of the overintellectualized studies that philosophers and thinkers so often invite. Thoreau emerges as an imperfect—that is, human—philosopher of life, striving with better success than most to reconcile the physical, mental, and spiritual impulses common to all people. Thus, although he briefly falls prey to sexuality while professing a higher calling, engages in polite society while theoretically disdaining it, and actively involves himself in abolitionism despite his contempt for movements, Thoreau’s impulse is always to regard the individual will as the thing most needing reform.

For Krutch, Thoreau’s reputation rests largely upon his individualism, rather than upon the Transcendentalism by which he is more frequently identified. Like Emerson, Thoreau preached one’s responsibility for self, but unlike his mentor he argued that specific actions alone could validate the inner commitment. Thus, his life on Walden Pond became notable for its demonstration of a willingness to act according to the conventions of society. It did not matter that life there was less hazardous, according to Krutch, than a weekend camping trip. If all people would seize even the small initiative of living more simply in some way—and Thoreau had shown a way in which it could be done—then no movements or government assistance would be necessary to bring greater joy to life.

Although Thoreau’s life as a philosophical naturalist was remarkable in its own right, Krutch views it as less important than the commitment to go his own way. Others might simplify in their own ways or find unique avenues for flaunting society in order to find the joy that was a “symptom by means of which right conduct may be recognized,” but Walden Pond was Thoreau’s utopia. By minutely observing the course of nature in order to draw morals from it, Thoreau engaged in the task of living life, exploring the depths of his mind, and validating his own existence.

Yet the boundaries of Thoreau’s orthodoxy could not be drawn clearly. Even he could not avoid six weeks a year of life’s drudgery, nor could he always restrain himself from speaking out on social issues when they intruded themselves into his personally constructed world. For example, out of exasperation and genuine concern, Thoreau felt compelled to deliver an address in 1854 on the injustice of Massachusett’s return of Anthony Burns to slavery under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. He also railed against the execution of John Brown five years later. Yet always he remained a reluctant reformer, the very ineffectiveness of his voice reinforcing the need for individual self-reform. In addition, he never sought causes to which to join himself. If the circumstances of life sometimes overlapped his independent world, then it simply indicated the human inability to comprehend the vast complexities of existence.

If individualism is the great theme of Henry David Thoreau, then Thoreau’s journals, upon which Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1854) is based, are clearly the embodiment of his philosophy of maximizing the minimum in order to discover as much time as possible for life. Krutch does much to contextualize the publication of Walden, demonstrating that, as a work that went through seven revisions before publication, it owed much to a philosophy of life to which Thoreau had been committed since at least 1840. Thoreau’s style is unique in literature and constitutes, along with his commitment to the message of simplification, his claim as a great literary figure. Drawn from his philosophy of life, Thoreau’s prose combines homely simplicity with bold metaphors and polished overstatements designed to make readers take note of a philosophy inimical to its age.

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Critical Context