Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau Walden; or Essay - Critical Essays

Walden; or, Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau


Walden; or, Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau

The following entry presents criticism of Thoreau's essay collection Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). See also Henry David Thoreau Poetry Criticism and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Criticism.

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond, two miles south of Concord, Massachusetts, on property belonging to his friend and sometimementor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He remained there for two years, two months, and two days, and spent his time reading, thinking, writing, observing nature, and living a simple, solitary, and fairly self-sufficient existence. Although in the popular imagination Thoreau is cast as a hermit in his woodland retreat, in truth, he was in constant communication with friends and family; he walked into town fairly regularly and he received numerous visitors at Walden. During this period, Thoreau produced a draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an essay collection based on an 1839 expedition with his brother John, and kept a journal of his activities which provided the source material for Walden. But the real inspiration for the work that would become his masterpiece was apparently provided by the many queries from curious and skeptical neighbors about his experiment in the woods, queries Thoreau initially attempted to answer in two lectures delivered at the Concord Lyceum in 1847 and entitled "The History of Myself and "Same as Last Week." Although a revised draft of Walden had been completed by 1849, at the time A Week was published, the final version did not appear until 1854. A highly original work, Walden defies easy categorization; it is at once an autobiography, a nature book, social criticism, and a handbook for simple living. Popular interest and critical acclaim continue to accrue almost a century and a half after Walden's publication.

Biographical Information

Born in Concord to a family of modest means, Thoreau, the only member of his family to attend college, graduated from Harvard in 1837. His early career as an educator was cut short by his opposition to corporal punishment, which resulted in his dismissal from his first teaching post. Thoreau's famous friendship with Emerson led him to take up residence in the latter's household as a handyman, gaining access to the most prominent figures of American Transcendentalism, among them Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott. During this period he helped edit The Dial, the magazine of the New England Transcendentalists, and was a regular contributor of both poems and essays. More than one critic has suggested that Thoreau attempted to put into practice the Transcendentalists' emphasis on the spiritual over the material to a greater degree than others associated with the movement. His devotion to principle was most famously illustrated by his single night's imprisonment for failure to pay his taxes—a protest against the Mexican War and Massachusetts' endorsement of slavery. This difference between the abstract principles held by his contemporaries and the concrete actions of Thoreau is captured in the story, largely apocryphal, of that imprisonment. According to the tale, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked "Why are you here?", while Thoreau allegedly replied "Why are you not here?" His incarceration became the basis for his 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government," popularly known as "Civil Disobedience," and he remained committed to the abolition of slavery, speaking out against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Major Themes

The many themes of Walden reflect the various literary genres with which the work has been associated. As a collection of nature essays, the most common way in which the text has been read, Walden provides few solid contributions to the world of natural science since the focus is not so much on nature itself as on the individual's relationship to it. Thoreau stresses nature's power to renew and restore the human spirit rather than a strictly scientific appreciation of nature on its own terms. Although Thoreau was at Walden Pond more than two years, his experiences are condensed into a single year's cycle, enabling the structure of Walden to correspond to the changing seasons. Images of renewal, resurrection, and rebirth abound, and for this reason, the work has been as often read as a spiritual guidebook as a nature text. Although occasionally considered an autobiography, Walden only barely qualifies for inclusion in that genre, considering the fictional aspect of much of Thoreau's account, the limited time period covered, and his legendary reticence in revealing much about his inner life. The original impetus for Walden was allegedly to satisfy the curiosity of his fellow citizens at Concord, but Thoreau accommodated their interest only so far, focusing on the experiences of daily life at Walden Pond—on how he lived, rather than why he lived as he did, a topic still being debated by critics today. The details of daily living provided in Walden account for its reception as a guide for frugal living and self-sufficiency. The author shares practical information on securing food and shelter, albeit at a level most would hardly consider subsistence, at very little cost. This simple life—plain clothes, few furnishings, a vegetarian diet—is embraced not out of necessity but by choice, as a conscious rejection of materialism, and constitutes a major theme of the work. Reducing life's necessities to a bare minimum enabled Thoreau to earn a living by performing odd jobs approximately six months a year. The rest of his time could then be spent reading—he was considered one of the most well-read men of his time—and writing. The rejection of materialism forms the basis for a reading of Walden as social criticism. Thoreau despised the way his neighbors lived and compared their state to that of slaves. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he wrote, perhaps the most famous, most quoted line of the book. But the tone of his attack on the institutions of modern society is satiric, a fact that has often been overlooked and has led to the unfair characterization of Thoreau as a humorless writer.

Critical Reception

The early reception of Walden was less than spectacular: the first edition of 2,000 copies did not sell out for five years. Contemporary critics were divided, some praising its originality, others worrying about the consequences for civilization if everyone were to retreat to the forest in imitation of Thoreau. Despite the slow start, however, Walden is now considered one of the best-selling books in the history of American literature, and its critical reputation continues to grow as much as its popular acceptance. Early critics claimed to know what the text was about, often focusing on the essays on nature while ignoring or disparaging the sections on economy, simplicity, and anti-materialism. Twentieth-century commentators, however, have emphasized the text's complexity and the many possible interpretations yielded by it. Ironically, the text whose author advocated simplicity and clarity is now often regarded as difficult, inaccessible, even "bottomless." Several versions of the Walden manuscript exist, given the lengthy period during which Thoreau wrote and rewrote the work, and much twentieth-century criticism centers on this process. The work has enjoyed a number of revivals as its themes have been found freshly relevant to specific periods in American history. Readers and critics in the 1930s, for example, embraced Thoreau's prescription for simple, frugal, living and often took comfort from the author's decided preference for a way of life forced on them by economic necessity. In the 1960s, Thoreau's attacks on societal institutions that demand conformity at the price of individuality found a new audience in the generation fighting for free speech and civil rights. The author's unconventional way of life, his quest for spiritual renewal and perfection, and his rejection of material possessions continue to appeal to readers and critics. Although Walden has long been a staple of the American literature curriculum at universities around the country, its most recent use is as a rhetoric text. Appreciated for its tight construction, impressive vocabulary, and the richness of its many allusions, Walden is finding new life as an example of good writing.


John Sullivan Dwight (review date 1854)

SOURCE: A review of Walden, in Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," edited by Joel Myerson, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 19-20.

[In this review, originally published in Dwight's Journal of Music, the critic praises Walden for its originality and common-sense approach to life and nature.]

For indoor reading, in the interims of physical fatigue and the lull of social excitement, say, for a few minutes after the evening company have dispersed and left us to our thoughts which will not sleep without some soothing efficacy of thoughts printed and impersonal, we have another book:—kindly placed in our hands upon the eve of starting on...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

The Albion (review date 1854)

SOURCE: A review of Walden, in Albion, Vol. 13, No. 36, September 9, 1854, p. 429.

[This review's anonymous author recommends Walden as an entertaining work.]

One of those rare books that stand a part from the herd of new publications under which the press absolutely groans; moderate in compass but eminently suggestive, being a compound of thought, feeling, and observation. Its author, it seems, during 1845, 6, and 7, played the philosophic hermit in a wood that overlooks Walden Pond, in the neighbourhood of Concord, Massachusetts. Here he tested at how cheap a rate physical existence may healthfully be maintained, and how, apart from the factitious...

(The entire section is 1557 words.)

The National Era (review date 1854)

SOURCE: A review of Walden, in The National Era, Vol. 8, No. 404, September 28, 1854, p. 155.

[In this anonymous review, the author is concerned about the consequences for civilization if every man were to follow Thoreau's example and live a simple solitary life.]

In its narrative, this book [Walden] is unique, in its philosophy quite Emersonian. It is marked by genius of a certain order, but just as strongly, by pride of intellect. It contains many acute observations on the follies of mankind, but enough of such follies to show that its author has his full share of the infirmities of human nature, without being conscious of it. By precept and...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

National Anti-Slavery Standard (review date 1854)

SOURCE: "Thoreau's Walden," in Thoreau: A Century of Criticism, edited by Walter Harding, Southern Methodist University Press, 1954, pp. 8-11.

[This anonymous reviewer answers Walden's earlier critics by suggesting that Thoreau's example provides an appealing alternative to the widespread pursuit of material gain.]

These books [Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers] spring from a depth of thought which will not suffer them to be put by, and are written in a spirit in striking contrast with that which is uppermost in our time and country. Out of the heart of practical, hard-working, progressive New England come...

(The entire section is 1589 words.)

R. W. B. Lewis (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "The Case against the Past," in The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, The University of Chicago Press, 1955, pp. 13-27.

[In this excerpt, Lewis discusses Thoreau's prescription for casting off tradition and convention and immersing oneself in the world of nature. Only those footnotes pertaining to the excerpt below have been reprinted.]

"We have the Saint Vitus dance." This was Thoreau's view of the diversion of energies to material expansion and of the enthusiastic arithmetic by which expansion was constantly being measured. Miles of post roads and millions of tons of domestic export did not convince Thoreau that first...

(The entire section is 3507 words.)

J. Lyndon Shanley (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Developing the Structure," in The Making of Walden with the Text from the First Version, The University of Chicago Press, 1957, pp. 74-91.

[In this excerpt, Shanley examines the successive versions of the Walden manuscript to determine the development of the work's structure.]

In some respects the most valuable insight we gain from the manuscript is that which it gives us into the structure of Walden. We would know something of Thoreau's revising and adding to his material simply from a comparison of his journals with the published text, but without the manuscript we would know nothing of the way in which he found out how he could best...

(The entire section is 6808 words.)

Sherman Paul (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Walden: Or, the Metamorphoses," in The Shores of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration, University of Illinois Press, 1958, pp. 293-353.

[In this excerpt, Paul examines Walden's numerous images of renewal and transformation.]

My mind is bent to tell of bodies changed into new forms. Ye gods, for you yourselves have wrought the changes, breathe on these my undertakings, and bring down my song in unbroken strains from the world's very beginning even unto the present time.

—Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 1-4

. . . there is but one great poetic idea...

(The entire section is 26074 words.)

Walter Harding (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Five Ways of Looking at Walden," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Autumn, 1962, pp. 149-62.

[In this excerpt, Harding reflects on the variety of reasons why readers enjoy Walden and considers five possible ways of reading it; as a nature book, as a practical guide, as satire, as philosophy, and as a model of good prose.]

Although Walden was not exactly a roaring success when it was published in 1854—it took five years to sell out the first edition of only two thousand copies—it has become, in the century since, one of the all-time best sellers of American literature. It has been issued in more than one hundred and fifty...

(The entire section is 5937 words.)

Thomas Woodson (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Two Beginnings of Walden: A Distinction of Styles," in ELH, Vol. 35, No. 3, September, 1968, pp. 440-73.

[In this excerpt, Woodson discusses Walden as a dialectical work with beginnings in both the private journal entries for July, 1845, and the public lecture delivered at the Concord Lyceum in February, 1847.]

July 5. Saturday. Walden—Yesterday I came here to live. My house makes me think of some mountain homes I have seen, which seemed to have a fresher auroral atmosphere about them, as I fancy of the halls of Olympus. I lodged at the house of a saw-miller last summer, on the Caatskill Mountains, high up as Pine...

(The entire section is 14097 words.)

Charles R. Anderson (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Web," in The Magic Circle of Walden, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, pp. 13-92.

[This excerpt deals with Walden's style and structure, which Anderson claims is both circular and web-like.]

Walden is a unique book. There is nothing quite like it in literature. Though it made its way slowly at first, after publication in 1854, by the turn of our century it had found a small but ardent audience. This has been steadily increasing and will probably continue to do so in the future because, once "discovered," it has proved to be a book with unusual drawing power. It may never be widely popular, but it attracts devotees of many kinds in...

(The entire section is 17924 words.)

Walter Benn Michaels (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Walden's False Bottoms," in GLYPH, Vol. 1, 1977, pp. 132-49.

[In this excerpt, Michaels explores the strategies employed by Walden's readers in order to deal with the text's many contradictions.]

Walden has traditionally been regarded as both a simple and a difficult text, simple in that readers have achieved a remarkable unanimity in identifying the values Thoreau is understood to urge upon them, difficult in that they have been persistently perplexed and occasionally even annoyed by the form his exhortations take. Thoreau's Aunt Maria (the one who bailed him out of jail in the poll tax controversy) understood this as a problem in...

(The entire section is 8207 words.)

William Gleason (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Re-Creating Walden: Thoreau's Economy of Work and Play," in American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 673-701.

[In this article, Gleason looks at Thoreau's treatment of leisure, labor, and self-culture within the social and cultural context of widespread industrialization and Irish immigration.]

It is in obedience to an uninterrupted usage in our community that, on this Sabbath of the Nation, we have all put aside the common cares of life, and seized respite from the never-ending toils of labour. . . . —Charles Sumner, The True Grandeur of Nations

On 4 July 1845, as Thoreau...

(The entire section is 11671 words.)

Further Reading

Boone, Joseph Allen. "Delving and Diving for Truth: Breaking through to Bottom in Thoreau's Walden" ESQ 27, No. 3 (3rd Quarter 1981): 135-46.

Studies the numerous references to surfaces and depths in Walden.

Boudreau, Gordon V. The Roots of "Walden" and the Tree of Life. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1990, 241 p.

Traces the roots of Walden and its author's "radical genius."

Brooks, Van Wyck. "Thoreau at Walden." In The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, pp. 359-73. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1937.


(The entire section is 988 words.)