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

Introduction

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.