Walden is an account of the two years during which Henry David Thoreau built his own cabin, raised his own food, and lived a life of simplicity in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s idea was that one’s true self could be lost amid the distractions of ordinary life. His experiment consisted of stripping away those distractions, living deliberately instead of automatically, and following the inclinations that arose within him in the solitude, silence, and leisure of his simplified life. He retreated from nonessentials to explore what remained as the core of human identity, assuming that human identity is not based on one’s profession or possessions or social connections.
Thoreau was a faithful, lifelong journal-keeper, and Walden is an artful reworking of journal entries from his time in the woods. It is a masterpiece of one of the master writers of Transcendentalism. One reason that Walden is exemplary as a work of Transcendentalism is that the book makes the idealistic assumption that there is a true self to discover. Walden is also a Transcendentalist work in other ways. It is the record of an eclectic intelligence considering life from many perspectives. Thoreau observed and appreciated nature keenly; Walden details a naturalist’s perceptions of the animals, plants, and seasons of the Concord woods. Thoreau was also a witty and merciless social critic. Walden is laden with his acid condemnations of the hypocrisy, mindless conformity, and waste of the human spirit that drove him away from the culture around him. Thoreau was well-read in Eastern religion and philosophy; Walden is one of the early attempts to put before a Western audience the Eastern values of mindfulness, detachment, simplicity, and living in the present moment.
The Harvard-educated author was also saturated with the classical Western literary tradition; Walden is a beautifully crafted work of art. Along with his spiritual, social, and artistic interests, Thoreau also carried a great passion for numbers: he goes into great detail about how much it cost to keep himself alive and healthy during his stay at Walden. Early critics tended to see this strain of “bookkeeping” as a weakness in his work. As science in the twentieth century gradually caught up with Thoreau’s insight, Walden’s careful numerical accounting was revealed as the early roots of the science of ecology.
Thoreau’s exploration of his identity was founded on individualism rather than membership in any cultural group. In fact, for him, allegiance to any group was perilous, liable to distract or seduce one away from fidelity to one’s personal values and highest calling. For Thoreau, the conditions that favored human fulfillment were quiet concentration, simple labor, and a life attentive to the lessons of nature.