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.
Early in the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his family home in the village of Concord, Massachusetts, to live for two years by himself in a rude house that he had constructed beside Walden Pond in a far corner of Concord township. While there, he wrote in his journal about many of the things he did and thought. Thoreau was not the owner of the land on which he settled, but he had received the owner’s permission to build his house and to live there. His objective was really to live simply and think and write; in addition, he proved to himself that the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and fuel could be obtained rather simply for a man who desired only what he needed.
As early as March, 1845, Thoreau went out to Walden Pond and cut the timber he needed for the framework of his house, doing all the labor himself. When that was done and the framing was in place, Thoreau bought a shanty from an Irish railroad worker. He then tore down the shanty and used the boards for the sidings of his house, even making use of many of the nails already in the boards. By July, the house was ready for his occupancy. Before the advent of cold weather the following fall, Thoreau built himself a fireplace and a chimney for cooking and heating purposes. He also lathed and plastered the interior of the one-room house so that it would be warm and comfortable during the cold New England winter.
Having done all the work himself, and having used native materials wherever possible, Thoreau had built the house for the absurdly low cost of twenty-eight dollars. In addition to providing himself with a place to live, he believed he had taught himself a great lesson in the art of living. He was also vastly pleased that he had provided himself with a place to live for less than a year’s lodging had cost him as a student at Harvard College.
In order to get the money he needed to build the house, Thoreau had planted about two and one-half acres of beans, peas, potatoes, corn, and turnips, which he sold at harvest time. The land on which they were grown was lent by a neighbor who believed, along with everyone else, that the land was good for nothing. In addition to selling enough produce to pay his building expenses, Thoreau had enough yield left from his gardening to provide himself with food. He did not spend all of his time, however, working on the house or in the garden. One of his purposes in living at Walden Pond was to live so simply that he might have plenty of time to think, to write, and to observe nature, and so he spent only as much time in other labors as was needed. He had little respect for possessions and material things. He believed, for example, that most people are really possessed by their belongings, and that literary works such as the Bhagavadgt (c. fifth century b.c.e.) are worth more than all the towers and temples of the Orient.
Thoreau was quite proud of how little money he needed to live comfortably while at Walden Pond. The first eight months he was there, he spent only slightly more than one dollar per month for food. In addition to some twenty-odd dollars he received for vegetables that he had raised, his income, within which he lived, was slightly more than thirteen dollars. His food consisted almost entirely of rye and Indian-meal bread, potatoes, rice, a little salt pork, molasses, and salt. His drink was water. Seldom did he eat large portions of meat, and he never hunted. His interest in the animals that lived in the woods and fields near Walden Pond was the interest of a naturalist. Although he spent some time fishing, he felt that the time he had was too valuable to spend in catching fish to feed himself. For the small amounts of cash he needed, Thoreau worked with his hands at many occupations, working only as long as was necessary to provide himself with the money required to fulfill his meager wants. He kept as much time as possible free for thinking and studying. He studied people and nature more than he studied using books, although he kept a few well-selected volumes around him at all times.
While at Walden Pond, summer and winter, Thoreau lived independent of time. He refused to acknowledge days of the week or month. When he wished to spend some time observing certain birds or animals, or even the progress of the weather, he felt free to do so. Almost the only thing that reminded him that other people were rushing chaotically to keep their schedules was the whistling of the Fitchburg Railway trains, which passed within a mile or so of his dwelling. Not that he disliked the railroad; he thought it, in fact, a marvel of human ingenuity, and he was fascinated by the cargoes that the trains carried from place to place. He was glad, however, that he was not chained to the commerce those cargoes represented. As much as he sometimes enjoyed the sounds of the trains, he enjoyed far more the sounds of the birds and animals, most species of which he could recognize, not only as a country dweller knows them but also as the naturalist knows them. The loons, the owls, the squirrels, the various kinds of fish in Walden Pond, the migratory birds—all of these were part of his conscious existence and environment.
People often dropped in to visit with Thoreau, who frankly confessed that he did not consider people very important. In Walden he fails, in fact, to tell who his most frequent visitors were. He preferred only one visitor—a thinking one—at a time. Whenever he had more visitors than could be accommodated by his small house and its three chairs, he took them into his larger drawing room, the pine wood that surrounded his home. From what he wrote about his treatment of all but a very few of the people who came to visit him, it is very probable that he was an unfriendly kind of host, one who, if he had nothing better to do, was willing to talk, but who usually had more to occupy him than simple conversation.
During the winter months, Thoreau continued to live comfortably at Walden Pond, though his activities changed. He spent more time at the pond itself, making a survey of its bottom, studying the ice conditions, and observing the animal life that centered on the pond, which had some open water throughout the year.
After two years of life at Walden, Thoreau left his house there. He felt no regret for having stayed, or for leaving; his attitude was that he had many lives to live and that he had finished with living at the pond. He had learned many lessons, had had time to think and study, and had proved what he had set out to prove twenty-six months before, that living can be extremely simple and yet highly fulfilling to the individual.