Critical Overview

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Walden was widely reviewed when it first appeared. This attention was due not to Thoreau’s reputation (he had only one other published book, and it had not sold well) but to his publisher’s energetic promotion of the book and to the support of Thoreau’s well-known friend Emerson. Many publications printed excerpts of Walden to herald its arrival.

Most reviews were positive. “It is a strikingly original, singular, and most interesting work,” wrote a reviewer in the Salem Register. The Lowell Journal and Courier noted, “The press all over the country have given the most flattering notices of it” and predicted, “without doubt it will command a very extensive sale. It surely deserves it.” Deserving or not, the book did not sell well. About seven hundred fifty copies were sold in the first year after publication. And not all notices were positive. A reviewer for the Boston Daily Journal wrote,

Mr. Thoreau has made an attractive book. . . . But while many will be fascinated by its contents, few will be improved. As the pantheistic doctrines of the author marred the beauty of his former work, so does his selfish philosophy darkly tinge the pages of Walden.

Walden went out of print in 1859 and was not available again until after Thoreau’s death. It was not until the early 1900s that scholars and readers began to reconsider the book. Thoreau surely would have been disappointed by the perspective of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, which portrayed him as an American Robinson Crusoe and dismissed the book’s philosophical component. “The reader who takes up the book with the idea that he is going to enjoy another Robinson Crusoe will not be pleased to find that every now and then he will have to listen to a lay sermon or a lyceum lecture,” the authors wrote. “It is the adventurous, Robinson Crusoe part that is imperishable.”

While it is true that to this day that Walden is often categorized as nature writing, some modern critics and readers have appreciated its philosophy. On the hundredth anniversary of its original publication, the esteemed author E. B. White wrote in the Yale Review that, while many of his contemporaries were dismissive of Walden, White himself felt that “a hundred years having gone by, Walden, its serenity and grandeur unimpaired, still lifts us up.” He called the book “an original omelette from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day.”

In 1996, Nicholas Bagnall reviewed a new edition of Walden in New Statesman. Nichols echoed the early twentieth-century opinion of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. “I was . . . hooked on Thoreau’s fine indignation and the swagger of his prose,” Nichols wrote. “His observations on nature . . . which make the bulk of his book, are both lyrical and exact.” But Nichols went on to characterize Thoreau’s philosophizing in the book as a “relentless search for epigrams” that offered nothing new or notable.

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Essays and Criticism