Christianity and Hinduism Throughout Walden

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Walden is a book of contrasts. Thoreau contrasts summer and winter, village and woods, the animal and spiritual natures that struggle within every human being, and many other pairs of opposites. One recurring and important contrast is that between Christianity—especially as taught and practiced in America at the time Thoreau was writing— and Hinduism. Like other New England transcendentalists, Thoreau was an avid reader of Hindu scriptures, and he quotes them and refers to them often in Walden. Like virtually all Americans of his time, he was also familiar with the Bible and with how the Christian denominations of his day interpreted it. What is particularly interesting is how he uses this dual knowledge. Most references to Christian scriptures, doctrines, and practices are either irreverent or disapproving, while Hindu scriptures and beliefs are presented with reverent appreciation.

Neither Thoreau’s disdain for contemporary Christianity nor his appreciation of Hinduism is surprising. The popularity of transcendentalist ideas in New England arose out of discontent with what some saw as the strict and uninspiring doctrines of the Unitarian Church, so there was a natural conflict between transcendentalists and organized Christianity. Further, a fundamental difference between transcendentalism and Christianity can be traced to Hinduism: While orthodox Christian doctrine holds that God is transcendent (existing beyond creation) but not immanent (existing within creation; i.e., present within all created things and beings, including humans), transcendentalism borrows the Hindu concept that God is both transcendent and immanent.

The difference is important. The Christian belief that God does not dwell in humans leads to the belief in the need for some kind of divinely appointed intermediary—such as a savior or a priest— to establish a relationship between people and God. In contrast, the Hindu and transcendentalist belief in the immanence of God leads to the doctrine that every person can, without the need for an intermediary, experience the divine within himself or herself.

The transcendentalist belief in every person’s ability to know God outside of institutional religion is a perfect complement to Thoreau’s individualism and his general dislike of institutions. He found in the scriptures and doctrines of Hinduism a religious teaching that was well suited to his personality and his philosophy of life. Everything about the Christianity of his time, with its emphasis on institutions, conformity, and obedience to church authorities, was in conflict with them.

Thus, Thoreau makes more than one mocking reference to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the ‘‘manual’’ of Christian doctrine that was used to teach young people in many churches. According to the catechism, the primary purpose of human life is ‘‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’’ In one reference to it, Thoreau writes, ‘‘Our hymn books resound with a melodious cursing of God and enduring him forever.’’

Thoreau denigrates a Methodist newspaper of his day, called Olive-Branches. He writes that people who want to read a newspaper should read the best one available rather than Olive-Branches or other ‘‘pap.’’

The comment that ‘‘Men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced’’ manages all at once to be jocular and disapproving (it was, of course, in the name of Christianity that the witches had been hung) and dismissive (neither Christianity itself nor its assaults on others had succeeded in freeing humanity from its age-old fears).

In a later passage, Thoreau takes aim at the exclusivism of the Christianity practiced in his society. He says that the local farm hand ‘‘who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience’’ may think that such experiences are limited...

(This entire section contains 1176 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

to people who believe just as he does, but ‘‘Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, traveled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal and treated his neighbors accordingly.’’ Thoreau goes on to point out that Zoroaster, as the founder of Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the world’s great religions, may be said to have ‘‘invented and established worship among men.’’ His point is that human beings sincerely worshipped God thousands of years before the founding of the Christian church. Thoreau concludes the passage by suggesting that Christians should ‘‘humbly commune with Zoroaster . . . and . . . with Jesus Christ himself, and let ‘our church’ go by the board.’’

(While he doesn’t mention it, Thoreau must have been aware, from his study of the Hindu scriptures, that even the term ‘‘second birth’’ or ‘‘born again’’ is not exclusive or original to Christianity. Hinduism uses the very same term, with some similarity in meaning.)

In the above passage and in others, Thoreau makes a distinction between the founder of Christianity and institutionalized Christianity. In the passage above, he makes clear that he values the teachings of Jesus Christ but not those of ‘‘our church.’’ In ‘‘Reading,’’ a chapter in which he urges readers to read the great books, he gives the Bible a place alongside his beloved Vedas (Hindu scriptures), writing:

That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics, and the still older and more than classic but even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall have still further accumulated; when the Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas and Zendavestas [the scriptures of Zoroastrianism] and Bibles. . . . By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.

Though Thoreau acknowledges the value of Christian teachings when stripped of their churchly attachments, it is the Hindu books that inspire him. ‘‘In the morning, I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita,’’ he rhapsodizes, ‘‘in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.’’ It is the Gita, he writes, that contains the perennial truths sought by all humankind across time and space, and it is the Gita that informs and elevates his own life. While Thoreau’s contemporaries, upon going to draw water at a well, might think of biblical characters who performed similar duties, Thoreau goes to his well and meets ‘‘the servant of the Brahmin . . . come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.’’

Just as his contemporaries used the Bible as a guide for their daily lives, Thoreau turned to the Hindu scriptures. In preaching the sacredness and importance of the morning hours, Thoreau writes, ‘‘The Vedas say, ‘All intelligences awake with the morning.’’’ On the subject of diet, he writes, ‘‘I am far from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the Ved refers when it says that ‘he who has true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists.’’’

Thoreau was born a Westerner, but his own ‘‘second birth’’—the shift of his ambitions from those of the animal nature to those of the spiritual nature—made him, philosophically and spiritually, an Easterner.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on Walden, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Thoreau’s Urban Imagination

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A second look at Walden suggests that Thoreau went to the country to find the city. He admits that his seclusion is motivated by necessity, since the opportunities for ‘‘beautiful living’’ once characteristic of civilized society are now found only ‘‘out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.’’ Thus secluded, he finds ‘‘a good port’’ from which to conduct his ‘‘private business,’’ a railroad line to link a ‘‘citizen of the world’’ to national and international marketplaces, a cosmopolitan alternative to Concord’s unlettered, ‘‘provincial’’ culture, and even—through Ellery Channing’s companionship—the bonhomie of Broadway. Perhaps most important, he determines that by cultivating Catonian civic virtue, he has reacquired the integrity to ‘‘sustain . . . the manliest relations to men’’ forfeited by his neighboring yeomen. In sum, every historic association of the city was present at Walden Pond—except, of course, the city itself.

The city is indeed both present and absent in Walden. It exists through references and allusions to city life, which is to say it exists as metonymy. This city has no geographical equivalent and in fact disclaims its status as locality, for Thoreau’s intent is to use historically identified conventions of urbanism to conceive a space that corresponds to his imagination. Still retaining his sense of place, he wants this space to be habitable. When he asks in the midst of the woods, ‘‘What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?,’’ his metaphor adumbrates a sphere of autonomy bounded only by the means of its articulation. Throughout Walden, he deliberately designates those activities proper to this sphere— thinking, walking, writing, reading, thinking—and circumscribes them as art, which he defines as the ‘‘struggle to free himself from this low state.’’ Like other contemporary utopian reforms, his artistic realization contains the promise of a living space in which one may find the virtue, prosperity, and liberty not found in other environs. With a ‘‘mission’’ that Benjamin terms ‘‘the emancipation from experiences,’’ Thoreau strolls through the woods as the flaneur: an aesthetic consciousness whose individualized perception and mode of expression constitute his experience of place.

If Thoreau had lived in Boston, it would be easier to endow him with an urban imagination, though as my opening paragraph suggests, it is surely possible to contrast his project with pastoralism. The greater challenge that Walden poses is to see the imagination that Thoreau exercised so freely not only as spatial logic but as a construction of social space and, even more particularly, as a historical incidence of urbanism. In Walden, Thoreau creates what urbanists call a development history for the imagination, accounting for the creation of avowedly figural forms by the same changes in social morphology that were transforming the built and unbuilt landscape of eastern Massachusetts into centers or subsidiaries of an equally new social form, the urban-industrial complex. He attributes the liberation of the imagination directly to urbanization, but the same process provided the negative conditions for artistic production. Indeed, describing the emergence of the imagination as a spatialized form for Thoreau meant projecting an invisible space existing only as traces or inferences of representation. In Walden, this prospect is realized as an imagined city symbolizing a civic tradition with its attendant social spaces that was disappearing from Concord’s increasingly urbanized environs. Though Thoreau stood by this tradition and detested its compromise, he did not resist the processes of historical and morphological change. On the contrary, he exploited them, transforming mutable civic space into its timeless utopian representation.

Thoreau’s civic project was, in fact, to intensify the awareness of artistic representation—a prospect which Paul Ricoeur defines as the operation of the utopian—in order to mark a disjunction in the progress of liberalism between the material development of cities and its invisible moral and political abstractions. Because Thoreau situated himself in the midst of this conflict, Walden describes not just an imagined city but how cities became imaginary. We can consider this event to be as crucial to the emergence of Thoreau’s artistic consciousness as to the future of urban space, keeping in mind Benjamin’s judgment of Baudelaire: ‘‘He envisioned blank spaces which he filled in with his poems. His work cannot merely be categorized as historical like anyone else’s, but it intended to be so and understood itself as so. . . . ’’

Thoreau’s aspiration towards idiosyncrasy notwithstanding, the unique history that Walden tells is the emergence of aesthetic forms from the conventions and traditions of civic life. Indeed, his determination to recreate this life in the midst of the woods lays bare the enabling assumption of an artistic sensibility: that a city is a construct of consciousness, imagined through the awareness of individuality, if not alienation, that city life engenders. While urbanism thus defined is central to our conception of modernism, the tendency to interpret urban space as the medium of the imagination is already extant in the place names for many of the locales of nineteenth-century literature: in addition to Baudelaire’s Paris, Whitman’s New York, Crane’s Bowery, Dickens’s London, and so on. The distinctiveness of Thoreau’s Walden Pond among these ‘‘unreal cities’’ is that it brings to the fore the contradiction between the experience of place and the actual place, so that both the imaginative processes and the means of representation are defamiliarized. That is, they are foregrounded and thematized as locales in themselves. For Thoreau, this defamiliarization promises an unprecedented and unbounded sphere of experience, but he will also insist that this ‘‘sort of space’’ shares the

We are introduced to this contradiction early in Walden, when Thoreau quite deliberately juxtaposes associations of city and country. After berating his townsmen for their industriousness, he announces that his ‘‘purpose in going to Walden Pond was . . . to transact some private business.’’ Then he invites a comparison between his solitary life of rustic simplicity and the far-flung, multitudinous affairs of the international mercantile trader. In assuming this identity, Thoreau is also borrowing its native habitat. According to political historian Gary Nash, the international merchant would have been a politically active Whig or Federalist, committed to liberalizing developments in government and trade and usually situated in an Atlantic port city like Boston, Baltimore, New York, or Philadelphia. Thoreau contends that Walden Pond is likewise ‘‘a good place for business’’ because of its ‘‘good port and good foundation,’’ as well as its ice-trade-convenient railroad connection. In ‘‘Sounds,’’ he will say that the railroad, transporting exotic goods from free and distant markets, makes him akin to the international merchant, a ‘‘citizen of the world.’’ He evidently wants to build not just a city on a hill but a commercial society by a pond, ‘‘the germ,’’ he says, ‘‘of something more.’’

In borrowing an urban locale, Thoreau is also reclaiming a political history. Through their alliance with restive manufacturers and disenfranchised artisans, the liberal Whig traders of the eighteenth century made the Atlantic commercial city into the center of political resistance against monopolies, mercantilism, and colonialism. By comparing himself to the urban merchant, Thoreau perpetuates a complementary vision of freedom: the autonomy promised the urban commercial classes in a postcolonial, laissez-faire economy. We may read his intention ‘‘to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles’’ as a similar link between political and economic freedom. This linking would have been compatible with his reigning ambition in Walden and in many of his essays, which was to establish the relevance of the nation’s democratic revolution to antebellum America; but here he seeks to recreate the appropriate social space for continued struggle through detailed historical references to the eighteenth-century commercial city. In the spirit of the urban Whigs Trenchard and Gordon, Thoreau envisions this space as a free society of trade and commerce, politically and geographically beyond the reach of an intrusive state. The taxation that he seemed to oppose so capriciously represented what these liberals feared most: the intervention of statist policies—whether they financed trade monopolies, the slave trade, or a system of railroads—in the properly private affairs of civil society.

For Thoreau, this kind of uncivil, neomercantilist economy signifies a structural change in the polity, a reorganization of social space that gives the state its own space, the all-inclusive yet personalized space of the nation. He detects the expansion of this space in the sentiments of citizens who ‘‘think it essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour,’’ but he will protect an ideal of civil autonomy rooted in eighteenth-century urban liberalism. When he says that such citizens are ‘‘content to live like baboons,’’ he applies a venerable term of moral opprobrium—corruption—to Jefferson’s laboring yeomen.

Thoreau’s praise of the cosmopolitan merchant, on the other hand, is unstinting; he affects envy, almost wonder, for what amounts to ‘‘a demand for universal knowledge.’’ But he is determined to let neither the location of Walden Pond nor the passage of time deprive him of the intelligence, freedom, and prosperity available to the eighteenth-century urban bourgeoisie. He builds his identification with this class by undermining both the pastoral tradition of American letters and the nationalist history it projected. Whereas Bryant and even Emerson celebrated nature as the extension and progress of positive sovereignty, Thoreau represents nature according to the self-negating provisions of civil society. That is, he considers Walden Pond to be natural insofar as it is a completely privative realm, free of superfluous obstacles and unconditioned by an intrusive alien power. Thoreau calls life in this realm ‘‘primitive and frontier life’’ not because it is wild but precisely because it is governed by ‘‘the essential laws of man’s existence,’’ which he finds recorded in ‘‘the old day books of the merchants.’’ Not surprisingly, these laws instruct Thoreau in the ways of bourgeois society: what is natural and necessary is ‘‘all that man obtains by his own exertions.’’ Under this condition, he disqualifies the labor of his neighboring farmers, who work not for themselves but for the holders of their mortgages on their homes and farms. So he is forced to commend the unencumbered wigwam, the virtues of uncultivated fields, and the political economy of squirrels. His deprecation of baboons notwithstanding, animals furnish Thoreau with perhaps his most explicitly self-justifying image of the bourgeoisie: their orderly yet consummately free lives follow only the dictates of natural, invisible laws. He makes special allowances when he adds Fuel and Clothing to the animals’ necessities of Food and Shelter, but he considers any life that obeys intrinsic imperatives to be both a moral and material improvement over that of Concord townsmen.

Walden ultimately recommends that the conscientious citizen devote himself to ‘‘more sacred laws,’’ but Thoreau’s attachment to a legally constituted dominion in heaven or on earth perpetuates a historically urban form of society in the absence of a corresponding urban space. Thoreau was well aware of the historical discrepancy, but he means the invocation of an antecedent social form to annul the influence of the state by providing a permanent haven from positive law. In this sense, he is using the pastoral to revive, replay, and infinitely extend eighteenth-century urbanization, which created not only the infrastructure of public dissent but an invisible realm called civil society, which, as Habermas says, was governed by ‘‘anonymous laws functioning in accord with an economic rationality immanent, so it appears, in the market.’’ Though Habermas does not historicize the urban development that created this realm, he does make the rise of a ‘‘town’’ consciousness, in opposition to that of a ‘‘court,’’ coincident with the codification of civil laws that have exclusive administrative jurisdiction over economic and social exchanges. Thoreau places himself under these ‘‘more liberal laws’’ and hopes that they can again convene an autonomous society in the midst of the woods. In commending Walden Pond for its ‘‘good port,’’ he is making a glancing reference to the shared history of liberal capitalism and urban development, though he maintains that the commercial city rising from Walden Pond would be built ‘‘on piles of your own driving.’’

Thoreau repeatedly argues a classically liberal ideal of individual autonomy, but he does not abstract even the discussion of inward nature from the infrastructure and institutions of an urbanized social form. His conception of a morally guided subject, obedient to ‘‘the laws of his own being,’’ is derived from the self-governing commercial society, while his concern for the state of ‘‘true integrity’’ links him more particularly to the Whig-Federalist city’s civic sphere, which fused the republican politics of disinterested virtue with an economically constituted social space. From the Revolution to the antebellum era, the commercial city was indeed the sphere in which the new nation’s republican pretensions were given institutional form, often most effectively translated by the Whig-Federalist commercial classes. The lyceums, atheneums, libraries, and salons that composed the antebellum era’s ‘‘republican institutions’’ were first developed in Atlantic port cities; with no attempt to disguise the city’s principal indigenous activity, their wealthy patrons celebrated them as ‘‘cultural ornaments to mercantile society.’’ In conjunction with Federalist architecture’s French neo-classicism, these ‘‘cultural ornaments’’ fueled the post-Revolutionary city’s comparison of itself to the classical polis, although this was more true for Philadelphia and Boston than for single-mindedly mercantile New York; the former two competed with one another for the title ‘‘Athens of America.’’ Within the institutions of this civic sphere, self-seeking burghers could transcend their interests and exercise their rational faculties. Perhaps even more importantly, an unruly populace would learn how to govern itself by the laws of reason.

The Jacksonian era may have envisioned a form of society in the image of the rural majority, but in Walden the Whig-Federalist city plan is recovered and extended. In ‘‘Reading,’’ Thoreau proposes that Concord proper be developed along the lines of a classically Federalist city, replete with indigenous salons, galleries, libraries, lyceums, and other educational facilities. He exhorts the citizens of Concord not to adopt a ‘‘provincial’’ life but to ‘‘act collectively in the spirit of our [prospective] institutions’’ and ‘‘take the place of the noblemen in Europe.’’ This ambition to create ‘‘noble villages of men’’ is in keeping with a principal objective of the early republic, which was to authorize its sovereignty through the education of a rational public capable of governing itself. But in practical terms, this imperative is also an impetus for city-building, for the republican project of political education entailed the development of a cosmopolitan center capable of receiving information, influences, and goods, as Thoreau insists, from distant ports. ‘‘Reading’’ resituates republicanism in an urban tradition and suggests that the Transcendentalists’ project of self-culture derives from its plans for civic development.

Jefferson’s abhorrence of cities has led us to equate republicanism with the country, but politics and geography are often difficult to equate, especially during the early national period in New England. If agrarianism was celebrated as a republican ideal, it was promoted by the same Federalist urban merchants who were building and promoting the port city. In Boston, a group known as the Essex Junto was particularly effective in investing rural life with the same power to inculcate virtue that the urban institutions aimed at. The country seats and adjoining farms that dotted the eastern Massachusetts landscape were considered not as alternative economies in their own right but as necessary adjuncts to market exchanges that guaranteed the exchanges’ virtue and their contribution to the public good. Agrarianism served urban commercial interests even more explicitly when it was accompanied by a program of political education. In lectures such as ‘‘The Duty of the Farmer to His Calling’’ and ‘‘Why a Massachusetts Farmer Should Be Content,’’ farmers were told by an urban elite that they were the pillars of the republic and that their thrift, frugality, and increasingly unprofitable industry furnished the moral basis of a predominantly commercial society.

Thoreau may have sought respite from modern society in natural environs, but his plans for Walden Woods and vicinity reflect the traditional land-use patterns of the urban Federalist. In ‘‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived for,’’ he reports that he roamed the countryside as a self-appointed real-estate broker, financier, and landscape architect of imaginary country seats; he then reinterprets this conventional pattern of subdivision as the simple experience of sitting. To further link his ‘‘sedes’’ to the development plans of the commercial class, he speculates that ‘‘the future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they had been anticipated.’’

Like the urban Federalist, Thoreau does not mean to associate himself with present or future farmers. His dedication to husbandry, on display in ‘‘The Bean Field,’’ is in fact inspired by a civic tradition cultivated in the eighteenth century by the Anglo-American urban bourgeoisie. As J. G. A. Pocock reports, Whig liberals adopted the Catonian ideal of an agrarian republic to argue that virtue, the selfless participation of a citizen in the life of his polity, could be exercised by the members of an urbanized commercial society whose profits advanced the interests of the public. Their inspiration for an actively moral citizenry came from the classical polis, though as first developed in the seventeenth century, ‘‘country’’ ideology did attempt to secure England’s status as a republic by invoking a natural basis for virtue in nondependent landholding. But as Britain evolved into an international trading empire, ‘‘country’’ signified an opposition political party whose model republic was less associated with nature than with free commerce. Against speculative, debt-inducing, and state-sponsored monopolist ventures, proponents of a liberalized marketplace envisioned a virtuous society governed by laws of just commerce, of wide distribution of capital, and of equitable exchange. To ameliorate the influence of financial interests in the government, to mitigate the power of the state, and to establish the authority of the public, Cato’s Letters proposed ‘‘agrarian law or something like it.’’ The polity entailed by these laws corresponded not to a farm but to an idealized commercial society whose market exchanges exemplified classical ideals of citizenship.

We readily accept Thoreau’s investment in classical politics as determining his relation to pastoralism and agrarianism; as Horkheimer says, his ‘‘escape into the woods was conceived by a student of the Greek polis rather than by a peasant.’’ What we should add to this truism is that his understanding of the civic tradition is mediated by the civil discourse of the urban bourgeoisie. Thoreau likewise refuses to distinguish between virtue and commerce, arguing instead that the value of rural life comes from its contribution to civil commerce. In this sense, he too pursues agrarianism, ‘‘or something like it.’’ In ‘‘The Bean Field,’’ he archly notes the derision his bastardized husbandry elicited from locals and reserves his pride not for his agricultural expertise and certainly not for his noble toil but for $8.72, ‘‘the result of my experience in raising beans.’’ This narrowly economic assessment might seem at variance with the disinterested ideals of agrarian republicanism, but Thoreau’s interest in farming is to prove Cato’s dictum: ‘‘the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just.’’ Such profits are conducive to virtue because they can be obtained without debt, without state capitalization, and particularly without submission to the ‘‘slave-driver’’ within. To the extent that husbandry allows him to maintain his independence from a neomercantilist, slave-driving economy, Thoreau has fulfilled the promise of urban liberalism and made commerce into a medium of virtuous citizenship. In this context, ‘‘country’’ does not denote a natural setting or even a natural economic order. On the contrary, Whigs used agrarian republicanism to place the imprimatur of the civic ideal on their commercial city. By Thoreau’s time, this city does not exist in nature, so he is in the strange position of having to imagine a civic space as nature—or, to use an important eighteenth-century distinction, as second nature. Through his ersatz agriculture— indeed, through an imitation of nature—Thoreau wants his readers to look beyond his immediate environs and imagine the unrealized, nonlocalizable realm of the commercial city, wherein profit was in proportion to virtue. There they would find not only the advantages of civilization but the evidence of their own imagination.

Source: Robert Fanuzzi, ‘‘Thoreau’s Urban Imagination,’’ in American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 321–29.

The Being of Language: The Language of Being

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

To learn means: to become knowing. In Latin, knowing is qui vidit, one who has seen, has caught sight of something, and who never again loses sight of what he has caught sight of. To learn means: to attain to such seeing. To this belongs our reaching it; namely, on the way, on a journey. To put oneself on a journey, to experience, means to learn.

—Heidegger, ‘‘Words,’’ On the Way to Language

I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid. In letters, in journals, in reports of happenings I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.

—William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Walden is Thoreau’s perfect form; it has the mathematical precision of a musical composition. Thoreau certainly appears to demonstrate in this work the radically formalized truth he had foreseen in an earlier work: ‘‘The most distinct and beautiful statement of any truth must take at last the mathematical form.’’ Walden is ‘‘addressed to poor students," who love to play its verbal games and diagram its architectonic order in the place of healthier sport. Such economy and control are rare in the literature of the American Renaissance, which seems better represented by the outwanderings of Whitman or the divine rage of Melville. There is little voyaging here; this is a book of construction and possession: ‘‘In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.’’ All radiates concentrically from this artificial ‘‘I,’’ whose insistent presence organizes and determines what we might see. Thoreau has much to say against ownership, but in this book he appropriates nature and brings it within his compass. The writing defines and encloses a Transcendental fiefdom; Walden legalizes the everlasting wholeness of natural creation. All seasons speak the same truth in but varied manifestations, so that the poet need only lift the corners of his veils to disclose the divinity in things.

This is a book of discovery, but not of creation. Perhaps it is no accident that the most extended literary discussion concentrates on ‘‘Reading’’ rather than on writing. Of course, Thoreau emphasizes the intimate bond between the two activities: ‘‘Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.’’ Yet, Walden is primarily intended as a Baedeker to the order of nature, the primacy of which remains unquestioned. Writing is sacred and mystical in its universal appeal and endurance, but nonetheless secondary to the literal text of nature: ‘‘It is the work of art nearest to life itself.’’ ‘‘Reading’’ quickly gives way to ‘‘Sounds’’ more basic to ‘‘the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.’’ William Drake writes, ‘‘The step from ‘Reading’ to ‘Sounds’ is that from the language of men to the ‘language’ of things, from what can be said about nature, to nature itself.’’ The classics play an important role throughout Walden, but they must be put aside in the early stages of Thoreau’s ritualized self-purification: ‘‘I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans.’’

Walden betrays the desire for an established metaphysical center to determine human behavior and organize knowledge. The metaphors of building and clothing appear to offer human beings the freedom of a creative imagination, but such activities are themselves merely techniques for discovering and obeying the dictates of an authoritative Being. Fishing, diving, and mining are basic to this work of reconnaissance: ‘‘My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.’’ Such deep diving intends to bring to light what is hidden, freeing what has been imprisoned in humans by their faulty methods of perception and cognition. Awakening is the avowed aim of Walden, and it means the arising of truth into consciousness by means of a systematic removal of barriers in order to open a path. For Thoreau, to awaken is to ‘‘come into being’’ rather than to ‘‘bring into being.’’ Language facilitates such discovery only to the extent that it serves a prior perception and thus may be made ‘‘pertinent’’ to reality. Metaphor is employed ironically to reveal the ‘‘commonsensical’’ in everyday speech and thus to free us to receive the tangible, literal spirituality that only nature presents. As Drake remarks, ‘‘To say that nature has a language, is itself a metaphor. Metaphor as Thoreau speaks of it always defines human experience, within human bounds.’’ Thus, in a work that is nothing but metaphor, Thoreau struggles to destroy the metaphorical in order to allow the presence of the indwelling god to emerge.

The achievement of Walden is the result of this confidence that the natural origin of language escapes the symbolism of words and remains eternally and creatively present. In such a bookish work there is remarkably little reflection upon language itself, as if the natural facts were sufficient for the grammar of our lives. There is something disturbingly evasive in such passages as the following from ‘‘Higher Laws’’: ‘‘Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.’’ Substituting the body for the materials of the sculptor, Thoreau disparages the symbolic mode of the traditional artist. True art speaks directly in and through natural existence, spontaneously manifesting itself in the life of the artist.

And yet, such sophistry is purchased only by means of an elaborate metaphoric structure yoking temple and body, style and behavior. Thoreau is able to elide the conventional distinctions between body and soul, substance and spirit, only by means of a language that operates by syntagmatic associations and paradigmatic substitutions essential to figurative language. Thoreau may employ language in Walden more cleverly than in any of his other works, but he scrupulously avoids the problematic of language itself. Emerson insists that ‘‘Nature is the symbol of spirit,’’ thus suggesting a correspondence between the production of words as ‘‘signs of natural facts’’ and the recognition of ‘‘natural facts’’ as the ‘‘symbols of particular spiritual facts.’’ Emerson’s view involves a rich and varied language coordinated with natural symbolism; Thoreau’s insistence on the ultimate literality of natural facts reduces language to a secondary representation.

There are, of course, many ways in which Walden can be read as an extended meditation on the use and abuse of language. In The Senses of Walden, Stanley Cavell employs Wittgenstein to interpret Walden as the discovery of ‘‘what writing is and, in particular, what writing Walden is.’’ Walden certainly abounds with evidence that selfknowledge is as much a linguistic process as a purely natural one; in fact, the entire work turns on the doubling of the place of Walden in its textual realization. The awakening promised in the epigraph and the spring that concludes the work’s seasonal cycles are metaphors for the composition of the text; the dwelling that Thoreau builds is ultimately a house of words. Yet, the aim of this ‘‘wording of the world’’ is a simplicity and clarity that result in the resolution of true self-knowledge.

The discipline of Thoreau’s deliberation is equivalent to Wittgenstein’s goal of learning how what we say is what we mean. Thoreau relies, however, on his confidence in a fundamental language of Nature from which human speech derives; Wittgenstein’s problems are compounded by the fact that his investigations must remain totally within the domain of ordinary language. Wittgenstein must repeat the basic Kantian move of bracketing the thing-in-itself as unknowable, thus shifting the conW cern of understanding to the development of such internal linguistic distinctions as literal and figurative, grammatical and performative, conventional and original. In Walden, Thoreau decidedly does not bracket the thing-in-itself, even though he acknowledges the difficulty of expressing it. Cavell brilliantly suggests that Thoreau provides in Walden that ‘‘deduction of the thing-in-itself’’ that Kant ‘‘ought to have provided’’ as ‘‘an essential feature (category) of objectivity itself, viz., that of a world apart from me in which objects are met.’’ Transcendental deduction, however, can be performed only on a system of representation; Thoreau’s ability to offer such a deduction of objectivity depends upon his confidence in the ‘‘language’’ of Nature, on the possibility of an ‘‘objective’’ language. Thus, Thoreau can assert in Walden what Kant in the three critiques only subjunctively ‘‘wished’’ for: that the order of the mind has a structural identity with the order of Nature.

The objectivity of Nature in Walden thus secretly governs the subjectivity of human language, which eternally symbolizes that literal origin. Cavell argues that ‘‘the externality of the world is articulated by Thoreau as its nextness to me.’’ This idea of the proximity of man and Nature determines Cavell’s understanding of philosophical unity in Thoreau: ‘‘Unity between these aspects is viewed not as a mutual absorption, but as perpetual nextness, an act of neighboring or befriending.’’ I shall develop a similar notion of metaphysical difference in my Heideggerian reading of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which draws, as Cavell’s reading of Walden does, on Thoreau’s paradoxical ‘‘friendship’’ (itself a metaphor for self-consciousness) as a complex of proximity and distance. However, I employ Heidegger’s metaphor of the ‘‘between’’ (of earth and sky, of man and nature, of beings and Being), which differs crucially from ‘‘nextness.’’

The ‘‘neighborhood’’ of man and Nature is made possible by the authority of the language of Nature, whose objective and literal presence always exceeds human speech. When we say what we mean, when we speak deliberately, we approach the simplicity of such natural language, and words become facts. But the ‘‘between’’ of man and Nature describes a different space of human dwelling, because this between constitutes a relation that does not exist as a possibility prior to human language. In Walden, the language of Nature makes possible human speech, but the human language of A Week invents the idea of Nature as part of the measurement of our being. The grounding of human language in an inexpressible natural presence is symbolized in Walden in terms of building: a house, a self, a neighborhood with what is. The displacement of natural presence into the ‘‘difference’’ of human language in A Week is expressed in metaphors of voyaging, of traveling the between of beings and Being that is measured only by such movement. This ‘‘bridging’’ and ‘‘crossing’’ is the essential activity of metaphor. The text of Walden celebrates its departure from Walden as the realization of the natural experiment; the text of A Week celebrates the return to Concord as a ‘‘fall’’ into that language that has forever displaced the Nature it set out to discover.

In this description of the spring thaw flowing down the railroad cut, Thoreau offers one of the most extended and self-conscious verbal plays in Walden. The intricate blending of natural energies is a metaphor for the act of composition as an interpretation of specific phenomena in Nature: ‘‘As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards’ paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds.’’ At such a moment language appears to call forth not only the intricate relations of the natural scene but also the pure metaphorics of such relations. Such poetry seems to constitute the truth of Nature by means of an integrated verbal display that challenges the selfsufficiency of natural phenomena. Everything observed seems to contribute to the production of signs that announce their metaphorical powers. Such technical descriptions as ‘‘laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens’’ signify through poetic complexes of alliteration, assonance, consonance, condensation, and syllabic rhythm. Yet, at such a critical moment Thoreau hesitates and then retreats, insisting that the true ‘‘artistry’’ remains external and divine: ‘‘I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with an excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about.’’

Metaphor has made such vision possible, but it is quickly rejected in favor of ‘‘such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body.’’ And as if checking the dangerous excess implied in the verbal dance, Thoreau insists on dissecting words themselves to reveal their natural grounding, effectively emptying them of their autonomous powers:

No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (λειßω, labor, lapsus, to flow or flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λoßoσ, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words,) externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, the double lobed,) with a liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the gutteral g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat.

Thoreau’s phonemic, phonetic, and etymological analyses serve to restrain the flight of metaphor and situate the imagination within the ‘‘facts’’ of nature. Language is reduced to the physical associations of words and things that reveal a hidden natural form. Walden clearly argues for a natural principle of growth and unfolding that denies any sense of completion or closure, but language imitates that organic development only by means of a formal precision with respect to external facts that restricts imaginative play by narrowing the range of authentic (or pertinent) meanings. Emerson avoids some of these dangers by insisting that art is ‘‘a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art does Nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.’’ For Emerson, both natural and linguistic symbolisms require a reciprocal interpretation, whereas Thoreau insists on the presence of unmediated truth in the earth’s ‘‘living poetry.’’

Thus, in Walden every impulse to discuss poetics is quickly diverted back to the controlling meditation on the permanence and variety of natural forms. The mastery of this work relies largely on Thoreau’s insistence that language and thought would be indistinguishable from natural phenomena if we fully understood our being. In his study of Thoreau, James McIntosh argues that the principal drama in Walden is the struggle of the ‘‘I’’ to sustain his integrity in the face of an encompassing natural order. Revisions made between 1847 and 1852 seem to indicate that in the process of composition Thoreau grew ‘‘less anxious to write of himself as a part of nature, more intent on asserting his intelligent separateness.’’ But the very diversity and activity that individualize the narrator and his style merely confirm the determining power of the underlying natural forms. The anxiety of alienation is neatly resolved as the illusion of separation that properly honed senses may see beyond. Every verbal strategy seems designed to measure and refine the a priori ground of being in nature.

Source: John Carlos Rowe, ‘‘The Being of Language: The Language of Being,’’ in Henry David Thoreau, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 145–51.

Thoreau’s Development in Walden

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

When a man is able to live his philosophy, it becomes more than a theoretical construction of his mind. It becomes his attitude, his way of having experience. Few men achieve this unification of mind, aspiration, and event. Too few, perhaps, even try. Yet some do; and as any reader of our literature knows, one of the very few masterpieces of American writing, Thoreau’s Walden, has as its subject precisely this attempt.

Though apparently an account of Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, Walden reveals his coming of age during the years in which he wrote it. It can be read, therefore, as Henry David Thoreau’s spiritual autobiography for the years 1845 to 1854. Walden is, of course, more than an account or an autobiography. It is a work of art. Because of its artistry, we are able to perceive experientially Thoreau’s psychic and moral growth, and we can begin to understand the relevance of his growth to us.

In 1845 Thoreau built a hut near Walden Pond and moved into it as a practical expediency: he wanted to live inexpensively in order to write and think. He also wanted to feel that he was living excellently. As he explained in the most famous passage in the book, ‘‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.’’ To live essentially meant first of all to distinguish between labor which a man must do in order to survive and respect himself, and labor which he does without realizing that it is aimed at acquiring or preserving things which impede his life because they are not worth the effort they entail. Thoreau thought his neighbors in Concord sacrificed too much of their life energy to this latter type of busy-ness, and he characterized it astutely as ‘‘doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.’’ His interest was in living, not merely in making more than a living. He objected to a man wasting his mind and soul in incessant labor which was intended, ironically enough, to provide for a fuller life. Thoreau thought life too short to postpone it. Perhaps therefore he devoted his first chapter, ‘‘Economy,’’ to his radical distinction between essentials and inessentials, or, as he would have believed, between practicalities and impracticalities.

For it was just such a practical problem he faced. He tells us cryptically that his purpose in going to Walden was ‘‘to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.’’ He never tells us directly what this ‘‘private business’’ was, but we may fairly deduce that it had largely to do with protecting, strengthening, and reconstituting his soul. He was then twenty-eight years old and had not yet been able to find a way of getting his living without injuring his spirit. After graduating from Harvard, he taught school, lived with the Ralph Waldo Emersons, lectured before the Concord Lyceum, published in the Dial, and went to Staten Island as a tutor in the house of Emerson’s brother William; while in New York he tried to break into the literary market there, but he met with little success; finally he returned home to Concord to work in his father’s pencil factory. By none of his varied attempts at earning a living had he managed to live his chosen life as a writer and as a man. The move to Walden afforded a good solution to his economic problem. It seems also to have been an admirable gesture toward the solitude that this young man needed to grow from an apprentice philosopher and a spiritual youth to an independent adult.

Thoreau tells us early in Walden that he aspired to live a noble life though most men live mean ones, and, to judge from the resolute tone of the opening chapter, he has a pretty fair idea of how stubbornly he—Henry David Thoreau—has had to proceed toward his goal. Furthermore, he knows the specific qualities of the life to which he aspired. What becomes clear through the course of the book, and what commands our respect for the man and the lessons he would teach us, is that he slowly, patiently, even arduously, attains that life he values and by which he judged the lives of his neighbors to be insufficient models for him to follow.

What did Thoreau judge to be the salient qualities of essential life—once, that is, a man has attended honorably to life’s physical necessities? Though he spends a good deal of the first chapter sniping at inessentials, he points to two compendious values. The first is self-reliance, the quality of soul to which a man wins through by consciously struggling for it: ‘‘I am resolved,’’ he writes with exaggerative humor and undoubted seriousness, ‘‘that I will not through humility become the devil’s attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word for the truth.’’ A self-reliant man can bear to be free, and only such a man is ready to love and respect other men: ‘‘I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much freer.’’ ‘‘Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluous coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. . . Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men.’’

The second of Thoreau’s compendious values is more elusive, doubtless because it cannot be taken by frontal assault, however arduous: ‘‘In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.’’ Near the end of the book he reiterates: ‘‘We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew which falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty.’’ The present moment fully lived does not admit of penance for past deeds or omissions; nor does it admit of postponement now in favor of future gratifications, whether secular or religious. The present is not for self-chastisement or even for earnest and studious attempts to make the future better. In short, a man lives well only when he is at peace with himself, which is to say when he is without anxiety; and Thoreau knew that for some people anxiety is a ‘‘well nigh incurable disease.’’ As he wrote in his journal, ‘‘It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.’’

To the lives of quiet desperation that he refused to imitate he contrasted a life of joyous and manly independence in the present. Instead of committing himself to responsibilities of past and future, such as ‘‘inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools,’’ commitments which enslave a man’s spirit, Thoreau asserted proudly that he was a ‘‘sojourner’’ in the woods and in civilized society. A skeptical, canny, and withal hopeful man, he insisted on finding for himself what life was about by living it: ‘‘Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; . . . [M]an’s capacities have never been measured, . . . [we cannot] judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.’’ The sojourner and experimenter alone can feel pleasure, the feeling that more than all others eluded his contemporaries; Thoreau remarked that their very games concealed ‘‘stereotyped but unconscious despair. . . There is no play in them.’’ He insisted that a man’s life should include the joy that can come only with living—which includes working—as a man should. And joy for Thoreau meant lyrical participation and even playfulness: ‘‘Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is by failure.’’ ‘‘I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theater, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.’’

IIThoreau thus rejected the practices and assumptions of his neighbors in Concord with good cause. He had the courage to be as radical, or as eccentric, as he had to be. His protest, to use Whitehead’s phrase in a new context, was ‘‘a protest on behalf of value.’’ The goal he set for himself was compounded of utilitarian skills and spiritual ease. He envisioned a life of manly independence, which he understood to be the prerequisite for freedom and love, and of full experience of the ripeness of the moment lived.

I have said that in Walden we see Thoreau move toward and, I think, reach the goal he set for himself in the early part of the book. That movement is the great moral development of the book. And that moral development is central to the book’s aesthetic excellence.

So much perceptive comment has been written in recent years in appreciation of Walden’s artistry— its stylistic aptness and its structural and imagistic unity—that one must wonder if he has anything more to add. I need only mention here how the themes of wildness and civilized control, privacy and sociability, freedom and servitude, and joy and despair alternate and interrelate; how images of night and sleep are contrasted with those of morning and wakefulness, and how these images become metaphors for spiritual conditions; how Thoreau’s two-year experience at Walden and some of his subsequent experiences are presented as transpiring in one year; and how the passage of the year from summer to spring is made to coincide symbolically with the details of Thoreau’s activity and with the rebirth of his spirit. I would suggest, however, that Thoreau’s rebirth of spirit accords with the life he values and that the moral development of the book thus provides its dramatic unity. As we read on in Walden we became witnesses to Thoreau’s dramatic, though quiet, psychic development. It is reflected in the changes that are evident in his tone of voice and in the quality and type of his responses to the things about him.

At the beginning of the book Thoreau speaks as a man apart, though, as the act of writing itself and even his acerbic humor would suggest, he is never cut off entirely from some good feeling for his fellow men. He writes, as he is the first to admit, about himself and what he did. His tone as he tells of moving out of Concord to Walden Pond alternates between defiance, scolding, and preaching; it is always resolute. One assumes that he is so insistent because he knows the truth and wants to be heard. But why so harsh a tone? Why so argumentative a rebellion? He seems to attack his neighbors’ way of life and to defend his own at least as much as he celebrates it. Perhaps he is not so sure of himself as he would like to be. His distinction between a professor of philosophy (one who has subtle thoughts and professes what is admirable) and a philosopher (one who lives admirably) is helpful. To be a philosopher is ‘‘so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.’’ In the long first chapter of Walden, Thoreau breaks idols, teaches, and asserts, but to use his own distinction, he sounds more like a professor than a philosopher:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than gotten rid of . . . Who made them serfs to the soil? . . . They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood lot.

This is the tone of a reformer of others rather than of himself. Thoreau can be astute in his social criticism, as he is in the passage just quoted or when he attacks the factory system of production for having as its object not necessary and useful goods for men but profits for corporations. But it was not as a reformer of systems or of other men that Thoreau wished to live; and, as can be seen from his statements about philanthropy and abolition in the first chapter, he thought that the only reform that was both honorable and possible was self-reform. Whatever influence he might have on other men would be the result of the example and not the form of his self-reform. ‘‘I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.’’ The man’s honesty is breathtaking. Henry David Thoreau was problem enough for him to solve. Yet his tone in the first chapter suggests that when he went to Walden he was only within shouting distance of the mode of life he valued most highly.

Mid-way through the book, in ‘‘The Village,’’ Thoreau provides further suggestion of a deep inner uneasiness which has yet to be assuaged. He writes that walking in the village seemed to him like running a gauntlet and that at such times the woods afforded him snug haven. By the time he reaches the concluding chapter, however, he has grown significantly. Not that he is unrecognizable. He still confronts us as a moral teacher who exhorts us to live well. What has changed is his attitude. He encourages rather than scolds; he is assertive but not biting. He is, above all, magisterially confident for himself and presumably for all who have attended to him. He is not sentimentally optimistic, for he has directed his eye inward and he remembers what he has seen. Instead he is stubbornly and stoically hopeful: ‘‘However mean your life is, meet it and live it; . . . Love your life, poor as it is.’’ Though he remains at odds with the habitual and wrong attitudes and institutions of men, he is not nearly as prickly as he has been. He seems more aware of the humanity of his listeners than formerly and no longer to be alone in the universe of men; he writes as if he can assume agreement or sympathy in at least some of his readers. And it is these men of kindred spirit—his sympathetic readers—whom he invites to the most perilous task of all, the exploration of their own souls: ‘‘Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to wars, cowards that run away and enlist.’’

Having begun by lecturing somewhat shrilly and telling of his move away from his townsmen to care for his embattled soul, Thoreau ends his book by returning to town and by reaching out, in his own way, to his neighbors. A wiser, stronger, and shrewder man than he had been, he is now more at peace with himself because more in tune with his aspirations and, therefore, more amiably disposed toward the men and women with whom he will be living again. Now at last he can brag for mankind ‘‘as lustily as chanticleer in the morning.’’ The final words of Walden glisten with hope and possibility, with courage, and with implied will: ‘‘[S]uch is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.’’

Source: Paul Schwaber, ‘‘Thoreau’s Development in Walden,’’ in Criticism, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter 1963, pp. 64–70.


Critical Overview