Anxious to get away from the pressure and clutter of modern civilization, the twenty-seven-year-old Thoreau built a shack on the shore of Walden Pond, a mile or so from Concord, Massachusetts. Though he occasionally had visitors and often visited Concord, he basically lived alone for two years and two months, beginning on Independence Day, 1845.
While there, he kept a journal (as he had begun doing years before), recording his observations of the natural world, his criticisms of the society he had abandoned, and his speculations about the meaning of life. Upon returning to the regular company of mankind, he developed this material into a book.
To give his experience a coherent shape, he incorporated two years into one, so that the book could begin in the summer, descend into autumn and winter, and then emerge into spring, signifying the perpetual regeneration that was his dominant theme.
Like his mentor and fellow Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau believed that every man had to find his own way. All around him people were following courses that others had laid out for them and were consequently living lives of frustration rather than of fulfillment. Too often, people were enslaving themselves to the quest for material goods and allowing no time for pursuits of the spirit.
Thoreau sought to correct his age’s focus on ephemeral matters, from fashion to news, by making people aware of what was more permanent--the beauties of nature endlessly renewing themselves.
His style and language amply embody his themes. He delves beneath the surface of words and makes cliches fresh. His abstractions become concrete through parables and details of plant and animal life. He addresses the reader directly, not so much as a preacher but as an often wryly comic village raconteur.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A representative selection of some of the best criticism of Thoreau’s Walden published since Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of “Walden” (1972). Although primarily a celebration of Thoreau, some essays question his solipsism and his debt to Emerson.
Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of “Walden.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. The prelude to the contemporary reading of Thoreau’s masterpiece. Cavell argues that Walden’s mysteries can be learned by giving the fullest attention to all Thoreau said.
Myerson, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains a very complete record of critical reaction to Walden beginning with early reviews by Horace Greeley, George Eliot, and several anonymous reviewers of the day. The book also contains reprints of more than a dozen twentieth century essays examining such topics as the structure of Walden and its language.
Ruland, Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Walden”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent source of discussion for Walden. Nine short essays and twelve shorter viewpoints by critics and writers offer a coherent reading of Thoreau’s book. Contains a brief chronology of Thoreau’s life.
Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of “Walden.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. A detailed study of how Thoreau wrote the first version of Walden while living at Walden Pond and how he rewrote it between 1848 and 1854. Contains the text of the first edition of Walden.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. An authoritative, extensively annotated version of the text. Includes Thoreau’s notes and corrections to the text.