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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.

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Critical Overview