Walden

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The Work

Thoreau’s two-year experiment of living at Walden Pond was on one level an effort to determine whether a person really needed the material possessions that were considered essential in mid-nineteenth century America. His book demonstrated that one could attain the good life by living in harmony with nature...

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  • Characters
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The Work

Thoreau’s two-year experiment of living at Walden Pond was on one level an effort to determine whether a person really needed the material possessions that were considered essential in mid-nineteenth century America. His book demonstrated that one could attain the good life by living in harmony with nature supplied only with the bare necessities. The first chapter, entitled “Economy,” demonstrates that human needs are few; thus, there is no need to exploit nature to attain them. Much of the rest of the book attacks the acquisitive spirit. At bottom, Thoreau argues, materialistic values indicate not enterprise but a basic lack of spiritual self-reliance. In Thoreau’s ethic, ownership of the land is invalid. Humans should act as stewards rather than squires.

Thoreau’s own love of nature is illustrated in the intricate detail with which he describes the seasons, flora and fauna, natural processes, and Walden Pond itself. If he measures and documents, plumbs the depths of the lake, scrupulously counts every penny spent in the building of his house, and ponders his profit after selling produce from his garden, it is to show that empirical science does have a use, but that it should be subordinate to a guiding spirit that respects and loves the natural environment rather than exploits it. Walden continually demonstrates “correspondences”; that is, clear relationships between the ethical life of humankind and nature, an interconnectedness that Thoreau believed deserved more acknowledgment and respect.

Bibliography

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.

Historical Context

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New England Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered on the premise that divine truth is present in all things and that truth, or God, is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God.

The term ‘‘transcendental’’ was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason, ‘‘I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori’’ (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavad Gita (which Thoreau reports that he read in the mornings) and the Vedas (which Thoreau references several times), among other Eastern scriptures.

The New England transcendentalists did not confine themselves to literary pursuits but also tried to put their philosophy into practice. Some, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, focused on educational reform. Peabody and Margaret Fuller applied the principles of transcendentalism to the crusade for women’s rights. The group created two experimental communities, Fruitlands and Brook Farm.

It is the writing of Thoreau and of Emerson that has been the most enduring product of American transcendentalism. Thoreau’s ideas about nonviolent resistance to oppression were very important both to Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign against the British in India in the early 1900s, and to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Building of the Railroads

Thoreau writes at length of the train that passes the western shore of Walden Pond. He hears its whistle and the rattle of its cars along the tracks. He thinks about the people and the freight on the train, about where the train began the day and where it will deliver its goods, and about how trains are changing the pace and the way of life in America.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the entire nation was caught up in the drama of building the railroads. While only forty miles of track were laid between 1820 and 1830, by 1850 there were 9,022 miles of operating track in the country. The railroads were changing everything. Trains made the thriving steamboat industry obsolete, because they could transport freight and people much more directly and quickly. (This industrial struggle contributed to the tensions that led to the Civil War because the northern companies owned the railroads and southern companies owned the steamboats.) Better transportation meant cheaper goods and greater variety, so the railroads encouraged the desire for luxuries that Thoreau was preaching against. Railroads also increased the pace of life and led to Americans keeping more exact schedules as business and travel began to depend on the inflexible schedules of the trains. In sum, the railroads carried mainstream American society ever farther from the kind of life Thoreau celebrates in Walden.

Setting

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The setting of Walden is integral to its themes, although Thoreau did not set out to write a book about nature. He wanted a quiet place to write, so he secured Emerson's permission to build a cottage on his land near Walden Pond. The pond was only a mile from Thoreau's mother's house and within walking distance of town. Thoreau moved there in early July of 1845.

Thoreau's first tasks, as recounted in Walden, relate to his survival—planting a garden so that he can sell the produce for money to build his cabin, then building the cabin, and finally winterizing it. He meticulously records this work in his writing and reflects on its meaning. What evolves during the two years that Thoreau lives at Walden Pond is a book about humankind's relation to nature, and how self-sufficiency makes individualism possible.

Literary Style

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First-Person Narration

Thoreau wrote Walden in the first person. He explains on the first page that, although ‘‘I’’ is omitted from most books, ‘‘it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.’’ In addition, he explains that the book is all about Thoreau himself. ‘‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,’’ he assures readers.

Because of its first-person narration, and because it is based on journals, readers often assume that Walden was written ‘‘off the cuff’’ or that its organization is informal or accidental. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thoreau spent seven years after his stay at Walden rewriting and revising his manuscript. He structured the book to suit his dual purposes of explaining how he lived and of urging readers to apply his experiences to their own lives. He compressed twenty-six months into one year for his narrative, beginning and ending in spring, the season of rebirth. Within the general structure of a one-year span, Thoreau organized his material by topic, rather than strictly chronologically. For example, the chapter ‘‘The Village’’ comes during the ‘‘summer’’ season of the book, but not every incident related in it actually took place during summer.

Description

Walden is rich in densely detailed descriptive passages that make use of so much figurative language and imagery that they are poetic. Thoreau’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife around him are a testament to his close observations of nature. He uses lively, precise words and unusual phrases to convey the sights and sounds of nature. To cite one example of many, he writes that on a summer afternoon the

. . . hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half-hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge.

References to Persons and Literature

Evidence that Thoreau has read the world’s great books, as he urges his readers to do, is liberally sprinkled throughout Walden. He demonstrates familiarity with the Bible and with the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism; with the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses; with Homer and Aeschylus in the Western canon and with poets of the Middle East; and with the rulers, explorers, and scientists of his own time and of the past.

These wide-ranging references reinforce the theme of unity. Thoreau shows that the scriptures and the great men of different cultures and different times have much in common and can be cited in support of the same ideas.

Humor

The author’s seriousness of purpose and his sense of urgency in conveying his ideas do not smother Thoreau’s sense of humor, which makes frequent appearances in Walden. Criticizing the impracticality of formal education, Thoreau writes, ‘‘To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!’’ and declares that he would have learned more by sailing once around the harbor. On his opinion that people keep their homes overheated in winter and wear too many clothes, he writes:

By proper Shelter and Clothing we legitimately retain our own internal heat; but with an excess of these, or of Fuel, that is, with an external heat greater than our own internal, may not cookery be said to begin?

Literary Qualities

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Unlike his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau has a sense of organic form, and as a result Walden—in contrast to many of Emerson's essays—is more than a collection of brilliant, briefly stated ideas. Thoreau revised the book at least seven times after writing the first draft during his stay at Walden. As usual, sections of it were tried out on audiences at his lectures, and rewritten according to their reactions. Walden is Thoreau's best book, for it displays his keen insight and his skill as a prose stylist.

Thoreau's actual stay at Walden lasted two years, two months and two days. The book presents a single year, beginning in early spring 1845, when he starts work on the cabin, and ending the following spring after the ice has melted on the pond. The chapters are carefully linked to assure continuity. Thoreau employs metaphors with a skill that makes his work a prose poem surpassing the traditional poems he wrote during his lifetime. The pond itself is a central metaphor, its purity a standard to which all humans should aspire. Metaphors suggesting rebirth and renewal are frequent, and express Thoreau's almost missionary zeal.

Thoreau's imagination reworked his experience into an American myth. He drew freely from other sources, especially his journals, in his revisions of Walden. His account of his life and thought at Walden Pond struck a strong responsive chord in the American consciousness. Although Thoreau often sounds like a sage in his pronouncements, he was essentially a writer, and most critics now agree that Walden should be considered a piece of imaginative literature rather than an autobiography or nature book. Thoreau, who never read novels, not even those of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, would not have liked this conclusion. But in Walden he created a Henry David Thoreau quite different from the one who spent those two years by the pond.

Social Sensitivity

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Thoreau considered himself a reformer, and he genuinely wanted to change human lives for the better. He was distressed by the poverty he saw in the Concord area, but was convinced that the answer to poverty was not philanthropy. Thoreau felt a personal responsibility for the poor but believed that the inner person had to change before gifts or donations would do any good. So he preached to those poor people he met on his walks.

"We need the tonic of wildness..." Thoreau says in the chapter of Walden entitled "Spring." He was a pioneer conservationist who insisted that the primitive, wild side of human nature required the wildness of nature as a counterpart. He predicted that the exploitation of the West was inevitable once the business interests of the country realized that they could obtain resources there. He admits in Walden that he has a grudging admiration for the energy of commercial enterprises, but feels that it is energy applied for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the section of the book called 'The Ponds," he says to his contemporaries: Talk of heaven! Ye disgrace earth."

For a book that, on its surface, seems like a sentimental discussion of human interaction with nature, Walden has stirred deep resentment and critical attack from both individuals and governments. Critics who have disliked Walden object to Thoreau's belief that the individual rights of human beings take precedence over all other considerations. For Thoreau, society, no matter how benevolent, is a threat to the self-sufficient individual; Thoreau is dogmatically independent. When combined with his other views of society, particularly his support for "civil disobedience" in which he believes people may justly break "bad" laws, his idealism has both inspired and thwarted revolutionary movements.

Compare and Contrast

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1850s: Walden Pond (about half a mile long and with a total area of about sixty-one acres) and much of the land immediately around it are owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. While the land was once heavily forested, many of the trees are being cut down as fuel. The particularly cold winter of 1851–1852 takes a heavy toll on Walden Woods. The few local residents are described by Thoreau in Walden, including a fortune teller, a potter, and railroad workers. People who live in Concord, a mile and a half away, come out to the pond to fish and swim, and they use the surrounding land for hunting, berry picking, and picnicking, as well as for a source of fuel.

Today: Walden Pond and the land around it are a National Historical and Literary Landmark owned by the state of Massachusetts. (The Emerson family donated the land to the state in 1922 so that it would be preserved.) The land is the site of the Thoreau Institute, which has a twelve-thousand-square-foot Education Center and a fivethousand- square-foot Research Center on the grounds, housing a reading room, archives, staff offices, and other facilities. About 750,000 people visit the site each year. Walden Pond is still used for swimming.

1850s: In Walden, Thoreau recalls hearing trains’ whistles as they passed the western end of Walden Pond during his stay, and he describes the many ways in which railroads are changing American life. By 1850, there are 9,022 miles of operable track, virtually all built in the last twenty years. On February 22, 1854—the year in which Walden is published—a train travels from the East Coast to the Mississippi River for the first time. Today: The United States has 230,000 miles of operable track, 1.2 million freight cars, and twenty thousand locomotives.

1850s: Transcendentalism, which borrows elements of Eastern philosophies and religions, has a devoted following in Massachusetts and influences many American intellectuals and writers.

Today: Yoga is increasingly popular throughout the United States. Yoga is the Sanskrit word for ‘‘union.’’ The various schools of yoga taught today have some commonalities with transcendentalism, such as the beliefs that each individual soul is directly linked to God and that truth is everywhere present in creation and can be experienced intuitively, rather than rationally. While millions of Americans practice only one element of yoga—its regimen of physical postures and exercises—a growing number are adopting the broader philosophy and more of its practices, such as meditation and vegetarianism.

For Further Reference

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Anderson, Charles R., ed. Thoreau's Vision: The Major Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973. Includes most of Thoreau's better short pieces and provides a good analysis of Thoreau's essays.

Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Provides a different perspective on Thoreau's writings based on a close study of his imagery. The violence of many images in the works seem to Bridgman to indicate a deeply pessimistic, possibly even a pathological personality.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Regarded as the best biography of Thoreau.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press, 1941. Matthiessen first convincingly demonstrated Thoreau's skill in writing Walden. After nearly fifty years this work remains one of the best books on the classic nineteenth-century American writers.

Pillai, A. K. B. Transcendental Self: A Comparative Study of Thoreau and the Psycho-Philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985. Drawing extensively on Walden, Pallai, a native of India, shows a close parallel between Thoreau's thinking and that found in traditional Indian religion.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. A good, brief study of all aspects of Thoreau's career as a writer.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Bagnall, Nicholas, Review of Walden, in New Statesman, December 5, 1997, p. 57.

‘‘New Publications,’’ in Boston Daily Journal, August 10, 1854, p. 1.

‘‘New Publications,’’ in Salem Register, August 10, 1854, p. 2.

Trent, W. P., J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren, eds., ‘‘Thoreau, Walden,’’ in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Vol. 16, Oxford University Press, 1907–21.

‘‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods,’’ in Lowell Journal and Courier, August 10, 1854, p. 2.

White, E. B., ‘‘A Slight Sound at Evening,’’ in The Points of My Compass, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1962.

Further Reading

Myerson, Joel, The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, Cambridge University Press, 1995. In addition to essays covering all of Thoreau’s major works, this volume also includes essays discussing the author’s friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his changing reputation over the years, and other topics.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, University of California Press, 1986. This well-reviewed and highly regarded biography includes discussions of Walden and Thoreau’s other major works.

Smith, David Clyde, The Transcendental Saunterer: Thoreau and the Search for Self, Frederic C. Beil, Inc., 1997. Smith, a Thoreau scholar, focuses on Thoreau’s walking—it is said that he spent more time walking than doing anything else—and how it influenced his life, his writing, and his philosophy.

Versluis, Arthur, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, Oxford University Press on Demand, 1997. Part of the Oxford Press Religion in America series, this book covers the beginning of Transcendentalist Orientalism in Europe and the complete history of American Transcendentalism to the twentieth century, with a focus on how Asian religions and cultures have influenced transcendentalism in the West.

Bibliography

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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.

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