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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.


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, NJ: 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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Although Henry David Thoreau’s (1817–1862) Walden ranks securely among the handful of best-known American books in the early twenty-first century, this lofty status was not achieved until nearly a century after its publication in 1854. Like many other famous nineteenth-century works, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and the poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, for example, Walden was not particularly successful in its own day. Its reputation as a classic of American literature is...

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a product not only of changing literary tastes but also of many decades of work by scholars and teachers to bring to the attention of students and other readers books whose language and thoughts challenge familiar assumptions about American culture and the purposes of reading.

Many readers encountering Walden for the first time are initially put off. Expecting, on the basis of Thoreau’s popular reputation, a pleasant sort of back-to-nature treatise, they find instead a linguistically and intellectually complex book, dense with allusions to Greek and Roman and early English literature and full of puns and wordplays. Even the quintessential story of Walden, how Thoreau built his cabin with his own hands on the shores of Walden Pond and lived alone for two years, is sandwiched into a long first chapter called “Economy,” which contains a lengthy and satirical critique of American values, society, business, philanthropy, and even clothing and dietary practices. Because the narrative voice of Walden is both intensely personal and directly challenging to a reader, it tends to provoke strong reactions, both positive and negative. And it has been taken by readers as everything from a mystic’s treatise to a how-to book for simplifying one’s life to the rantings of a misguided crank. Sorting through its often conflicting claims and facets requires exploring both its formal characteristics, language and structure, primarily, and the cultural forces and movements to which Thoreau was responding in his experiment and his critique.

Writing and Reading Walden

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond, a mile or so outside his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, for just over two years, from the summer of 1845 until early fall 1847. He began writing Walden while he was at the pond, and many of its passages come directly from the journal he kept while he lived there. By the time he left he had a draft nearly finished, and he hoped to publish it shortly after his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which he also worked on at the pond. But he had trouble finding a publisher for A Week, and when it finally came out in 1849, it sold so poorly that no publisher would take a chance on Walden.

In many ways this was a fortunate setback, though it was deeply disappointing to Thoreau at the time. He spent the next several years, until just before Walden was finally published in the summer of 1854, carefully reworking, revising, and adding to his manuscript until, compared with the first draft, it had more than doubled in size and developed into a much different book. Over the years he had produced at least eight major drafts, and each of these manuscript versions (now housed at the Huntington Library in California) shows evidence of much revision as well. The density and complexity of Thoreau’s prose owes much to this long gestation period and to the careful revision virtually every sentence in the book underwent. This quality puts demands on the reader, demands that Thoreau himself frankly acknowledges in the chapter “Reading.” Though he is speaking of the classics here, he obviously has his own book in mind as well when he says: “To read well, that is to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

The specific forms this complexity tends to take are discussed below, but one other ramification of Walden’s long period of development needs to be mentioned. The fact that Thoreau wrote many passages in the book as they happened while he was living at the pond, and then revised and added to these passages over the next eight years, means that the final version is at once both dramatic and retrospective. That is, it combines the immediacy of the experiences themselves with later and more measured reflections on their significance. In some cases the later reflections are not entirely harmonious with Thoreau’s first thoughts, and the implicit contradictions are allowed to remain. In the problematic chapter “Higher Laws,” for example, the narrator begins by praising the wild: “I love the wild not less than the good.” But the revisions he added over the years took the chapter in a somewhat different direction, and eventually he concludes by associating this same wild with sensuality and sexual energy, which he feels compelled to repress: “Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome.” Such ambivalence finally provides a true record of thoughts and moods and emphases changing over time and constitutes part of both the difficulty and the richness of the text.

For a reader today, understanding the language of Walden, even at the atomic level of the individual word, requires entertaining a different view of the relation between language and the external world than we normally hold. As a thoroughgoing transcendentalist, Thoreau was committed to a search for meaning and truth through nature. It is a truism that Walden records the narrator’s search to understand and to know himself through nature, but how that process works and what that truth consists of are much less obvious.

The basic premises of a transcendentalist theory of language can be expressed most economically by citing the pseudo-syllogism that Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) employs in the “Language” chapter of the basic scripture of transcendentalism, Nature (1836): (1) words are signs of natural facts; (2) particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts; and (3) nature is the symbol of spirit.

Briefly (and simplistically) put, this means that because nature (and all the objects that make it up) are potentially radiant with meaning that can lead one to the divine, and because individual words can stand for the objects of nature, words themselves are potentially carriers of divine significance. Words are inherently dual in that they point simultaneously to the thing they represent and to what lies behind that thing. Furthermore, the more primitive and original a word is, the closer it is likely to be to its potential spiritual meaning. And, whereas one tends to think of reality as those things in nature themselves, for the transcendentalist the ultimate reality is the spiritual meaning that lies behind them. Thoreau himself was fond of distinguishing between the “actual,” by which he meant ordinary material reality, and the “real,” by which he meant spiritual reality.

A specific passage that illustrates this theory and teaches how, in effect, to read the descriptions of nature in Walden comes from the conclusion to the second chapter, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” After speaking of the need to penetrate through the accumulated layers of “mud and slush of opinion” that have gathered over everything in order to find “a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality,” the narrator says:

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both of its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [a curved sword], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

The two surfaces of a fact, rightly perceived, are its physical and spiritual dimensions simultaneously grasped. The reality we crave, according to the narrator, the hard bottom and rocks in place, is not physical reality but spiritual reality, or a fusing of the two perhaps. Throughout the text of Walden this double perception is suggested by a wide variety of literary and rhetorical devices (both playful and serious) that attempt to make the reader aware of the shallowness of ordinary perception and to point toward a deeper underlying reality.

Perhaps the most obvious and potentially off-putting rhetorical strategy employed by the narrator to startle his audience into going beyond ordinary perception is invective verbal attack on the reader’s presumed values. This sort of direct challenge may or may not have its intended effect on a reader, but one should keep in mind that Walden, like most of Thoreau’s other works, began life as a lecture or series of lectures, which he delivered at lyceums in Concord and elsewhere in New England. The voice that begins Walden, especially in the first chapter, “Economy,” is a voice that delivered its critique to a live audience. “It is very evident to me what mean and sneaking lives many of you live,” the narrator says near the beginning of the book, and one can only wonder how Thoreau’s neighbors reacted when he delivered it as the opening of a lecture.

In a similarly unsettling way, the narrator often seems perversely to assert the opposite of what everyone knows to be true. “I see young men, my towns-men,” he says, “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” Is it a misfortune to inherit wealth? Is it more difficult to acquire things than get rid of them? By such assertions, of course, the narrator hopes to startle the reader into questioning received wisdom and to ponder the way in which material goods may constrain as well as enrich one’s life.

On a subtler level, the language of Walden always points toward the deeper meanings accessible one looks at things from an original and not merely an inherited perspective. Language, according to transcendental theory, is a kind of accumulation of dead metaphors, and one has lost the original power and significance of words. So the narrator frequently invokes figurative expressions and treats them as though they were literal: “I felt the spur of the moment go deep in my side,” for example, or “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” in order to renew their original metaphoric force.

In a similar vein, and especially in “Economy,” he uses the language of business to suggest that he (and others) might have a destiny that transcends the mere making and spending of money. He frames his decision to go live at Walden Pond in this way, as though he were a kind of venture capitalist of the imagination:

I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to leave cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact private business with the fewest possible obstacles.

As this passage continues, the narrator invokes the most important New England trade as an analog to his private “business”: “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough.” The Celestial Empire, in the nineteenth century, meant China, and New England merchants made great fortunes through trading voyages to China, even from small ports like Salem, Massachusetts. But clearly the narrator puns on “Celestial Empire,” suggesting a higher kind of spiritual trade that can be engaged in from one’s own locality, however obscure.

Similarly (examples might be multiplied almost indefinitely), in the opening paragraph of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” he describes in some detail the experience of looking at, and then buying in his imagination, farms in his vicinity. At the end of the passage he says that “this experience entitled me to be regarded as a kind of real-estate broker by my friends.” Because he is “entitled” (that is, takes a title to) the land only in his imagination, the kind of “real estate” he deals with is not the conventional one of buildings and land but rather the domain of thought and imagination, which constitutes one’s real estate.

In this way language serves not only to convey information but also to reattach one to meanings that have been lost in conventional usage. Even etymology (the origin and historical development of words) helps in this process. In the climactic section of the “Spring” chapter, in which the narrator experiences a sense of rebirth and renewal upon seeing the thawing sand and mud “vegetation” that flows out of the railroad cut near his house, he describes the appearance of this apparent foliage as “a truly grotesque vegetation.” Why, if he admires this display of nature's vital force, does he describe the vegetation as “grotesque,” a word that normally has a negative valence, and further emphasize it with italics? If one looks up “grotesque,” the answer is apparent: it derives from the same Latin word as “grotto,” meaning an underground chamber. So this vegetation is not grotesque like a Poe story but truly grotesque in that it comes from below the ground.

Presumably an educated reader in Thoreau’s day would not need to look up “grotesque” because the curriculum in most colleges emphasized the study of Latin and Greek. But the sort of recovery process a modern reader needs to undertake to understand the nuances of the text and something like the full range of its references is in itself a kind of creative reading that involves participating in the act of creating meaning itself. It is the sort of reading that Thoreau himself advocates when he promotes the study of the classics written in the “dead” languages: “we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”

Structure and Voice

The major structural feature of Walden is the collapsing of Thoreau’s two years and two months’ residence into a single year from one spring through to the following spring. Given the narrator’s desire to know himself through his immersion in the natural world, the utility of this scheme is obvious: it accords with a yearning for spiritual fulfillment to coincide with the rebirth of nature. But this compression of time and the selectivity of details it implies should also alert the reader to the fact that this book is not conventional autobiography but a carefully constructed version of Thoreau’s actual life, or in early-twenty-first-century terms, a kind of virtual reality. Neither is the narrative voice of the book to be equated with the historical Thoreau. It is, rather, a kind of projection of the ideal Thoreau and a rhetorical device designed to reinforce his various themes. It is primarily a self-confident and optimistic voice (despite its criticisms) that promotes the perennial possibility of waking to a higher life: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Although the actual Thoreau confided afterward in his journal that he was not sure why he left the woods, the narrator of Walden confidently sidesteps the issue by saying, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.” Thus it is perhaps most productive to read Walden as a kind of fiction, not in the sense that it is untrue but rather in the sense that it is a carefully constructed and highly selective recreation of the experience on which it is based.

Neither the genre nor the structure of Walden, however, follows a strict or conventional pattern. Writers associated with the Romantic movement in literature, especially in America, tended to resist conventional forms, which they regarded as promoting a kind of mechanical operation of the spirit. Instead they privileged imagination and the creative impulse and favored literary structures that were original and that grew out of the material itself rather than some preexisting form or genre. In Emerson’s famous formulation of this organic theory in his essay “The Poet” (1844), “It is not metres, but a meter-making argument, that makes a poem, thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”

The structure of Walden is almost literally organic in this sense, as it is based upon the natural life cycle of the year. At the same time, it is capacious enough to include essays and seeming digressions on other subjects, like “Economy” and “Reading,” that seem to have little or nothing to do with the book’s original subtitle, “Life in the Woods.” Also, within the movement provided by the progress of the seasons, there is another internal pattern of alteration, in which the subject of one chapter will frequently invoke a kind of opposite in the following chapter. Thus, “Reading” is followed by “Sounds,” “Solitude” by “Visitors,” “Higher Laws” by “Brute Neighbors,” and so on. But this pattern is only loose and not strictly followed, again in keeping with Romantic distrust of system and hierarchical forms.

At its extreme, this distrust of artificial forms and structures extends even to a sense of the limits of written expression itself. Another famous dictum from Emerson’s “The Poet” is “Art is the path of the creator to his work,” which strongly favors the artist’s inspiration and conception over their execution in the finished product. In Walden this principle expresses itself in a tension between the book’s rhetoric of clarity (“Simplify! Simplify!”) and highly polished style on the one hand, and its almost equally strong (though easy to overlook) impulses toward mystification and an undercutting of the most apparently certain formulations on the other. In its ideal incarnation, a work of art will be a sort of self-effacing artifact, as the narrator hints in the book’s concluding chapter: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.” (The alert reader, noting the somewhat unusual word choice “volatile” in this construction, will have looked it up and found that it not only means “explosive” and potentially dangerous in ordinary usage but also “easily transforming from one state into another,” as in evaporation. Truth, in other words, is fleeting and unstable.)

Throughout the book, then, the narrator tends to undermine his own formulations and most self-confident pronouncements. Usually this move tends to take the form of setting up his own practice as an implicit model and then warning the reader not to follow his example. In the second paragraph of the book, already, the narrator advises the reader not to “stretch the seams in putting on the coat.” The long first chapter, “Economy,” takes great pains to describe the narrator’s simplification of his life at Walden as an antidote to the heedless pursuit of wealth and material goods by his countrymen, frequently listing to the penny in his pseudo-accounts how much his house cost him to build and how much he spent on food. But the majority of items on the list of foods are also labeled “All experiments which failed.” And it is evident that the narrator did not really follow his own regimen, slyly admitting, [The reader will perceive that I am treating the subject rather from an economic than a dietetic point of view, and he will not venture to put my abstemiousness to the test unless he has a well-stocked larder.” “Economy” itself is followed by a poem by Thomas Carew, “The Pretensions of Poverty,” that satirizes just the sort of claims of virtue in a simple rural life that the narrator makes throughout the chapter.

The fact that Walden almost always undercuts its own pronouncements should illustrate the dangers of taking it literally as a how-to book. While the would-be disciple is boiling his acorns in the woods, Thoreau himself would be likely to be dropping in at his family’s house in the village, having a second helping of pie. The point is that no guidebook is trustworthy, and none may lead another to enlightenment.

Themes and Contexts

Somewhat ironically, the critical movement that helped Walden to achieve its canonical status in the middle of the twentieth century also had the effect of emptying the book, as it were, of many of its most important concerns. Books such as F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), Sherman Paul’s The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (1958), and Charles Anderson’s The Magic Circle of “Walden” (1968) taught generations of students to appreciate the artistry of Walden and to explore its style, symbolism, and what might be called self-referentiality. This approach, broadly consistent with what was called the New Criticism at the time, focused on the book as a self-contained work of art, understandable without reference to the biography of its author or its historical context. As the subtitle of Paul’s work “Thoreau's Inward Exploration” suggests, the focus of this criticism was also on the work as a reflection of the problems and possibilities of the self.

The narrator’s self-exploration is, to be sure, an important theme in Walden and even becomes increasingly the focus of the book as the seasons progress toward the second spring. As shown, the transcendentalists believed that the self was capable of achieving moments of direct insight into divinity through an immersion in the natural world, and Walden certainly embodies Emerson’s observation in “The American Scholar” (1837) that “the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one maxim.” There are many memorable moments of such spiritual confirmation and fulfillment in Walden where nature’s veil drops and the narrator sees through it to a higher reality. One such moment, which may serve as a model for this kind of experience, occurs in the chapter “The Ponds,” when the narrator gazes down on the surface of the water as a breeze ripples it:

A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of the air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.

Here the phenomenon of a puff of wind blowing across the water provides a perfect illustration of the transcendental principle that, as Walt Whitman put it, the seen proves the unseen, in this case the spirit that animates nature itself. The pond itself is Walden’s ultimate “fact,” whose physical and spiritual surfaces are grasped simultaneously.

Such perceptions are not only ahistorical but also timeless, and they lie at the heart of the narrator’s quest to experience heightened spiritual understanding through nature. And yet Walden is at the same time a book that grows out of and seeks to address its immediate historical moment and the many crosscurrents of American culture in the 1840s and 1850s. Thoreau was so successful in creating the persona of the solitary seeker after truth that readers may overlook the fact that Walden is also a product of the ferment of reform movements and writing that characterized these decades. To withdraw temporarily from and to critique one’s culture is still to be part of it, still to write from within the circle. Even the most familiar narrative element of Walden, the narrator building his house in the woods and practicing subsistence farming, is not so much an act of withdrawal as it is an ironic inversion of the dominant heroic myth of this era, the self-sufficient frontiersman exploring, clearing land, building a cabin, and planting his crops on the frontier.

Reform movements of various kinds swept the country, and more than a hundred experimental communities sprang up between 1825 and the Civil War. Emerson wrote to his English friend Thomas Carlyle in 1840: “We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his pocket.” Many of the reformers and communitarians were religious (e.g., the Shakers), while others were concerned with social and governmental organization, abolition, women’s rights, and even sexual mores and diet. Transcendentalism itself grew out of the zeal for religious reform, as a group of loosely affiliated Unitarian ministers in New England rebelled against what they considered the “corpse-cold” (Emerson’s phrase) formalism and tradition-bound character of Unitarianism and sought a more direct and intuitive experience of divinity.

Obviously Walden is in many ways a dramatization of transcendentalism’s fundamental urge for spiritual enlightenment, but it also reflects and addresses many of the other cultural transformations and reform topics of the time, including but not limited to slavery and abolition, western expansion and the Mexican-American War, Irish immigration, technological change (the railroad and telegraph), education, urbanization and the development of mass markets, agricultural practices, alcohol abuse, and the ways in which diet and sexual practices influenced the development of disease. The vantage point from which it addresses these issues, however, also constitutes a critique of transcendentalism itself as a reform movement.

Transcendentalism was never an organized or coherent movement, but those who allied themselves with its ideals tended to favor either a communitarian or associationist approach toward reform on the one hand or an individualistic approach on the other. The former worked to reform society as a whole, either through direct social action or the creation of communities that would ideally serve as models for society at large. A number of such believers in organized reform participated in the transcendentalist-related communities at Fruitlands (1843–1844) or the more successful and longer-lived Brook Farm (1841–1847). The individualists believed in reform, too, but thought that it could only be achieved in a meaningful way by the individual person. They distrusted organized reform movements as liable to the same weakness as other flawed organizations like the church or the government. This perspective is the one Thoreau expresses in his most famous political essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” or “Civil Disobedience” (1849).

Both Thoreau and Emerson were invited to join Brook Farm, and much as they valued some of the ideals and goals of its founders, both refused, preferring the individual path. Thoreau’s Walden experiment of 1845–1847 came at the high point of communitarian reform, and Walden itself is in large measure a response to this activity, appropriately though also paradoxically a manual of individualistic reform and the record of an experimental community of one.

The rhetorical stance that enables the narrator to cast a critical eye at the practices of his countrymen (both those in need of reform and the reformers themselves) is that of the traveler. Hypothesizing a removal from society by virtue of his retreat to Walden Pond, the narrator presumes to be able to describe the foibles and weaknesses of that society as though he were a traveler describing the oddities of some exotic culture. “I have travelled a good deal in Concord” goes one of the most familiar of Walden’s witty paradoxes, referencing both this traveler-at-home perspective and the fact that he himself rarely traveled and yet was a great reader of travel literature. In fact he was also a great writer of travel narrative himself because most of what he published in his lifetime was travel narrative based upon his infrequent excursions in and around New England: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866). In these works, too, Thoreau was less the iconoclast than the public intellectual, engaging not only the landscape but also the society and culture of his times.

The reformist edge to this traveler’s perspective is announced early in the text of Walden:

I would fain say something, not so much concerning the Chinese and Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians] as you who read these pages, who are said to live in New England; something about your condition, especially your outward condition or circumstances in this world, in this town, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not.

The local focus of this anticipated critique (“this town”) betrays once again Walden’s origins as a lecture manuscript first delivered in Concord, as does the harshness of its tone. But the individualist reformer is more or less confined to this tack of negative commentary (balanced only by the accounts of his own individual practices) because he distrusts direct social action and organized reform. In fact some of his harshest words are directed against reformers themselves:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.

Only if the individual at the root of the problem can be startled into change by seeing things differently can meaningful reform take place. This position leads the narrator into some rhetorical excesses that were actually at odds with Thoreau’s own beliefs and practices, especially as he got older. At one point, for example, he says:

I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign [because not practiced in New England] form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

Elsewhere he despairs of improving the lot of the poor Irish immigrants who are seduced, as it were, by the dream of American prosperity but are apparently incapable of thinking for themselves or escaping their “inherited Irish poverty.” This sort of discourse belongs to the early versions of Walden, when Thoreau was eager to criticize organized reform from an individualist platform. By the time the book was published in 1854, he was lending his hand to abolitionist causes both through his writing and through personal action supporting escaped enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. And he was also active in attempting to improve the lot of Irish immigrants in Concord.

The book remains a testament to the individualist position, however, and this fact probably contributes to the rise in Thoreau’s (and Walden’s) reputation in the twentieth century. Individualism has been the hallmark of American culture at least since the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term to describe the distinctive feature of American life in the 1830s, and along with it goes a distrust of anything that hints of communitarian or socialistic ideology. This distrust reached its peak in the Red Scares and the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, at the very time when Walden was solidifying its canonical status.

The narrator’s other satiric targets in Walden are self-evident, of course, and may be generally grouped around the question that dominates “Economy”: what is the true cost of the material advances, the so-called improvements in our standard of living that we constantly strive for? And although his examples, such as the telegraph and the railroad, are now outdated, analogues in contemporary culture are obvious. If the rush to construct a telegraph from Maine to Texas overlooked the possibility that Maine and Texas might not have anything to say to one another, the same sort of possibility might be raised about the myriad of advances in communication technology that mark the early twenty-first century.

Less obvious are the cultural issues that underlie his own practices at Walden Pond, but nearly all of the narrator’s activities interrogate and comment upon contemporary concerns. The range of issues raised in his description of his house building and daily life, for example, question assumptions about domestic life, agricultural practices, and even food production. In one sense Walden may be viewed as an alternative model of domestic life that comments upon his contemporaries’ concern for bracketing off housekeeping and household work as an exclusively female province. The narrator’s presumed local audience, including those “uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out,” would have recognized his descriptions of cleaning, furniture, and food preparation as a sly commentary on such popular guidebooks for women as Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841). Even his extended description of baking his own bread alludes to the loss of that skill in contemporary New England, where cheaper processed wheat from the West and commercial baking were replacing the tradition of household bread making and raising questions about the healthiness of the commercial product.

On the largest scale, the extended descriptions of nature not only depict the narrator’s search for self-knowledge and enlightenment but also convey a sense of contemporary practices and theories of natural science. Both of these issues converge in the climactic “Spring” chapter, where the narrator describes in great detail a sort of “pre-Spring” in which the earth itself exudes vegetative forms of leaves, vines, and tendrils from a thawing bank along the railroad. The length and exuberance of these passages derive from many years of careful observation of this phenomenon, as Thoreau returned each spring to this site to add more data, as it were, to his representation of the principle of life renewing itself.

His conclusion, which we would tend to read as metaphoric or symbolic, chiefly, is meant as an accurate scientific as well as spiritual truth. “There is nothing inorganic,” for:

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit, not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.

Employing a characteristic play on words (contrasting the leaves of a book to the leaves of a tree), this passage references contemporary discourse about the age of the earth and the origins of life just before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) would forever change the debate. A few pages earlier in this description the narrator says that in viewing this phenomenon he felt as though he “stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,” deliberately fusing what most would consider two opposed modes of perception, the artistic and the scientific.

Walden is a text, then, with a rich and varied set of purposes and modes of discourse, ranging from the caustic and critical commentary on American preoccupations to the intensely personal and even mystical search for individual enlightenment. Because it addresses directly persistent American assumptions about society, nature, individual fulfillment, business, material wealth, and technological change, it remains a work that invites readers to examine and critique their own attitudes toward these issues. At the same time, it grows out of and reflects a vibrant period of rapid social and intellectual change in America and thus sheds light on many of the controversies and anxieties that marked the turbulent antebellum era. Perhaps it remains most persistently American in its portrayal of the perennial possibility of renewal and reawakening and of a life as an experiment yet untried. The experience and the mode of life recreated in the text were not a destination or a solution so much as a confirmation that, as the narrator concludes, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

See also “Resistance to Civil Government”; Nature; Reform; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” 1837. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, edited by Edward W. Emerson, pp. 8115. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” 1844. In The CompleteWorks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 3, Essays: Second Series, edited by Edward W. Emerson, pp. 52. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Slater, Joseph, ed. The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlye. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to CivilGovernment. Edited by William Rossi. Norton critical edition. New York: Norton, 1992.

Secondary Works

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau,Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “Walden’s False Bottoms.” Glyph 1 (1977): 13249.

Myerson, Joel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to HenryDavid Thoreau. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Sattelmeyer, Robert. “The Remaking of Walden.” In Writing the American Classics, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk, pp. 538. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of Walden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Seeing New Worlds: Henry DavidThoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Robert Sattelmeyer

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.


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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 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.


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.


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 he 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 five-thousand-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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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.