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(American History Through Literature)

Title page of the 1854 edition of Walden. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years in the small cabin that he built. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Title page of the 1854 edition of Published by Gale Cengage THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Survey of Walden Pond by Thoreau, 1846. COURTESY OF THE CONCORD FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY Survey of Walden Pond by Thoreau, 1846. Published by Gale Cengage COURTESY OF THE CONCORD FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY

Although Henry David Thoreau's (1817862) 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 workserman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and the poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, for examplei>Walden was not particularly successful in its own day. Its reputation as a classic of American literature is 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 characteristicsts language and structure, primarilynd the cultural forces and movements to which Thoreau was responding in his experiment and his critique.


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...

(The entire section is 6,310 words.)