So you’re going to teach Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, this classic text has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While this text has its challenges, these can be addressed in ways that will reward you and your students. Overall, Walden provides opportunities to explore important historic trends like transcendentalism as well as enduring questions about individualism, living deliberately, and defining a meaningful life. This guide highlights the text's most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.
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Facts at a Glance
- Publication Date: 1854
- Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 10
- Approximate Word Count: 112,000
- Author: Henry David Thoreau
- Country of Origin: United States of America
- Genre: Autobiography, Philosophy
- Literary Period: Antebellum American Literature, Transcendentalism
- Conflict: Self vs. Self
- Structure: Season Cycle
- Tone: Personal, Direct, Expansive
Texts That Go Well With Walden
Hōjōki, by Kamo no Chōmei, is a 13th-century medieval Japanese text to which commentators on Walden have often drawn comparisons. Part of a longer tradition of Chinese and Japanese literature of reclusion, this essay-length memoir recounts how Chōmei made his way from the capitol life of Kyoto to a monastic lifestyle and eventually living in a ten-foot hut in the mountains away from town. Through its exploration of Buddhist principles of impermanence and Chōmei’s reflections on the worldliness of capitol life, students can explore how Thoreau’s ideas overlap with or join those of another culture and a different time.
Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, makes for some of the most direct comparisons between these two giants of Transcendentalism. It gave Emerson notoriety in the 19th century for its bold suggestion of principles he would develop in his later essays. Readers interested in Thoreau can get a sense of the contrast between his immersive experiment and Emerson’s walks that turn into his famous “transparent eyeball.” By reading Emerson’s shorter essay alongside part or all of Thoreau’s longer work, readers can also engage a variety of questions about nature spaces as means for connection or reflection.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was the only other book-length work that Thoreau published in his lifetime—other books like The Maine Woods (1864) and Cape Cod (1865), as well as his journals, weren’t published until later. Actually published before Walden, this book makes an interesting point of contrast even as it has many philosophic continuities. Like Walden, for example, it follows a chronological organization (this time, one week instead of one year), so readers can observe how Thoreau treats relations between time and space in the two books. The most notable difference between the books has perhaps to do with people; A Week is based on a trip Thoreau took with his brother in 1839. Across the two books, then, readers can glimpse different versions of Thoreau’s social behaviors.
A Sand County Almanac: and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold, is another nature classic. This work by an early thinker in ecology and conservation shares a focus on nature content that can continue a paired unit for collaborative teaching across English and science classes. This book is particularly notable for how it draws its philosophical ideas from scientific principles, which has the benefit of helping students think creatively about connections across different disciplines or realms of knowledge-making.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Annie Dillard, recounts Dillard’s reflections living near Roanoke, Virginia, in lush and often surprising prose. Like Walden , this book...
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is considered a classic of nature writing though Dillard writes with a sense of mystery that is more prominent than what readers encounter in Thoreau. This book can provide a point of comparison withWalden for how writers turn journal notes into longer works, and it can also work to foster conversations about genre conventions of book-length nonfiction.
Unbowed: A Memoir, by Wangari Muta Maathai, may initially seem unlike Walden for a variety of reasons: Maathai is an African woman who travels internationally to pursue formal studies before coming back to Africa and pursuing feminist and ecological programs both outside of and later within state frameworks. But the two also share surprising similarities that make them worth thinking about together in a class that is not defined by nation or historical period. Both Thoreau and Maathai are figures with cosmopolitan educations who leverage their observations to launch criticisms of the values that maintain versions of that prevent people from living meaningful lives. Maathai’s memoir is all about living one’s principles, which makes it a great follow-up to Thoreau in several ways.