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Introduction

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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)