Thoreau Had Influential Support but Lacked Public Appeal: Although Walden ranks securely among the handful of best-known American texts today, its lofty status was not achieved until nearly a century after its 1854 publication. Despite enthusiastic promotion, Walden did not sell well or garner a following. 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.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Supportive Friendship: Thoreau did various kinds of work to support himself in life, but meeting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who backed him socially and financially, helped him have time to devote to writing. Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond on Emerson’s property, which simplified setting up the experiment considerably. The friendship between Thoreau and Emerson has been written about in-depth; see, for example, Harmon Smith’s My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau’s Relationship with Emerson and John T. Lysaker and Will Rossi’s Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship. This background information can inform class conversations about individualism in Transcendental thought and how relationships with human and animal neighbors help these thinkers realize Transcendental connections. These conversations are especially useful for helping Transcendentalism—often associated with the individual—connect to historical narratives and social concerns.
- Publisher Promotion and Thoreau’s Elevation: In addition to the social circle that helped Thoreau get published in the first place, Thoreau benefitted from admirers who helped put him back into print. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, which by the end of the 19th century had absorbed the influential Ticknor and Fields publishing company, acquired Thoreau’s collected works. These were reprinted as a set and promoted as part of the company’s brand of essential American authors, appealing to readers in a period of mounting nationalism. These promoters and enthusiasts who re-circulated Thoreau later in the 19th century did much to shape Thoreau’s memory. For a more in-depth history, see Eric Lupfner’s “Before Nature Writing: Houghton, Mifflin and Company and the Invention of the Outdoor Book, 1800-1900” (Book History 4 (2001): 177-204) and Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture.
Cults of Authorship/Different Memories of Henry David Thoreau: Many scholars who have written about Henry David Thoreau (including Gary Scharnhorst, Lawrence Buell, and Laura Dassow Walls) acknowledge that different versions of Thoreau circulate in public memory. Each of these focused versions of Thoreau can be supported by looking at various pieces of his work, but each one by itself also risks flattening a multi-faceted person. Especially if you are also assigning texts that quote Thoreau in your class, you can have your students reflect on which “version” of Thoreau those quotations invoke: the Transcendentalist philosopher? the rebel against social conventions and the state? the nature lover?
Modernity Encroaching on the Pastoral: Critics of Thoreau have sometimes pointed out that, contrary to the image of the Walden-Pond experiment as involving an individual’s retreat into a wild space, Thoreau was a short walk from town and that a railroad line lay not far from his cabin. In a new biography released for the 2017 bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls turns this criticism around, arguing that Thoreau is not so much undone by developments like the railroad so much as writing Thoreau to critique a form of modernity the railroad represents, a modernity that ravages rural landscapes in service of a dislocating network of metropolitan nodes. In addition to using Walden as a conversation starter for whether all historical developments count as progress, consider assigning excerpts from Walls’s biography to show that scholars continue to reassess Thoreau and his work.