Significant Allusions

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Thoreau uses allusions throughout Walden in part to help establish his authority (which explains why there are more allusions in the first two sections than in many of the others). Much of the time, the allusions offer examples on which to base his argument. These figures’ situations offer a teachable connection to his rationale at a given point. Students can discuss theses various allusions to practice presenting evidence and judging its effectiveness. 

Classical: Thoreau makes by far the most allusions to classical antiquity. Many are to Homer’s Iliad, but the references also extend to other stories, historians, and classical figures. This should remind readers that, though Thoreau’s woodsy persona and plainspoken tone are relatable, Thoreau himself was well educated and a voracious reader. These allusions can foster discussion about Thoreau’s credibility and its impact on the persuasiveness of his claims. 

Biblical: For a 19th-century writer, Thoreau makes comparatively few allusions to the Bible. The most direct references, when they do appear, are usually to Adam in the Book of Genesis. This is unsurprising since Adam, too, lives for a time in Eden, a garden that he stewards but does not own, providing multiple points of comparison with Thoreau at Walden Pond. 

Literary: Thoreau’s references to literary texts go as far back as Chaucer and as contemporary as his friend William Ellery Channing. References to canonical figures including Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton serve to bolster his learnedness and credibility. Other references such as those to William Cowper and William Gilpin show Thoreau reading ideas also influential to British romantics. 

Eastern: Critics have long noted that Thoreau’s reading of translated touchstones of Asian and Middle Eastern schools of thought made a significant contribution the insights of Walden. The many citations of Confucius and other references to texts like the Vedas and The Bhagavad Gita are part of how this text challenges conventional ideas in American thinking and gives a more expansive view of humankind. In turn, Thoreau himself has been cited by a number of disparate figures, including Mahatma Gandhi. 

Natural Historians/Travel/Geography: Categories like “travel” and “nature” writing were not yet fully consolidated in Thoreau’s time, but it’s evident from at least some of these citations how well—in addition to the cultural touchstones of antiquity and his contemporary literature—Thoreau was reading documents of American natural history and the various natural history encounters of anglophone travelers around the world. Like the references to Eastern thought traditions, the geographic reach of Thoreau’s natural history and travel reading help consolidate a planetary element to the book’s argument. 

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Teaching Approaches