Defying Conventions as Means Toward Good Life: The first and longest section of Walden, “Economy,” provides a rationale for his experiment at Walden Pond. The section as a whole can be productively thought of as a play on the various meanings of “accounting.” Thoreau’s more literal gestures of accounting here—his oddly unliterary-seeming inclusion of cost and income lists—is an extension of his earlier sections renouncing the salaried work he claims makes “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In other words, Thoreau playfully explores the question of how people account for the lives they lead. Thus, “Economy” is less about dollars and more about efficiently providing for the “vital heat.” Thoreau “avoid[s] all trade and barter” and instead sets off for Walden Pond on the 4th of July (Independence Day).
- For discussion: Depending on how much you can assign to your students as a chunk, “Economy” complements the section immediately following it, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” which has the well-known quotation “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” These first two sections work well with a discussion or lecture about writing introductions: from lab reports to analytical essays, most papers begin with some gesture of explaining the reason behind a writer’s inquiry.
- For discussion: Ask students to discern Thoreau’s position of the individual toward society in these early chapters. Is Thoreau against living with other people generally, or are there more particular parts of social life that he resists?
Transcendentalism in Practice: Those who read Emerson and Thoreau together typically notice that Emerson emerges as the genteel intellectual, whereas Thoreau gets his hands dirty, putting Transcendental thought into action. Key chapters for thinking about this contrast are “Sounds” and “The Bean-Field.” The opening paragraph of “Sounds” makes some of these points directly: “What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?” Later in “The Bean- Field,” Thoreau writes that he “was determined to know beans”; this is partly a joke (to “know beans” was colloquial for knowing nothing), but in typical Transcendentalist fashion, he is also using his experience cultivating beans to make a wider argument (connecting his actions to a deeper sense of time that entangles Western antiquity with his work on American soil). Readers of Emerson will recognize an overlap of ideas, but Emerson tends to argue based on concepts, whereas Thoreau is able to ground similar questions in his actions at Walden. One concrete way the difference comes across is that Thoreau’s Walden uses second-person appeals (you) more than Emerson’s Nature, which instead favors first-person plural (we/us).
- For discussion: Consider asking whom students find more relatable. Many readers in the 19th century found Thoreau prickly or abrasive, but his tone may resonate with modern readers more than Emerson’s. Such a conversation (especially if grounded in original reviews or more recent pieces like Kathryn Schulz’s “Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?” from The New Yorker) can also promote a conversation about ad hominem/ethos criticism and rhetoric.
The Cosmic Pond: No discussion of this text would be complete without spending time thinking about the importance of Walden Pond to Thoreau’s philosophy. “The Ponds” is a clear focal-point for this conversation. Various readers admire how...
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the exactness of Thoreau’s insights predates later scientific developments, such as in geology (see, for example, Robert M. Thorson’sWalden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth- Century Science). This section also clearly shows Thoreau’s indebtedness to German naturalist and intellectual Alexander von Humboldt (and other naturalists), whose work Kosmos informs Thoreau’s linking Walden Pond to more expansive scales—especially temporal ones. Point out to students that science and philosophy weren’t always distinct; the split of natural philosophy into philosophy and what is now thought of as “the natural sciences” came about later in the 19th century as education began to tend toward specialization and professionalization.
- For discussion: The pond and its critters make for a great occasion to have students parse their understanding of analogical reasoning. As they read through a section like “The Ponds,” consider having a discussion about when Thoreau is making literal observations about the ponds and lakes versus when he tends toward metaphor and analogy. The same goes for other passages in Walden about animals.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
19th-Century Books Sometimes Strike Students as Outdated: Having grown up with smartphones in a time of constant connection, students may feel disconnected from Thoreau’s experiment. Relatedly, they might find his style or vocabulary outdated. This raises a legitimate question that students might ask of any book you assign: why read this today?
- What to do: If this is the resistance you encounter, devote some focused attention to the chapter “Reading,” which otherwise often gets skipped over in favor of nature passages. Thoreau makes a forceful case for reading the best texts that history passes down to us. This chapter offers several possible directions for engaging students, including these two:
Consider taking Thoreau seriously when he writes that a written word “may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;--not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.” If you have students memorize and recite a short passage from Thoreau, do they come to a better understanding of his thinking? Does he seem more modern when they’ve had to process and reproduce his thoughts? Is it the job of texts to stay “timeless” or of readers to notice connections between a text’s time and theirs? Have students think about updating Thoreau’s question: “If we live in the nineteenth century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which the nineteenth century offers?” What are the relative values of staying up-to-date with social media versus reading classics?
Whitewashing Transcendentalism Can Disengage Diverse Classes: Especially when teaching solidly canonical authors, such as Henry David Thoreau, it becomes easy to slip into a “great minds” frame of mind that holds the writer above the possibility of criticism. But even though Transcendentalists were often vocal supporters of progressive causes, including abolition and women’s suffrage, students may understandably find themselves unimpressed with these figures’ social views.
- What to do: Avoid making Thoreau’s greatness the core of your pedagogy. By keeping Thoreau’s words and questions as the focus instead, you can democratize the text and its applicability. Students are more likely to feel engaged with the text if they weigh the merits of Thoreau’s ideas themselves than if they are simply told the ideas are important (which is actually pretty Thoreauvian).
- What to do: You can actively anticipate these responses from students or bring these concerns to the forefront of class conversations yourself. As anticipation, consider learning more about the under-recognized history of blacks in Concord (for example, in Elise Lemire’s Black Walden) or about the scholarship generated by anthropologists and other scholars using the term “settler colonialism” (including the settler colonial studies blog started by a collective of scholars).
- What to do: Especially if students raise these concerns in a way that appears to shut down overall engagement with the text, it can be useful to help them realize the common ground that exists between the criticism and Thoreau’s own social criticism: Why do we criticize social conventions? What should we do when life doesn’t match our ideals? What course of action can you take when you find yourself a lone voice of resistance? Class conversation can focus on finding passages that bring out these concerns in Walden and link them to the concerns motivating today’s forms of social dissent.
Alternative Teaching Approaches
Craft a Unit About Personal Space: Students may not have a private cabin in the woods for thinking, but almost everyone has a kind of private space to do some difficult thinking. Assigning a personal essay about individual relationships to space can help students connect to Thoreau and realize that they also likely have intimate knowledge about somewhere (even if that space is not so individual, like riding public transit with headphones on).
Turn Attention to the Book as Object: Many editions of Walden exist, and they vary in design and quality. Consider having students do a comparison of book covers as interpretations of the book. Do they emphasize landscape? Thoreau himself? How do these cover images and additional text such as book blurbs correlate with what seems significant from actually reading the book? If they were to design a more fitting cover, what would it include?
Connect Across the Curriculum: Thoreau’s depth of knowledge about the natural world can be intimidating. Instead of tip-toeing beyond questions of biology, geology, etc., use this text as an opportunity to creates links across the curriculum or develop team-teaching.
- Bring other teachers (Economics? Civics? Biology? History? Classics? Geology?) into your classroom, either to share their impressions reading the book or to deliver a short lecture addressing part of its content. This can help students recognize the value of bringing different perspectives into conversations about a text.
- Develop parallel units with other courses. If your students are taking English and Biology in the same year, try coordinating a unit together. Inclusion of the text in both classes simultaneously will likely increase student incentive to read it, and it can promote the value of writing in science or the method of observation in literary works.
Journaling in the 21st Century: Students can come to appreciate Thoreau as an observer and his creativity in assembling those observations better after trying out the process for themselves.
- If your students have access to safe outdoor spaces, have them spend a period of time (perhaps an hour or longer) in natural surroundings taking notes on what they observe. Later, have them write an essay about the experience tying their notes about what they saw to their experiences.
- If your students lack access to safe outdoor spaces, have them imagine what Thoreau would likely observe if he were set down into a newer kind of space, such as an airport or shopping mall. What would he be likely to see, hear, or feel?