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 the exactness of Thoreau’s insights predates later scientific developments, such as in geology (see, for example, Robert M. Thorson’s Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and...
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