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Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau's sister Sophia.
Author Henry David Thoreau
Original title 'Walden; or, Life in the Woods'
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Autobiography
Publisher Ticknor and Fields: Boston (Original Publisher)
Publication date 1854

Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) by Henry David Thoreau is considered to be one of the best-known non-fiction books written by an American. Published in 1854, it details Thoreau's sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts. However, Emerson's lack of enthusiasm for the project can be seen in this thought delivered during Thoreau's funeral: "I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this [that is, lacking ambition] instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!" Thoreau did not intend to live as a hermit, for he received visitors and returned their visits. Instead, he hoped to isolate himself from society in order to gain a more objective understanding of it. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau's other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, which was one of the key ideas of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, not far from his family home.


[edit] Synopsis

Economy: This is the first chapter and also the longest by far. Thoreau begins by outlining his project: a two-year and two-month stay at a crude cabin in the woods near Walden Pond. He does this, he says, in order to illustrate the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He easily supplies the four necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, and fuel). He meticulously records his expenditures and earnings, demonstrating his understanding of "economy," as he builds his house and buys and grows food. For a home and freedom, he spends a mere $28.13.

Complementary Verses: This chapter consists entirely of a poem, "The Pretensions of Poverty," by seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Carew. The poem criticizes those who think that their poverty gives them unearned moral and intellectual superiority.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: After playing with the idea of buying a farm, Thoreau describes his cabin's location. Then he explains that he took up his abode at Walden Woods so as 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."

Reading: Thoreau provides discourse on the benefits of reading classical literature (preferably in the original Greek or Latin) and bemoans the lack of sophistication in Concord, manifested in the popularity of popular literature. He yearns for a utopian time when each New England village will support "wise men" to educate and thereby ennoble the population.

Sounds: Thoreau opens this chapter by warning against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence. Instead, one should experience life for oneself. Thus, after describing his cabin's beautiful natural surroundings and his casual housekeeping habits, Thoreau goes on to criticize the train whistle that interrupts his reverie. To him, the railroad symbolizes the destruction of the good old pastoral way of life. Following is a description of the sounds audible from his cabin: the church bells ringing, carriages rattling and rumbling, cows lowing, whip-poor-wills singing, owls hooting, frogs croaking, and cockerels crowing.

Solitude: Thoreau rhapsodizes about the beneficial effects of living solitary and close to nature. He loves to be alone, for "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude," and he is never lonely as long as he is close to nature. He believes there is no great value to be had by rubbing shoulders with the mass of humanity.

Visitors: Thoreau writes about the visitors to his cabin. Among the 25 or 30 visitors is a young French-Canadian woodchopper, Alec Therien, whom Thoreau idealizes as approaching the ideal man, and a runaway slave, whom Thoreau helps on his journey to freedom in Canada.

The Bean-Field: Thoreau relates his efforts to cultivate two and a half acres of beans. He plants in June and spends his summer mornings weeding the field with a hoe. He sells most of the crop, and his small profit of $8.71 covers his needs.

The Village: Thoreau visits the small town of Concord every day or two to hear the news, which he finds "as refreshing in its way as the rustle of the leaves." Nevertheless, he fondly but rather contemptuously compares Concord to a gopher colony. In late summer, he is arrested for refusing to pay federal taxes, but is released the next day. He explains that he refuses to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery.

The Ponds: In autumn, Thoreau rambles about the countryside and writes down his observations about the geography of Walden Pond and its neighbors: Flint's Pond (or Sandy Pond), White Pond, and Goose Pond. Although Flint's is the largest, Thoreau's favorites are Walden and White ponds. They are lovelier than diamonds, he says.

Baker Farm: While on an afternoon ramble in the woods, Thoreau gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in the dirty, dismal hut of John Field, a penniless but hard-working Irish farmhand, and his wife and children. Thoreau urges Field to live a simple but independent and fulfilling life in the woods, thereby freeing himself of employers and creditors. But the Irishman won't give up his dreams of luxury, which is the American dream.

Higher Laws: Thoreau discusses whether hunting wild animals and eating meat is good. He concludes that the primitive, animal side of humans drives them to kill and eat animals, and that a person who transcends this propensity is superior to those who don't. (Thoreau eats fish.) In addition to vegetarianism, he lauds chastity, work, and teetotalism.

Brute Neighbors: Thoreau briefly discusses the many wild animals that are his neighbors at Walden. A description of the nesting habits of partridges is followed by a fascinating account of a massive battle between red and black ants. Three of the combatants he takes into his cabin and examines them under a microscope as the black ant kills the two smaller red ones. Later, Thoreau takes his boat and tries to follow a teasing loon about the pond.

House-Warming: After picking November berries in the woods, Thoreau bestirs himself to add a chimney and plaster the walls of his hut in order to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter. He also lays in a good supply of firewood, and expresses affection for wood and fire.

Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors: Thoreau relates the stories of people who formerly lived in the vicinity of Walden Pond. Then he talks about the few visitors he receives during the winter: a farmer, a woodchopper, and a poet (Ellery Channing).

Winter Animals: Thoreau amuses himself by watching wildlife during the winter. He relates his observations of owls, hares, red squirrels, mice, and various birds as they hunt, sing, and eat the scraps and corn he put out for them. He also describes a fox hunt that passes by.

The Pond in Winter: Thoreau describes Walden Pond as it appears during the winter. He claims to have sounded its depths and located an underground outlet. Then he recounts how 100 laborers came to cut great blocks of ice from the pond, the ice to be shipped to the Carolinas.

Spring: As spring arrives, Walden and the other ponds melt with stentorian thundering and rumbling. Thoreau enjoys watching the thaw, and grows ecstatic as he witnesses the green rebirth of nature. He watches the geese winging their way north, and a hawk playing by itself in the sky. As nature is reborn, the narrator implies, so is he. He departs Walden on September 8, 1847.

Conclusion: This final chapter is more passionate and urgent than its predecessors. In it, he criticizes conformity: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." By doing these things, men may find happiness and self-fulfillment.

"I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

[edit] Themes

Walden emphasizes the importance of self-reliance, solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the "desperate" existence that, he argues, is the lot of most humans. The book is not a traditional autobiography, but combines autobiography with a social critique of contemporary Western culture's consumerist and materialist attitudes and its distance from and destruction of nature. That the book is not simply a criticism of society, but also an attempt to engage creatively with the better aspects of contemporary culture, suggested both by Thoreau's proximity to Concord society and by his admiration for classical literature. There are signs of ambiguity, or an attempt to see an alternative side of something common – the sound of a passing locomotive, for example, is compared to natural sounds.

A reproduction of Thoreau's cabin with a statue of Thoreau

Walden is informed by American Transcendentalism, a philosophy developed mostly by Thoreau's friend and spiritual mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond, and Thoreau often used to walk over to Emerson's house for a meal and a conversation.

Thoreau regarded his sojourn at Walden as a noble experiment with a threefold purpose. First, he was escaping the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution by returning to a simpler, agrarian lifestyle. (However, he never intended the experiment to be permanent, explicitly advised that he did not expect all his readers to follow his example, and never wrote against technology or industry as such.) Second, he was simplifying his life and reducing his expenditures, increasing the amount of leisure time in which he could work on his writings (most of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was written at Walden). Much of the book is devoted to stirring up awareness of how one's life is lived, materially and otherwise, and how one might choose to live it more deliberately – possibly differently. Third, he was putting into practice the Transcendentalist belief that one can best transcend normality and experience the Ideal, or the Divine, through nature.

[edit] Critical response

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau’s endorsement of living alone in natural simplicity, apart from modern society, to be a mark of effeminacy, calling it "womanish solicitude; for there is something unmanly, something almost dastardly" about the lifestyle.[1] Richard Zacks pokes fun at Thoreau in An Underground Education : The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge saying:

Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle.[2]

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier criticized what he perceived as the message in Walden that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: "Thoreau's Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish... After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs".[3]

[edit] Modern influence

The site of Thoreau's cabin marked by a cairn
  • Walden inspired the 1948 novel Walden Two by psychologist B.F. Skinner.
  • Walden Three, a non-profit educational foundation that promotes sustainable societies, takes its name from the book.
  • In the early years of the Doonesbury comic strip, the main characters lived in a commune they named Walden Puddle, a reference to Walden Pond and a note of Thoreau's influence on the student counterculture of the time.
  • The meetings of the fictional Dead Poets Society in the eponymous 1989 film were all opened with a quote from Walden.
  • A Wilhelm Scream has a song on their 2005 album Ruiner which refers to Thoreau, Walden, and nature. The title of the song is "When I Was Alive: Walden III." The lyrical excerpt is: "And like Thoreau, it's a quiet place for me. The sticks and the woods, it's all miles away from you."
  • Walden started a movement for less pollution and preserving wildlife.
  • Walden is one of the three books always carried by Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The excerpt is: "..which can be read a hundred times without exhaustion."
  • In a Zits Comic, Jeremy is telling his mother that he's taking care of his summer reading by listening to books on Podcast while he plays video games. When his mother asks him what book he's listening to, he says it's Walden.
  • In the episode "Live Deliberately" of the TV show Ed, Warren tries to impress a girl with his studious knowledge of Henry David Thoreau's simplified lifestyle by spending a weekend in a local mountain.
  • Walden is mentioned throughout the season 8, Frasier episode Cranes Unplugged.
  • Walden is mentioned and discussed in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
  • Walden is the pro-environment essay Eric Cartman submitted as his own in the South Park episode "Weight Gain 4000".
  • Walden is an influence on the American author Paul Auster and reference is made to it in many of his books.
  • In an episode of CBS' popular forensics drama CSI, criminalist Sara Sidle encounters her supervisor (and partner) Gil Grissom reading Walden in his office, sparking a brief conversation about the book that sheds light on their relationship. This foreshadows a subsequent episode, in which Grissom explains that he is taking a sabbatical at the fictional Williams University, to research and teach a seminar on the life cycle of a local mosquito species at nearby Walden Pond.
  • A residential community in Calgary, Alberta is named after the book.[1]
  • Larry and the Meaning of Life, the sequel to Vote For Larry by Janet Tashjian, takes place at Walden Pond and draws inspiration from Thoreau and Walden.
  • Walden is mentioned and discussed in The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson.
  • Walden School in The Learning Center for the Deaf is named after the pond nearby.
  • Walden is a key reference point in Jon Krakauer's 'Into The Wild' (an account of Alaskan adventurer Christopher McCandless), and is specifically quoted in the film adaptation of the same name.
  • Walden is an illegal book passed around in the film The Girl from Monday
  • In the supernatural mystery Kitty Takes a Holiday, Kitty Norville is inspired by Thoreau and his book Walden, so she rents a cabin and begins to write her own book.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions". Cornhill Magazine. June 1880.
  2. ^ Zacks, Richard. An Underground Education, Doubleday Publishing. 1997, p19.
  3. ^ Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967: 112.

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