Walden

Walden

Overview
Walden is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist
Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian...

 Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist...

. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.

Published in 1854, it details Thoreau's experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond
Walden Pond
Walden Pond is a 31-metre-deep lake in Massachusetts . It is in area and around, located in Concord, Massachusetts, in the United States...

, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century...

, near Concord
Concord, Massachusetts
Concord is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the town population was 17,668. Although a small town, Concord is noted for its leading roles in American history and literature.-History:...

, Massachusetts.

By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection.
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Quotations

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

It is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.

Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended; but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloons, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected.

This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.

What everybody passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.

Encyclopedia
Walden is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist
Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian...

 Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist...

. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.

Published in 1854, it details Thoreau's experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond
Walden Pond
Walden Pond is a 31-metre-deep lake in Massachusetts . It is in area and around, located in Concord, Massachusetts, in the United States...

, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century...

, near Concord
Concord, Massachusetts
Concord is a town in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the town population was 17,668. Although a small town, Concord is noted for its leading roles in American history and literature.-History:...

, Massachusetts.

By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living
Simple living
Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want...

 and self-sufficiency
Self-sufficiency
Self-sufficiency refers to the state of not requiring any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival; it is therefore a type of personal or collective autonomy...

 were Thoreau's other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles (3 km) from his family home.

Synopsis



Economy: In this first and longest chapter, Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a cozy, "tightly shingled and plastered," English-style 10' × 15' cottage in the woods near Walden Pond. He does this, he says, to illustrate the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He easily supplies the four necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, and fuel) with the help of family and friends, particularly his mother, his best friend, and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter provided Thoreau with a work exchange – he could build a small house and plant a garden if he cleared some land on the woodlot and did other chores while there. Thoreau 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 spent a mere $28.12½, in 1845. At the end of this chapter, Thoreau inserts a poem, "The Pretensions of Poverty," by seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Carew
Thomas Carew
Thomas Carew was an English poet, among the 'Cavalier' group of Caroline poets.-Biography:He was the son of Sir Matthew Carew, master in chancery, and his wife, Alice daughter of Sir John Rivers, Lord Mayor of the City of London and widow of Ingpen...

. 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 house'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." Although he criticizes the dedication of his neighbors to working, he himself is quite busy at Walden – building and maintaining his house, raising thousands of bean plants and other vegetables, making bread, clearing land, chopping wood, making repairs for the Emersons, going into town, and writing every day. His time at Walden was his most productive as a writer.

Reading: Thoreau discusses the benefits of classical literature (preferably in the original Greek or Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

), and bemoans the lack of sophistication in Concord, evident in the popularity of unsophisticated literature. He also loved to read books by world travelers. He yearns for a utopia
Utopia
Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. The word was imported from Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt...

n time when each New England village supports "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 house'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 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-will
Whip-poor-will
The Eastern Whip-poor-will, Caprimulgus vociferus, is a medium-sized nightjar from North and Central America. The whip-poor-will is commonly heard within its range, but less often seen because of its superior camouflage...

s singing, owls hooting, frogs croaking, and cockerels crowing.

Solitude: Thoreau rhapsodizes about the beneficial effects of living solitary and close to nature. He claims to love being alone, saying "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."

Visitors: Thoreau writes about the visitors to his house. 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 2.5 acres (10,117.2 m²) 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 that were not provided by friends and family.

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
Gopher (animal)
The term gopher as it is commonly used does not relate to any one species, but is a generic term used to describe any of several small burrowing rodents endemic to North America, including the pocket gopher , also called true gophers, and the ground squirrel , including Richardson's ground squirrel...

 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 discusses the countryside and writes down his observations about the geography of Walden Pond
Walden Pond
Walden Pond is a 31-metre-deep lake in Massachusetts . It is in area and around, located in Concord, Massachusetts, in the United States...

 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, which he describes as lovelier than diamonds.

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 aspirations of luxury and the quest for the American dream.

Higher Laws: Thoreau discusses whether hunting wild animals and eating meat is necessary. He concludes that the primitive, carnal sensuality of humans drives them to kill and eat animals, and that a person who transcends this propensity is superior to those who cannot. (Thoreau eats fish and occasionally salt pork and woodchuck.) In addition to vegetarianism, he lauds chastity, work, and teetotalism
Teetotalism
Teetotalism refers to either the practice of or the promotion of complete abstinence from alcoholic beverages. A person who practices teetotalism is called a teetotaler or is simply said to be teetotal...

. He also recognizes that Indians need to hunt and kill moose for survival in "The Maine Woods," and ate moose on a trip to Maine while he was living at Walden. Here is a list of the laws that he mentions:
  • One must love that of the wild just as much as one loves that of the good.
  • What men already know instinctively is true humanity.
  • The hunter is the greatest friend of the animal which is hunted.
  • No human older than an adolescent would wantonly murder any creature which reveres its own life as much as the killer.
  • If the day and the night make one joyful, one is successful.
  • The highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth.


Brute Neighbors: Thoreau briefly discusses the many wild animals that are his neighbors at Walden. A description of the nesting habits of partridge
Partridge
Partridges are birds in the pheasant family, Phasianidae. They are a non-migratory Old World group.These are medium-sized birds, intermediate between the larger pheasants and the smaller quails. Partridges are native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East...

s is followed by a fascinating account of a massive battle between red and black ant
Black ant
Black ant is a term used for eusocial insects of the family Formicidae that are black in color. It has been used to describe many ants, including, but not limited to:*The Black carpenter ant...

s. Three of the combatants he takes into his cabin and examines 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
Loon
The loons or divers are a group of aquatic birds found in many parts of North America and northern Eurasia...

 about the pond. He also collects animal specimens and ships them to Harvard College for study.

House-Warming: After picking November berries in the woods, Thoreau adds a chimney, and finally plasters the walls of his sturdy house 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 a few of the visitors he receives during the winter: a farmer, a woodchopper, and his best friend, the poet Ellery Channing.

Winter Animals: Thoreau amuses himself by watching wildlife during the winter. He relates his observations of owls, hare
Snowshoe Hare
The Snowshoe Hare , also called the Varying Hare, or Snowshoe Rabbit, is a species of hare found in North America. It has the name "snowshoe" because of the large size of its hind feet and the marks its tail leaves. The animal's feet prevent it from sinking into the snow when it hops and walks...

s, red squirrel
American Red Squirrel
The American Red Squirrel is one of three species of tree squirrel currently classified in the genus Tamiasciurus and known as pine squirrels...

s, 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 6, 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 so, 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."

Background


Thoreau's intention during his time at Walden Pond
Walden Pond
Walden Pond is a 31-metre-deep lake in Massachusetts . It is in area and around, located in Concord, Massachusetts, in the United States...

 was "to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?" He thought of it as an experiment in "home economics
Home Economics
Home economics is the profession and field of study that deals with the economics and management of the home and community...

". Although Thoreau went to Walden to escape what he considered, "over-civilization", and in search of the "raw" and "savage delight" of the wilderness, he also spent considerable amounts of his time reading and writing.

Thoreau spent nearly four times as long on the Walden manuscript as he actually spent at the cabin. He went through eight different drafts over the course of almost ten years. Walden was a moderate success when it was first published in 1854. It sold well and was received favourably among reviewers.

After Waldens publication, Thoreau saw his time at Walden as nothing more than an experiment. He never took seriously "the idea that he could truly isolate himself from others." Without resolution, Thoreau used "his retreat to the woods as a way of framing a reflection on both what ails men and women in their contemporary condition and what might provide relief."

Themes





Walden emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the "desperate" existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. 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, is 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.

Critical response


American poet Robert Frost
Robert Frost
Robert Lee Frost was an American poet. He is highly regarded for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech. His work frequently employed settings from rural life in New England in the early twentieth century, using them to examine complex social and...

 wrote of Thoreau, "In one book ... he surpasses everything we have had in America."

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. His best-known books include Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde....

 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.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier
John Greenleaf Whittier was an influential American Quaker poet and ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. He is usually listed as one of the Fireside Poets...

 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".

John Updike
John Updike
John Hoyer Updike was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic....

 wrote in 2004,

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