On July 4, 1845, as a statement of personal independence, Henry Thoreau (pronounced "thorough") (NOTE: No one called him "Henry David Thoreau" during his life) moved into a cabin at Walden Pond. Nine years later, Thoreau published Walden about his life at the pond, a document that is just as revolutionary as Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, (published in 1848) but which finds the solution to the working man's problems through individual and peaceful methods.
At the time of Thoreau's death in 1862, he was little known outside of Concord, Massachusetts. He had published two books with unsatisfactory sales (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers sold fewer than three hundred copies), had managed to get one article approved for publication in the Atlantic Monthly, and had published some articles and excursions in a few other magazines. Ralph Waldo Emerson could shake his head at Thoreau's funeral and say, "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!"
Emerson, considered the most brilliant thinker of his day, overestimated Thoreau's natural abilities, greatly underestimated Thoreau's accomplishments, and failed to see Thoreau's purpose. Thoreau was not interested in "engineering for all America" but in re-engineering America itself. Instead of looking at just the problems of the 1850's, Thoreau based his philosophy on ageless truths from the past and looked into the future. He predicted in Walden, "When a man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to his understanding, I foresee that all men will at length establish their lives on that basis." Thoreau's careful observations and devastating conclusions have rippled into time, becoming stronger as the weaknesses Thoreau noted have become more pronounced. His words have influenced authors and artists (Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemmingway, E. B. White, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others), nature lovers and naturalists (John Burroughs, John Muir, Edwin Way Teale, Joseph Wood Krutch, David Brower, and others), labor leaders and political reformers (Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman, Norman Thomas, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others), and individuals everywhere who sought a better life. Events that seem to be completely unrelated to his stay at Walden Pond have been influenced by it, including the national park system, the British labor movement, the creation of India, the civil rights movement, the hippie revolution, the environmental movement, and the wilderness movement. Today, Thoreau's words are quoted with feeling by liberals, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and conservatives alike. But I think Thoreau's words will be even more important in the future than they are now.
Nonetheless, Walden is a difficult book to read for three reasons: First, it was written by a gifted writer who uses surgically precise language, extended, allegorical metaphors, long and complex paragraphs and sentences, and vivid, detailed, and insightful descriptions. Thoreau does not hestitate to use metaphors, allusions, understatement, hyperbole, personification, irony, satire, metonymy, synecdoche, and oxymorons, and he can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence. Second, its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense. Ironically, this logic is based on what most people say they believe. Thoreau, recognizing this, fills Walden with sarcasm, pardoxes, and double entendres (double meanings). He likes to tease, challenge, and even fool his readers. And third, quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau's non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand.
Perhaps because of this, Walden tends to be treated as either an whimsical, idiosyncratic literary text (that is, a purely personal account with difficult language) or as a journal full of Nature writings for those who love to read about little furry animals. But it really is neither. The purpose of Walden is to argue for, explain, and demonstrate Thoreau's philosophy of life, a philosophy that is practical and poetic, personal and universal. Thoreau developed his own sense of economics, an understanding that differs greatly from that of Karl Marx (communism) or that of Adam Smith (capitalism), an understanding that can free an individual from a life of toil and worry. But in addition, he developed a purpose for life, something that the communists and capitalists overlooked, a purpose more important than economics. Rather than seeing the acquisition of wealth as the goal for human existence, Thoreau saw the goal of life to be an exploration of the mind and of the magnificant world around us.
A Thoreauvian lifestyle is almost exactly opposite of the consumer treadmill that most people find themselves running on today (Thoreau asked, "Does Wisdom work on a tread-mill?"). A Thoreauvian lifestyle is poor in all the gewgaws most people accumulate and is rich in time, opportunity, and vast quantities of invisible wealth which can not be bought, sold, or stolen.
I decided to write these pages for two reasons. First, I am aware from teaching that many American and international students have a great deal of difficulty understanding Thoreau, so I wanted to help. I cannot explain everything for you, but I can point you in the right direction. And second, I sincerely believe that Thoreau put his finger on the primary weaknesses of the American culture. I feel that unless we resolve these problems that future generations will suffer heavily. A Thoreauvian lifestyle not only can make our individual lives more worthwhile but it can also help preserve our planet.
My comments, intended to make the text easier to comprehend, are of six different kinds: 1) paraphrase, 2) explanation, 3) modern-day equivalent, 4) additional information, 5) criticism, 6) or parallel from my life. Please keep in mind that other interpretations are possible, including other interpretations that I would make, if I had room for unlimited comments. Often one of Thoreau's paragraphs will communicate multiple, subtle messages or different levels of meaning, and a book would not exhaust all the implications. Still, this will provide a start. Never assume that I have provided a complete explanation.
Although I have been an English teacher and first taught about Thoreau in college in the 60's, these remarks are mainly from my viewpoint as a Thoreauvian. I remember clearly the day when I first picked up a copy of Walden at the age of 15. My friend told me that it was too difficult, but I was already exploring the woods, walking 2.5 miles each day to save a dime, and dreaming of living in a cabin some day, so Thoreau spoke directly to me. Although we have our differences both in degree and kind, I have never met another person as much like me as Thoreau. His insights were powerful in helping me improve my life, and Thoreau gave me permission to lead the life I wanted to live. My father, before he died, saw me as a failure, much as Emerson viewed Thoreau, but my father never saw the magical world that I have lived in, a world that is richer than anything money could ever buy. I always felt sorry for him.
If you wish to live a boring and conventional life, devoting your days to working for someone else, your nights to watching TV, your weekends to cutting grass, and your cash to purchasing one consumer product after another, Thoreau is not for you. If you wish to experience life, then you will find that Thoreauvian insight can free up your time, energy, and possibilities.
I must warn you that it is not easy to be a Thoreauvian. As Emerson said in "Self-Reliance," "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." You will find yourself in opposition to the sacred laws of society. You will have to march to distant music and to weave your own baskets. You must learn to how to keep yourself awake, so you can suck the marrow out of life. You will have to find some Symmes' Hole to reach the unexplored interior of your soul and there set up a Realometer to measure your shams and delusions. You will have to toe eternity and face a fact. But when you come to die, you will know that you have lived.
Is it possible to succeed? Thoreau wrote: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected
in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
Thoreau uses multiple methods of organizing his chapters. Each chapter has a topic, but each also carries forward his narrative and covers a time of the year as well. To keep my descriptions reasonably short, I will just provide a topical summary here. NOTE: I divided "Economy" into four parts to keep the length of each part reasonable; however, I used sub-divisions which already existed within the text.
Economy, Part I "Economy" is an attack on the American lifestyle along with Thoreau's alternative solution. In this first part, he introduces himself and describes the self-defeating behavior of his townspeople. He argues that we are free to live whatever kind of life we want to live. He points out that it would be easy to acquire the four necessities of life, and he suggests that having acquired them, we ought to focus our efforts on personal growth. And he ends by explaining who would benefit from his advice.
Economy, Part II In this second part, Thoreau talks first about his lifestyle and then his purpose for going to live at Walden Pond. Then, picking back up his discussion of the necessities of life, he discusses clothing and shelter, pointing out that civilization ought to be making better people out of us, but it enslaves the successful people and degrades the poor. Finally, he again ends a section of "Economy" on the idea that we should be emphasizing spiritual growth instead.
Economy, Part III In the third part of Economy, Thoreau tells the story of the construction of his cabin which leads to a discussion of architecture. He then provides his costs and points out that college students could build their own residences more easily then they could rent them, attacking the division of labor, and then he goes on to criticize modern improvements, especially the railroad.
Economy, Part IV Thoreau begins this final part with a brief account of his farming and then criticizes the farmers' methods. He looks at his own diet and discusses food. Then he discusses his furniture and property and general. Next, he explains how his own economic system benefits him and could benefit others. And finally, he explains why he does not devote his life to charity, and criticizes our understanding of the poor.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For This chapter begins with a discussion of buying a place to live and introduces Thoreau's alternative to property ownership. It locates Walden Pond and describes Thoreau's day and what his purpose in life was. It also challenges us to make something better of our own lives.
Reading This chapter discusses books and what Thoreau felt that people should be reading.
Sounds Thoreau continues his description of his life in the woods, discusses the railroad and commerce, and finally describes the sounds of Nature around his home.
Solitude This chapter has a description and discussion of Thoreau's being alone in the woods and ends with his recipe for good health.
Visitors Thoreau tells about his facilities for entertaining visitors, the woodchopper who visited with him several times, a simpleton that Thoreau talked with, various other visitors, including escaped slaves, the pecularities of some visitors, and the people Thoreau welcomed most.
The Bean-Field Thoreau explains his work in the beanfield in greater detail and also provides figures on his costs. He also suggests alternatives.
The Village Thoreau describes the village as if he were an anthropologist, tells about a trip back home, and briefly tells about his arrest for not paying his poll tax.
The Ponds Thoreau describes Walden Pond with great detail, providing information from years after he left the pond, and also describes Flint's Pond and White Pond, ranting about the selfish owner of the first.
Baker Farm While on a fishing trip, Thoreau seeks shelter at Baker Farm, where he meets John Field and tries to persuade him that a simple life would be better.
Brute Neighbors Thoreau provides a short spoof of his and Channing's behavior, and then describes some animals living around the pond, the most notable being the ants, which are fighting a war.
Higher Laws Thoreau discusses hunting, the eating of meat, and the need for purity.
House Warming This chapter includes the coming of fall, building a chimney and plastering, and Thoreau's idea of true hospitality.
Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors Thoreau tells about the people who used to live in the Walden Woods before he moved there, and also tells about visits from Channing, Alcott, and Emerson.
Winter Animals Thoreau tells about animals that he saw during the winter, having attracted some of them with food.
The Pond in Winter Thoreau tells about winter fishermen, his survey of the pond, and the harvest of ice on the pond.
Spring Thoreau describes spring coming to Walden Pond with details suggestive of creation.
Conclusion Thoreau summarizes his most important messages to his readers, using colorful metaphors to good effect.
A List of Thoreau's Work
1842 "Natural History of Massachusetts" In part, this is a brief account of the information in four state publications on animals, insects, and plants, but most of it is nature-writing mixed in with poetry.
1843 "A Walk to Wachusett" and "A Winter Walk" I have read neither of these.
1849 A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers This is very lyrical, literary, and poetic account which sometimes has excellent discussions (such as the one on religion in "Sunday") and poetry but which unfortunately spends much time wandering around in ancient literature. Thoreau wrote this book as a memorial to his brother, but his brother is hidden under the "we" throughout. Thoreau wrote better travel accounts later, and Walden avoids the literary digressions.
1849 "Resistance to Civil Government" Renamed "Civil Disobedience" when republished in 1866, but Thoreau made only minor changes in the text. In this influential work, Thoreau discusses the relation of the individual to the state and explains why higher laws take precedent over human laws. Next to Walden, this is Thoreau's most important work, and it has been more influential than Walden.
1854 Walden The core of Thoreau's philosophy, both argued and demonstrated. "Economy," "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," "Baker Farm," and "Conclusion" are the most important to understanding his views, but other chapters contain significant philosophical content.
1854 "Slavery in Massachusetts" An attack on the state government for supporting the rights of Southern slave owners.
1859 "A Plea for Capt. John Brown" In spite of the non-violent stance taken in "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau strongly defended John Brown.
1862 "Walking" Published a month after Thoreau's death, this casual essay is mainly notable for the statement, "In Wilderness is the preservation of the World."
1863 "Life Without Principle" Published a year after Thoreau's death, this essay is an attack on the unprincipled lives that most people live. This essay is very much like a Walden in brief, except it does not include a positive message.
1864 The Maine Woods This book is a collection of Thoreau's previously published trips into the Maine wilderness (beginning in 1848) consisting of very enjoyable outdoor writing.
1865 Cape Cod This book is a collection of Thoreau's previously published trips to Cape Cod (beginning in 1855) and is an interesting account of life and conditions in that region in his day.
1866 A Yankee in Canada This book is a collection of published writings, including the account of his trip to Canada, first published in 1853. I have not owned a copy of this book, but I have read those essays mentioned above which are included in it and also part of his Canadian trip (the last many years ago).
In addition, there have been other collections of his writings. These include various collections from his excursions, journals, and poetry. His journals consist of carefully written material, and some consider them to be his greatest legacy. Of special note is Faith in a Seed, published in 1993, consisting of never before published material from the drafts of Thoreau's last, unfinished work, primarily about ecology and how forests are created from seeds.
Other Websites with Pages about Thoreau, Walden,
and/or the Transcendental Movement
The Thoreau Reader Readable online editions of Thoreau's works, some annotated, with an introduction to Thoreau, images, essays, help for students and teachers, and links to other Thoreau pages.
American Transcendentalism Web -- Contains both original sources and
contemporary texts about the Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson, Channing,
Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, and others, plus
their influence on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, and Frederick Douglass. Includes many articles about transcendentalism along with links and bibliographies, and many web study texts with pop-up notes and