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Editors: David M. Galens , Jennifer Smith , and Elizabeth Thomason
Date: 2002
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 26
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Henry David Thoreau 1854

Walden was published in 1854, seven years after Henry David Thoreau ended his stay in a small cabin near Walden Pond. During those years, Thoreau painstakingly revised and polished his manuscript, based on journals he kept while living at the pond. He hoped his book would establish him as the foremost spokesman for the American transcendentalist movement.

In Walden, Thoreau condensed events of his twenty-six-month sojourn into one year, for literary purposes. He began and ended his narrative in spring. The eighteen chapters celebrate the unity of nature, humanity, and divinity—a central idea of transcendentalism—and portray Thoreau's life at Walden Pond as an ideal model for enjoying that unity. In solitude, simplicity, and living close to nature, Thoreau had found what he believed to be a better life. In Walden, he enthusiastically shares his discoveries so that others, too, may abandon conventional ways and live more sanely and happily.

Walden, however, was a gift more eagerly given than received. Despite some good reviews, the book did not sell well and did nothing to elevate Thoreau's reputation. Walden was the second and final book by Thoreau to be published in his lifetime. (His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, had been published at his own expense and also did not sell well.) It was not until the 1900s that Thoreau and Walden found a large, appreciative audience. The book was especially
Walden Page 324  |  Top of Article popular during the enforced simplicity of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and again during the 1960s when individualism, concern for the natural environment, and transcendentalism were important elements in a tidal wave of change that swept through American culture.

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Author Biography

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. His father, John, worked at various occupations, including farmer, grocer, and pencil manufacturer. His mother, Cynthia, was the daughter of a minister and ran a boarding house to supplement the family's income. Henry was the third of their four children.

Thoreau attended school in Concord and, with financial help from relatives, went on to Harvard University, where he graduated in 1837. By that time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would be Thoreau's lifelong mentor and friend, had moved to Concord. Emerson and Thoreau were members of a thriving group of transcendentalists that included Bronson Alcott (father of author Louisa May Alcott), Margaret Fuller, and others. (The core of transcendentalist philosophy is the idea that divinity and truth reside throughout creation and are grasped intuitively, not rationally.)

Rather than settling into one of the professions for which Harvard had prepared him, Thoreau moved from job to job, trying everything from teaching to being a handyman. He wanted time to walk outdoors, to think, and to write, and he was happy to live simply so that he could work little. He had a gift for surveying, an occupation that he enjoyed because it allowed him to be outdoors and to interact more with nature than with people. Throughout his life, when he needed to take temporary work to make money, Thoreau often turned to surveying.

By the early 1840s, Thoreau was regularly contributing poems and essays to The Dial, the transcendentalist journal edited by Emerson. Thoreau was living with Emerson and his wife at this time, doing chores and helping to run the household. In March 1845, Thoreau began building a cabin on land belonging to Emerson beside Walden Pond near Concord. He lived there from July 1845 until September 1847 and kept a journal—already a long-established habit. After leaving the cabin at Walden Pond, he lived briefly in Emerson's home again (while Emerson was traveling overseas) and after that lived for the rest of his life in his parents' home. He never married.

In 1849, Thoreau published, at his own expense, his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an account of a trip taken in 1839. The book was not a success; it took Thoreau several years to pay for its publication.

From 1847 to 1854, Thoreau revised and polished his manuscript for Walden, based on his journals. He hoped that this book would elevate his status as a writer and as a transcendentalist philosopher to the level that Emerson was respected. When it was finally published in 1854, however, Walden received a lukewarm response and did not sell well. In his later years, Thoreau turned his attention to writing against slavery.

Thoreau died at home in Concord on May 6, 1862, at the age of forty-four, of tuberculosis. He was little known and little mourned. Many of his neighbors in Concord and his literary peers saw him as an extremist, and he was often the object of insult and ridicule. In his eulogy, Emerson rightly said, "The country knows not yet … how great a son it has lost."

Plot Summary

Chapter One: "Economy"

Thoreau begins by telling readers that he is writing to answer why he chose to live alone for more than two years in a small, simple cabin near Walden Pond. Much of the chapter is devoted to explaining that the way most people live, spending all their time and energy working to acquire luxuries, does not lead to human happiness and well-being. Thoreau writes that he prefers having time to walk in nature and to think much more than working long hours to pay for big houses, large tracts of land, herds of animals, or other property. He goes so far as to say that the ownership of such things is actually a disadvantage, as one who owns them must take care of them, while one who owns little has more freedom to do as he or she pleases. This is why Thoreau chose to live simply and cheaply in a house he built for himself: in simplicity and economy he found freedom. Finally, Thoreau describes how he built his house. He includes exact figures showing how much he spent on materials (twenty-eight dollars and twelve and one-half cents).

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Chapter Two: "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"

Continuing the idea set forth in the first chapter, Thoreau writes that he once considered buying a farm. He realized, though, that a person did not have to own a farm to enjoy those things about it that are most valuable, such as the beauty of its landscape. Thoreau concludes: "But I would say to my fellows, once for all, as long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail." He urges his readers to simplify their lives as well so that they may live fully and freely.

Thoreau describes the area around his cabin and how much he enjoyed the peaceful natural surroundings. He answers the question why he lived there:

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.

Chapter Three: "Reading"

Here Thoreau makes a case for reading good books. He points out that the best books are "the noblest recorded thoughts of man" and that such books can take readers nearer to heaven. He complains that hardly anyone reads these books. Instead, he writes, people who are perfectly capable of reading the classics waste their time on unchallenging and worthless popular stories. He calls society to task for failing to be a "patron of the fine arts."

Chapter Four: "Sounds"

Thoreau writes that reading must be complemented by direct experience. This is in keeping with his transcendentalist philosophy, which emphasizes direct, intuitive experience of nature, truth and the divine.

In this chapter, Thoreau focuses on the sounds he experiences at Walden, from the singing of birds to the whistle of a train, and on how these sounds affect his mood. The sounds of animals especially cause him to feel the unity and joy of all things.

Chapter Five: "Solitude"

Thoreau makes his case that the companionship of nature is more fulfilling than that of humans, and that he could not possibly be lonely in nature because he is a part of it. The plants and animals are his friends and, amid the peace of nature, God himself is the author's visitor:

Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau

I have occasional visits … from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things.

Chapter Six: "Visitors"

Calling himself "no hermit," Thoreau writes that he did have visitors during his years at Walden. He describes at length a Canadian woodchopper who often did his work in the woods around Thoreau's cabin. Thoreau got to know the man and liked him because he lived simply and in harmony with nature. However, Thoreau eventually realized that "the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant."

Other visitors included children, whom Thoreau liked for their innocence and enthusiasm, and "half-witted men from the almshouse." The latter, Thoreau writes, were in many cases wiser than the men who were running the town, and he "thought it was time that the tables were turned."

Chapter Seven: "The Bean Field"

The author describes his bean field and how he worked it. As usual, Thoreau gives both practical details and a mystical report of his agricultural Page 326  |  Top of Article project. He explains just how he worked his field and how much profit he made from it. He also asserts that the sun and the rain are the true cultivators and that woodchucks and birds have as much right to their share of the harvest as Thoreau has to his.

Chapter Eight: "The Village"

Thoreau often walked into the village, he reports, to hear just a little of its incessant gossip. A little news and gossip, he found, was entertaining, while more than a little numbed the soul. He did not like to stay long or to partake in too much of village life.

He reports that on one visit to the village he was arrested and put in jail (but soon released) for failing to pay taxes. He refused to pay, he explains, as a protest against the legality of slavery.

Chapter Nine: "The Ponds"

Most of this chapter is devoted to a detailed description of Walden Pond and the idyllic times Thoreau enjoyed in and around it. The author again describes the unity of nature, self, and divinity that he experiences there. He makes clear that the pond has a special kind of spiritual purity, calling it "God's Drop." He also describes other nearby ponds.

Chapter Ten: "Baker Farm"

This chapter contrasts Thoreau's joyful, contented, and easy life with the life of one of his neighbors in the woods, John Field. Field is an Irish laborer who works long days turning the soil for area farmers. Thoreau sees that Field works himself to exhaustion to pay the rent on his rustic hut and to feed his family. He explains to Field that there is another way to live—the way that Thoreau has chosen. Thoreau can see, though, that Field is not willing to give up the chase for "luxuries" such as coffee and beef, so he leaves Field alone, grateful that he himself has found a better way to live.

Chapter Eleven: "Higher Laws"

Like the last chapter, this one presents a basic contrast. First, Thoreau acknowledges his own animal instincts, apparent, for example, when he sees a woodchuck and is "strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw." Then he describes his spiritual instinct toward "higher" things. Both are to be accepted as part of human nature, he says, but as a person matures, the spiritual should wax while the animal wanes. In fact, Thoreau believes that the entire human race is evolving from animal to spiritual consciousness. Because killing and eating animals is an expression of the lower, animal instinct, Thoreau stopped hunting and ate very little meat or fish. "I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals," he writes.

Chapter Twelve: "Brute Neighbors"

Following what has become a pattern, Thoreau again takes up the same idea explored in the previous chapter, but explores it in a new way. This chapter begins with a dialogue between a Hermit and a Poet. Thoreau makes clear that these two characters represent himself and a visitor who used to come to his cabin. The gist of the dialogue is that the Poet—the visitor—tempts the Hermit to leave his meditations and go fishing. The Hermit wonders, "Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing?" and ends by going fishing. In this battle between the animal and the spiritual natures of man, the animal has won.

The rest of the chapter describes many animals that lived around Thoreau. In observing them, Thoreau concludes that both the animal and the spiritual natures coexist in animals and that animals experience no conflict between the two.

Chapter Thirteen: "House-Warming"

Thoreau prepared for winter by collecting wild apples, grapes, and nuts and by winterizing his house. He built a chimney (he had been cooking on a fire outdoors) and plastered his cabin to keep out the cold wind. By the time this work was finished, the pond was frozen, and Thoreau delighted in observing the ice itself and the bottom of the pond, which he could clearly see through the ice.

Chapter Fourteen: "Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors"

In deep winter, nature slept and visitors rarely came to Thoreau's cabin. He acknowledges that this extreme solitude was a challenge. "For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods," he writes.

The author tells about three former slaves and their homes in the woods; about the Stratton and Breed families, the latter ruined by rum; and about Wyman the potter and Hugh Quoil, an alcoholic who was said to have fought at the Battle of Water-loo. Page 327  |  Top of Article Walks in the dark, quiet winter woods, and the infrequent human visitors of winter are also recalled.

Chapter Fifteen: "Winter Animals"

Thoreau describes walking on the frozen ponds, from which he could see the woods at new angles, and his observations of wildlife in winter. Squirrels, rabbits, and other creatures lived around, under, and above his cabin, and he threw them corn and potato peels to help them through the winter.

Chapter Sixteen: "The Pond in Winter"

Thoreau recalls using his surveying skills to map Walden Pond and to measure its depth—one hundred seven feet. He tells of a large crew of laborers coming to harvest the pond's ice, which would be shipped to faraway places and sold. This idea of Walden being spread over the Earth is mirrored in Thoreau's writing. He read the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) in the mornings, which made him think of "pure Walden water mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

Chapter Seventeen: "Spring"

The thawing of the pond and the stirring of animals signaled spring, and Thoreau reports that he felt in himself the same revitalization that he saw taking place all around him. Once again, he exults in nature. At the end of this chapter, Thoreau gives the date on which he left his life in the woods but does not say why he left.

Chapter Eighteen: "Conclusion"

Near the beginning of this chapter, Thoreau summarizes what he learned during his time in the woods:

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.… In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Thoreau ends his narrative by urging readers to apply to their own lives what he has shared with them. He counsels them to explore inner, rather than outer, worlds: "Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought." He is confident that new ways of thinking will lead to new, fulfilling ways of living.

Key Figures

The Canadian Woodchopper

The woodchopper does his work in Walden Woods, and he and Thoreau often visit. He is a big, strong, good-natured man who works hard and is content with his life although he makes little money. He knows how to read and enjoys reading the works of Homer even though he doesn't understand them. After getting to know the woodchopper, Thoreau concludes, "The intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant."

James Collins

James Collins is an Irishman who works for the railroad and lives in a shanty near where Thoreau builds his cabin. Thoreau buys Collins's shanty for $4.25 and disassembles it to use the boards and nails in his cabin. On the morning of the transfer of ownership, Thoreau sees Collins and his family on the road, with all their possessions wrapped up in one large bundle.

John Field

John Field is an Irishman who lives with his wife and children in a hut near the Baker Farm. During a rainstorm Thoreau goes to take shelter in the hut, which he thinks is vacant, but finds Field and his family there. Thoreau can see that John works very hard as a "bogger" (someone who turns the soil for farmers) to support his family and yet lives very poorly. Thoreau explains his own way of life, hoping that John will adopt it and thus live better while working less. He tells John if he would give up luxuries such as coffee and butter, he could give up his toil. He wouldn't need to buy boots if he quit his job, Thoreau says, and he could easily catch fish in the pond and sell them for the little money he would need. John and his wife seem to consider this briefly but, according to Thoreau, they are unable to understand how they could live as Thoreau suggests. "It was sailing by dead reckoning to them, Page 328  |  Top of Article and they saw not clearly how to make their port," he writes.

Brister Freeman

Brister Freeman was a former slave who lived on Brister's Hill before Thoreau's stay in the woods. He was an apple-grower. He is a character in the book because during the winter, when there are few visitors, Thoreau thinks about the woods' former residents to occupy his mind. In effect, his past neighbors become present company. Thoreau reports that he has read Brister's epitaph in the cemetery.

Fenda Freeman

The wife of Brister Freeman, Fenda was a fortune teller.

The Hermit

The Hermit is one of two fictional characters in the book and clearly represents Thoreau. The Hermit has a dramatic dialogue with The Poet, in which The Poet comes to visit The Hermit and tempts him to leave his solitary meditations and go fishing. The Hermit succumbs to this temptation and goes fishing with The Poet, temporarily allowing his desire for worldly and sensual pleasures to overcome his desire for spiritual experience.

Cato Ingraham

Cato was another former slave who lived in Walden Woods before Thoreau. His former master had provided him with land to live on and a house. Cato planted walnut trees on his land so that he would have an asset in his old age, but Thoreau reports that a white man somehow took Cato's walnuts from him.

The Poet

The Poet is one of two fictional characters in the book and represents a visitor from the village. The Poet has a dramatic dialogue with The Hermit, in which The Poet tempts The Hermit to leave his solitary meditations and go fishing.

Hugh Quoil

Hugh Quoil was another past resident of the woods who had lived in the place once occupied by Wyman the potter. It was rumored that Quoil had fought at Waterloo. He had a certain sophistication but was an alcoholic. Thoreau says that "All I know of him was tragic" and describes what he saw when he visited Quoil's cabin after his death: "His pipe lay broken on the hearth.… The skin of a wood chuck was freshly stretched upon the back of the house, a trophy of his last Waterloo; but no warm cap or mittens would he want more."

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is the book's narrator. An eccentric philosopher and lover of nature, Thoreau builds a cabin near Walden Pond, intending to live in solitude as an experiment in simplicity and spiritual exploration. "My greatest skill has been to want but little," Thoreau writes. He grows food, both for his own needs and to sell for the little money he requires. He reads and entertains occasional visitors. He spends many hours walking in the woods around his cabin, closely observing the landscape and animals. In this communion with nature, he also finds communion with the divine.

Thoreau is both irritable and humorous, often simultaneously, and he is a man of contradictions. He compares human beings to muskrats and vermin, and the only thing he likes less than people is people organized in the form of institutions. "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society," he complains. Yet he admits that he walks into the village often to hear news and gossip, and when deep winter keeps all visitors away, he conjures up memories and stories of past residents of the woods to keep him company.


Another former resident of the woods whom Thoreau recalls, Wyman was a potter who sold his wares in the village. Thoreau reports that Wyman and his descendants were so poor that the tax collector would come around and find nothing of value to take except a pot or two. Wyman, like Thoreau, lived on the land as a squatter.


Zilpha was a former slave who lived in Walden Woods before Thoreau stayed there. Zilpha earned her meager living by spinning cloth, singing as she spun. During the War of 1812, English soldiers burned her small home and all her animals. "She led a hard life, and somewhat inhumane," Thoreau writes.

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According to Thoreau's transcendentalist philosophy, nature, humanity, and God are unified. His transcendent God is also immanent—present in every raindrop, blade of grass, and animal as well as in every human being. Further, one of the best ways for human beings to experience their own unity with God is to observe nature. In the woods one day, he writes:

I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me.

Explaining why he loves the company of nature, Thoreau writes, "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?" This theme of unity occurs throughout the book, often through metaphors, similes, and personifications that equate nature, humans and the divine. "I may be either the driftwood in the stream or Indra [a Hindu deity] in the sky looking down on it," he declares. Watching hawks circle above him, he sees them as "the embodiment of my own thoughts." Hearing bullfrogs, he thinks of them as "the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake." (In Greek myth, the River Styx is in Hades; the souls of the dead are rowed across it.) When whippoorwills sing, he writes that they "chanted their vespers," attributing to them a knowledge of and reverence for God.

The goal of the transcendentalist is to experience God within. Thoreau exulted that living immersed in nature at Walden Pond allowed him to attain this goal often.


For Thoreau, living outside of human community is the complement to living immersed in nature. One must withdraw from human company to truly experience oneness with nature and, therefore, with God. "I love to be alone," he declares.

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Topics for Further Study


  • Would you want to spend a year or two living as Thoreau lived at Walden Pond? Why or why not?
  • Thoreau refers to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and to Hindu gods and scriptures throughout Walden. Do research to learn about these two religious systems and then explain why you think Thoreau made frequent references to them. What aspects and elements of these religions make them compatible with Thoreau's ideas?
  • Thoreau kept detailed financial records to show how much money he earned and how much he spent on various things. What does this tell you about him? Does this trait seem consistent with other aspects of Thoreau's philosophy and behavior, or not? Explain your answer.
  • Spend a period of time—an hour or a day—in natural surroundings and away from other people as much as possible. Your "Walden" may be a backyard or a park. Take notes on what you observe. Later, write an essay about your experience in which you include both information from your notes and reflections about how the experience affected you.
  • Imagine that you are Thoreau and have just been set down in the middle of an airport in a big American city in the twenty-first century. Write a page in your journal describing what you see, hear, and feel.

Thoreau sometimes had visitors at his cabin and sometimes walked into the village to hear news and observe people (much as he observed animals; Page 330  |  Top of Article in one passage he compares watching people in the village to watching muskrats in the woods). But, he writes, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating."

Human society moves too fast for Thoreau and centers around things that are of no interest to him: acquiring large homes and luxuries, giving fancy dinner parties, gossiping, and working long hours to pay for things. He sees most people as being spiritually asleep, and feels he has nothing in common with them.

In answer to those who asked if he was lonely, Thoreau writes that he had much company in his solitude. "Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me," he assures readers. He even asserts that he was visited by God "in the long winter evenings" and by Mother Nature—"a ruddy and lustful old dame" who told him fables and invited him to walk in her garden.


The idea of individualism is closely related to Thoreau's transcendentalism. According to this philosophy, human beings need no priests, scriptures, or traditions to know God, because God resides in each individual and can be found by being true to oneself.

Thoreau's own strong sense of individualism shows throughout the book, as he rejects virtually all the conventions of his time and place to find his own way of living. His ascetic, nearly vegetarian diet of cheap, local foods was as uncommon as his choice to go off and live rustically in the woods.

Encouraging individualism, Thoreau writes what has become one of the most enduring ideas in all his work: "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."


First-Person Narration

Thoreau wrote Walden in the first person. He explains on the first page that, although "I" is omitted from most books, "it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking." In addition, he explains that the book is all about Thoreau himself. "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well," he assures readers.

Because of its first-person narration, and because it is based on journals, readers often assume that Walden was written "off the cuff" or that its organization is informal or accidental. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thoreau spent seven years after his stay at Walden rewriting and revising his manuscript. He structured the book to suit his dual purposes of explaining how he lived and of urging readers to apply his experiences to their own lives. He compressed twenty-six months into one year for his narrative, beginning and ending in spring, the season of rebirth. Within the general structure of a one-year span, Thoreau organized his material by topic, rather than strictly chronologically. For example, the chapter "The Village" comes during the "summer" season of the book, but not every incident related in it actually took place during summer.


Walden is rich in densely detailed descriptive passages that make use of so much figurative language and imagery that they are poetic. Thoreau's descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife around him are a testament to his close observations of nature. He uses lively, precise words and unusual phrases to convey the sights and sounds of nature. To cite one example of many, he writes that on a summer afternoon the

… hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half-hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge.

References to Persons and Literature

Evidence that Thoreau has read the world's great books, as he urges his readers to do, is liberally sprinkled throughout Walden. He demonstrates familiarity with the Bible and with the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism; with the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses; with Homer and Page 331  |  Top of Article Aeschylus in the Western canon and with poets of the Middle East; and with the rulers, explorers, and scientists of his own time and of the past.

These wide-ranging references reinforce the theme of unity. Thoreau shows that the scriptures and the great men of different cultures and different times have much in common and can be cited in support of the same ideas.


The author's seriousness of purpose and his sense of urgency in conveying his ideas do not smother Thoreau's sense of humor, which makes frequent appearances in Walden. Criticizing the impracticality of formal education, Thoreau writes, "To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!" and declares that he would have learned more by sailing once around the harbor. On his opinion that people keep their homes overheated in winter and wear too many clothes, he writes:

By proper Shelter and Clothing we legitimately retain our own internal heat; but with an excess of these, or of Fuel, that is, with an external heat greater than our own internal, may not cookery be said to begin?

Historical Context

New England Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism (emphasis on intellectual understanding) of the Unitarian Church. The philosophy centered on the premise that divine truth is present in all things and that truth, or God, is known through intuition, not through the rational mind. From this core proceeded the belief that all of nature, including all humans, is one with God.

The term "transcendental" was borrowed from German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who wrote in his well-known work Critique of Practical Reason,"I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori" (meaning, independent of sensory experience). American transcendentalism was thus clearly linked to similar philosophies that existed in Europe, and it also shared important ideas with Eastern philosophies and religions, including Hinduism. The New England transcendentalists read the Bhagavad Gita (which Thoreau reports that he read in the mornings) and the Vedas (which Thoreau references several times), among other Eastern scriptures.

The New England transcendentalists did not confine themselves to literary pursuits but also tried to put their philosophy into practice. Some, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, focused on educational reform. Peabody and Margaret Fuller applied the principles of transcendentalism to the crusade for women's rights. The group created two experimental communities, Fruitlands and Brook Farm.

It is the writing of Thoreau and of Emerson that has been the most enduring product of American transcendentalism. Thoreau's ideas about nonviolent resistance to oppression were very important both to Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against the British in India in the early 1900s, and to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Building of the Railroads

Thoreau writes at length of the train that passes the western shore of Walden Pond. He hears its whistle and the rattle of its cars along the tracks. He thinks about the people and the freight on the train, about where the train began the day and where it will deliver its goods, and about how trains are changing the pace and the way of life in America.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the entire nation was caught up in the drama of building the railroads. While only forty miles of track were laid between 1820 and 1830, by 1850 there were 9,022 miles of operating track in the country. The railroads were changing everything. Trains made the thriving steamboat industry obsolete, because they could transport freight and people much more directly and quickly. (This industrial struggle contributed to the tensions that led to the Civil War because the northern companies owned the railroads and southern companies owned the steamboats.) Better transportation meant cheaper goods and greater variety, so the railroads encouraged the desire for luxuries that Thoreau was preaching against. Railroads also increased the pace of life and led to Americans keeping more exact schedules as business and travel began to depend on the inflexible schedules of the trains. In sum, the railroads carried mainstream Page 332  |  Top of Article American society ever farther from the kind of life Thoreau celebrates in Walden.

Critical Overview

Walden was widely reviewed when it first appeared. This attention was due not to Thoreau's reputation (he had only one other published book, and it had not sold well) but to his publisher's energetic promotion of the book and to the support of Thoreau's well-known friend Emerson. Many publications printed excerpts of Walden to herald its arrival.

Most reviews were positive. "It is a strikingly original, singular, and most interesting work," wrote a reviewer in the Salem Register. The Lowell Journal and Courier noted, "The press all over the country have given the most flattering notices of it" and predicted, "without doubt it will command a very extensive sale. It surely deserves it."

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1850s: Walden Pond (about half a mile long and with a total area of about sixty-one acres) and much of the land immediately around it are owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. While the land was once heavily forested, many of the trees are being cut down as fuel. The particularly cold winter of 1851-1852 takes a heavy toll on Walden Woods. The few local residents are described by Thoreau in Walden, including a fortune teller, a potter, and railroad workers. People who live in Concord, a mile and a half away, come out to the pond to fish and swim, and they use the surrounding land for hunting, berry picking, and picnicking, as well as for a source of fuel.

    Today: Walden Pond and the land around it are a National Historical and Literary Landmark owned by the state of Massachusetts. (The Emerson family donated the land to the state in 1922 so that it would be preserved.) The land is the site of the Thoreau Institute, which has a twelve-thousand-square-foot Education Center and a five-thousand-square-foot Research Center on the grounds, housing a reading room, archives, staff offices, and other facilities. About 750,000 people visit the site each year. Walden Pond is still used for swimming.

  • 1850s: In Walden, Thoreau recalls hearing trains' whistles as they passed the western end of Walden Pond during his stay, and he describes the many ways in which railroads are changing American life. By 1850, there are 9,022 miles of operable track, virtually all built in the last twenty years. On February 22, 1854—the year in which Walden is published—a train travels from the East Coast to the Mississippi River for the first time.

    Today: The United States has 230,000 miles of operable track, 1.2 million freight cars, and twenty thousand locomotives.

  • 1850s: Transcendentalism, which borrows elements of Eastern philosophies and religions, has a devoted following in Massachusetts and influences many American intellectuals and writers.

    Today: Yoga is increasingly popular throughout the United States. Yoga is the Sanskrit word for "union." The various schools of yoga taught today have some commonalities with transcendentalism, such as the beliefs that each individual soul is directly linked to God and that truth is everywhere present in creation and can be experienced intuitively, rather than rationally. While millions of Americans practice only one element of yoga—its regimen of physical postures and exercises—a growing number are adopting the broader philosophy and more of its practices, such as meditation and vegetarianism.

Deserving or not, the book did not sell well. About seven hundred fifty copies were sold in the first year after publication. And not all notices were Page 333  |  Top of Article
Hand-drawn map of Walden Pond Hand-drawn map of Walden Pond positive. A reviewer for the Boston Daily Journal wrote,

Mr. Thoreau has made an attractive book.… But while many will be fascinated by its contents, few will be improved. As the pantheistic doctrines of the author marred the beauty of his former work, so does his selfish philosophy darkly tinge the pages of Walden.

Walden went out of print in 1859 and was not available again until after Thoreau's death. It was not until the early 1900s that scholars and readers began to reconsider the book. Thoreau surely would have been disappointed by the perspective of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, which portrayed him as an American Robinson Crusoe and dismissed the book's philosophical component. "The reader who takes up the book with the idea that he is going to enjoy another Robinson Crusoe will not be pleased to find that every now and then he will have to listen to a lay sermon or a lyceum lecture," the authors wrote. "It is the adventurous, Robinson Crusoe part that is imperishable."

While it is true that to this day that Walden is often categorized as nature writing, some modern critics and readers have appreciated its philosophy. On the hundredth anniversary of its original publication, the esteemed author E. B. White wrote in the Yale Review that, while many of his contemporaries were dismissive of Walden, White himself felt that "a hundred years having gone by, Walden, its serenity and grandeur unimpaired, still lifts us up.…" He called the book "an original omelette from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day."

In 1996, Nicholas Bagnall reviewed a new edition of Walden in New Statesman. Nichols echoed the early twentieth-century opinion of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature."I was … hooked on Thoreau's fine indignation and the swagger of his prose," Nichols wrote. "His observations on nature … which make the bulk of his book, are both lyrical and exact." But Nichols went on to characterize Thoreau's philosophizing in the book as a "relentless search for epigrams" that offered nothing new or notable.


Candyce Norvell

Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature. She holds degrees in linguistics and journalism and has done Page 334  |  Top of Article graduate work in theology. In this essay, she discusses Thoreau's frequent references to Christianity and Hinduism throughout Walden.

Walden is a book of contrasts. Thoreau contrasts summer and winter, village and woods, the animal and spiritual natures that struggle within every human being, and many other pairs of opposites. One recurring and important contrast is that between Christianity—especially as taught and practiced in America at the time Thoreau was writing—and Hinduism. Like other New England transcendentalists, Thoreau was an avid reader of Hindu scriptures, and he quotes them and refers to them often in Walden. Like virtually all Americans of his time, he was also familiar with the Bible and with how the Christian denominations of his day interpreted it. What is particularly interesting is how he uses this dual knowledge. Most references to Christian scriptures, doctrines, and practices are either irreverent or disapproving, while Hindu scriptures and beliefs are presented with reverent appreciation.

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What Do I Read Next?


  • "Walden" and Other Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an excellent introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a collection of Thoreau's major works, including additional nature writing and political essays such as "Civil Disobedience" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown." First published in 1937, the collection was republished in a new edition in 2000.
  • Essays: First and Second Series (1990), edited by Douglas Crase, collects the major essays of Thoreau's mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. These essays were originally published in two separate volumes in 1841 and 1844, and they express philosophies and attitudes very similar to those found in Walden.
  • My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), by John Muir, is the most popular work of the famous conservationist and, along with Walden, is a classic American nature journal. Muir was just a young man in 1869, when he spent the summer helping to drive a large flock of sheep through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Years later, when his diary of that summer was published, it inspired thousands of Americans to visit the area that later became Yosemite National Park.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), by Annie Dillard, is sometimes cast as a modern Walden. In it, Dillard records observations made over the course of a year at Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
  • Leaves of Grass (1855), by Walt Whitman, was published the year after Walden. It celebrates nature and the American landscape in poetry much as Thoreau's work does in prose.
  • Little Women (1868) is a classic novel based on the childhood of its author, Louisa May Alcott, the daughter of New England transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, who was Thoreau's friend. The book tells the story of the March family, following daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy from childhood to adulthood. The Marches are transcendentalists who value self-reliance, individualism, compassion, and education above material and social achievement.

Neither Thoreau's disdain for contemporary Christianity nor his appreciation of Hinduism is surprising. The popularity of transcendentalist ideas in New England arose out of discontent with what some saw as the strict and uninspiring doctrines of the Unitarian Church, so there was a natural conflict between transcendentalists and organized Christianity. Further, a fundamental difference between transcendentalism and Christianity can be traced to Hinduism: While orthodox Christian doctrine holds that God is transcendent (existing beyond creation) Page 335  |  Top of Article but not immanent (existing within creation; i.e., present within all created things and beings, including humans), transcendentalism borrows the Hindu concept that God is both transcendent and immanent.

The difference is important. The Christian belief that God does not dwell in humans leads to the belief in the need for some kind of divinely appointed intermediary—such as a savior or a priest—to establish a relationship between people and God. In contrast, the Hindu and transcendentalist belief in the immanence of God leads to the doctrine that every person can, without the need for an intermediary, experience the divine within himself or herself.

The transcendentalist belief in every person's ability to know God outside of institutional religion is a perfect complement to Thoreau's individualism and his general dislike of institutions. He found in the scriptures and doctrines of Hinduism a religious teaching that was well suited to his personality and his philosophy of life. Everything about the Christianity of his time, with its emphasis on institutions, conformity, and obedience to church authorities, was in conflict with them.

Thus, Thoreau makes more than one mocking reference to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the "manual" of Christian doctrine that was used to teach young people in many churches. According to the catechism, the primary purpose of human life is "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." In one reference to it, Thoreau writes, "Our hymn books resound with a melodious cursing of God and enduring him forever."

Thoreau denigrates a Methodist newspaper of his day, called Olive-Branches. He writes that people who want to read a newspaper should read the best one available rather than Olive-Branches or other "pap."

The comment that "Men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced" manages all at once to be jocular and disapproving (it was, of course, in the name of Christianity that the witches had been hung) and dismissive (neither Christianity itself nor its assaults on others had succeeded in freeing humanity from its age-old fears).

In a later passage, Thoreau takes aim at the exclusivism of the Christianity practiced in his society. He says that the local farm hand "who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience" may think that such experiences are limited to people who believe just as he does, but "Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, traveled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal and treated his neighbors accordingly." Thoreau goes on to point out that Zoroaster, as the founder of Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the world's great religions, may be said to have "invented and established worship among men." His point is that human beings sincerely worshipped God thousands of years before the founding of the Christian church. Thoreau concludes the passage by suggesting that Christians should "humbly commune with Zoroaster … and … with Jesus Christ himself, and let 'our church' go by the board."

(While he doesn't mention it, Thoreau must have been aware, from his study of the Hindu scriptures, that even the term "second birth" or "born again" is not exclusive or original to Christianity. Hinduism uses the very same term, with some similarity in meaning.)

In the above passage and in others, Thoreau makes a distinction between the founder of Christianity and institutionalized Christianity. In the passage above, he makes clear that he values the teachings of Jesus Christ but not those of "our church." In "Reading," a chapter in which he urges readers to read the great books, he gives the Bible a place alongside his beloved Vedas (Hindu scriptures), writing:

That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics, and the still older and more than classic but even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall have still further accumulated; when the Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas and Zendavestas [the scriptures of Zoroastrianism] and Bibles.… By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.

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" Just as his contemporaries used the Bible as a guide for their daily lives, Thoreau turned to the Hindu scriptures."

Though Thoreau acknowledges the value of Christian teachings when stripped of their churchly attachments, it is the Hindu books that inspire him. "In the morning, I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Page 336  |  Top of Article Gita," he rhapsodizes, "in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial." It is the Gita, he writes, that contains the perennial truths sought by all humankind across time and space, and it is the Gita that informs and elevates his own life. While Thoreau's contemporaries, upon going to draw water at a well, might think of biblical characters who performed similar duties, Thoreau goes to his well and meets "the servant of the Brahmin … come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

Just as his contemporaries used the Bible as a guide for their daily lives, Thoreau turned to the Hindu scriptures. In preaching the sacredness and importance of the morning hours, Thoreau writes, "The Vedas say, 'All intelligences awake with the morning."' On the subject of diet, he writes, "I am far from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the Ved refers when it says that 'he who has true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists."'

Thoreau was born a Westerner, but his own "second birth"—the shift of his ambitions from those of the animal nature to those of the spiritual nature—made him, philosophically and spiritually, an Easterner.


Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on Walden, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Robert Fanuzzi

In the following essay excerpt, Fanuzzi explores how Thoreau "describes not just an imagined city but how cities became imaginary" in Walden.

A second look at Walden suggests that Thoreau went to the country to find the city. He admits that his seclusion is motivated by necessity, since the opportunities for "beautiful living" once characteristic of civilized society are now found only "out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper." Thus secluded, he finds "a good port" from which to conduct his "private business," a railroad line to link a "citizen of the world" to national and international marketplaces, a cosmopolitan alternative to Concord's unlettered, "provincial" culture, and even—through Ellery Channing's companionship—the bonhomie of Broadway. Perhaps most important, he determines that by cultivating Catonian civic virtue, he has reacquired the integrity to "sustain … the manliest relations to men" forfeited by his neighboring yeomen. In sum, every historic association of the city was present at Walden Pond—except, of course, the city itself.

The city is indeed both present and absent in Walden. It exists through references and allusions to city life, which is to say it exists as metonymy. This city has no geographical equivalent and in fact disclaims its status as locality, for Thoreau's intent is to use historically identified conventions of urbanism to conceive a space that corresponds to his imagination. Still retaining his sense of place, he wants this space to be habitable. When he asks in the midst of the woods, "What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?," his metaphor adumbrates a sphere of autonomy bounded only by the means of its articulation. Throughout Walden, he deliberately designates those activities proper to this sphere—thinking, walking, writing, reading, thinking—and circumscribes them as art, which he defines as the "struggle to free himself from this low state." Like other contemporary utopian reforms, his artistic realization contains the promise of a living space in which one may find the virtue, prosperity, and liberty not found in other environs. With a "mission" that Benjamin terms "the emancipation from experiences," Thoreau strolls through the woods as the flaneur: an aesthetic consciousness whose individualized perception and mode of expression constitute his experience of place.

If Thoreau had lived in Boston, it would be easier to endow him with an urban imagination, though as my opening paragraph suggests, it is surely possible to contrast his project with pastoralism. The greater challenge that Walden poses is to see the imagination that Thoreau exercised so freely not only as spatial logic but as a construction of social space and, even more particularly, as a historical incidence of urbanism. In Walden, Thoreau creates what urbanists call a development history for the imagination, accounting for the creation of avowedly figural forms by the same changes in social morphology that were transforming the built and unbuilt landscape of eastern Massachusetts into centers or subsidiaries of an equally new social form, the urban-industrial complex. He attributes the liberation of the imagination directly to urbanization, but the same process provided the negative conditions for artistic production. Indeed, describing the emergence of the imagination as a spatialized form for Thoreau meant projecting an Page 337  |  Top of Article invisible space existing only as traces or inferences of representation. In Walden, this prospect is realized as an imagined city symbolizing a civic tradition with its attendant social spaces that was disappearing from Concord's increasingly urbanized environs. Though Thoreau stood by this tradition and detested its compromise, he did not resist the processes of historical and morphological change. On the contrary, he exploited them, transforming mutable civic space into its timeless utopian representation. Thoreau's civic project was, in fact, to intensify the awareness of artistic representation—a prospect which Paul Ricoeur defines as the operation of the utopian—in order to mark a disjunction in the progress of liberalism between the material development of cities and its invisible moral and political abstractions. Because Thoreau situated himself in the midst of this conflict, Walden describes not just an imagined city but how cities became imaginary. We can consider this event to be as crucial to the emergence of Thoreau's artistic consciousness as to the future of urban space, keeping in mind Benjamin's judgment of Baudelaire: "He envisioned blank spaces which he filled in with his poems. His work cannot merely be categorized as historical like anyone else's, but it intended to be so and understood itself as so.…"

Thoreau's aspiration towards idiosyncrasy notwithstanding, the unique history that Walden tells is the emergence of aesthetic forms from the conventions and traditions of civic life. Indeed, his determination to recreate this life in the midst of the woods lays bare the enabling assumption of an artistic sensibility: that a city is a construct of consciousness, imagined through the awareness of individuality, if not alienation, that city life engenders. While urbanism thus defined is central to our conception of modernism, the tendency to interpret urban space as the medium of the imagination is already extant in the place names for many of the locales of nineteenth-century literature: in addition to Baudelaire's Paris, Whitman's New York, Crane's Bowery, Dickens's London, and so on. The distinctiveness of Thoreau's Walden Pond among these "unreal cities" is that it brings to the fore the contradiction between the experience of place and the actual place, so that both the imaginative processes and the means of representation are defamiliarized. That is, they are foregrounded and thematized as locales in themselves. For Thoreau, this defamiliarization promises an unprecedented and unbounded sphere of experience, but he will also insist that this "sort of space" shares the structure, conditions, and even the history of a spatialized social form.

We are introduced to this contradiction early in Walden, when Thoreau quite deliberately juxtaposes associations of city and country. After berating his townsmen for their industriousness, he announces that his "purpose in going to Walden Pond was … to transact some private business." Then he invites a comparison between his solitary life of rustic simplicity and the far-flung, multitudinous affairs of the international mercantile trader. In assuming this identity, Thoreau is also borrowing its native habitat. According to political historian Gary Nash, the international merchant would have been a politically active Whig or Federalist, committed to liberalizing developments in government and trade and usually situated in an Atlantic port city like Boston, Baltimore, New York, or Philadelphia. Thoreau contends that Walden Pond is likewise "a good place for business" because of its "good port and good foundation," as well as its ice-trade-convenient railroad connection. In "Sounds," he will say that the railroad, transporting exotic goods from free and distant markets, makes him akin to the international merchant, a "citizen of the world." He evidently wants to build not just a city on a hill but a commercial society by a pond, "the germ," he says, "of something more."

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" The greater challenge that Walden poses is to see the imagination that Thoreau exercised so freely not only as spatial logic but as a construction of social space and, even more particularly, as a historical incidence of urbanism."

In borrowing an urban locale, Thoreau is also reclaiming a political history. Through their alliance with restive manufacturers and disenfranchised artisans, the liberal Whig traders of the eighteenth century made the Atlantic commercial city into the center of political resistance against monopolies, mercantilism, and colonialism. By comparing himself to the urban merchant, Thoreau perpetuates a complementary vision of freedom: the Page 338  |  Top of Article autonomy promised the urban commercial classes in a postcolonial, laissez-faire economy. We may read his intention "to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles" as a similar link between political and economic freedom. This linking would have been compatible with his reigning ambition in Walden and in many of his essays, which was to establish the relevance of the nation's democratic revolution to antebellum America; but here he seeks to recreate the appropriate social space for continued struggle through detailed historical references to the eighteenth-century commercial city. In the spirit of the urban Whigs Trenchard and Gordon, Thoreau envisions this space as a free society of trade and commerce, politically and geographically beyond the reach of an intrusive state. The taxation that he seemed to oppose so capriciously represented what these liberals feared most: the intervention of statist policies—whether they financed trade monopolies, the slave trade, or a system of railroads—in the properly private affairs of civil society.

For Thoreau, this kind of uncivil, neomercantilist economy signifies a structural change in the polity, a reorganization of social space that gives the state its own space, the all-inclusive yet personalized space of the nation. He detects the expansion of this space in the sentiments of citizens who "think it essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour," but he will protect an ideal of civil autonomy rooted in eighteenth-century urban liberalism. When he says that such citizens are "content to live like baboons," he applies a venerable term of moral opprobrium—corruption—to Jefferson's laboring yeomen.

Thoreau's praise of the cosmopolitan merchant, on the other hand, is unstinting; he affects envy, almost wonder, for what amounts to "a demand for universal knowledge." But he is determined to let neither the location of Walden Pond nor the passage of time deprive him of the intelligence, freedom, and prosperity available to the eighteenth-century urban bourgeoisie. He builds his identification with this class by undermining both the pastoral tradition of American letters and the nationalist history it projected. Whereas Bryant and even Emerson celebrated nature as the extension and progress of positive sovereignty, Thoreau represents nature according to the self-negating provisions of civil society. That is, he considers Walden Pond to be natural insofar as it is a completely privative realm, free of superfluous obstacles and unconditioned by an intrusive alien power. Thoreau calls life in this realm "primitive and frontier life" not because it is wild but precisely because it is governed by "the essential laws of man's existence," which he finds recorded in "the old day books of the merchants." Not surprisingly, these laws instruct Thoreau in the ways of bourgeois society: what is natural and necessary is "all that man obtains by his own exertions." Under this condition, he disqualifies the labor of his neighboring farmers, who work not for themselves but for the holders of their mortgages on their homes and farms. So he is forced to commend the unencumbered wigwam, the virtues of uncultivated fields, and the political economy of squirrels. His deprecation of baboons notwithstanding, animals furnish Thoreau with perhaps his most explicitly self-justifying image of the bourgeoisie: their orderly yet consummately free lives follow only the dictates of natural, invisible laws. He makes special allowances when he adds Fuel and Clothing to the animals' necessities of Food and Shelter, but he considers any life that obeys intrinsic imperatives to be both a moral and material improvement over that of Concord townsmen.

Walden ultimately recommends that the conscientious citizen devote himself to "more sacred laws," but Thoreau's attachment to a legally constituted dominion in heaven or on earth perpetuates a historically urban form of society in the absence of a corresponding urban space. Thoreau was well aware of the historical discrepancy, but he means the invocation of an antecedent social form to annul the influence of the state by providing a permanent haven from positive law. In this sense, he is using the pastoral to revive, replay, and infinitely extend eighteenth-century urbanization, which created not only the infrastructure of public dissent but an invisible realm called civil society, which, as Habermas says, was governed by "anonymous laws functioning in accord with an economic rationality immanent, so it appears, in the market." Though Habermas does not historicize the urban development that created this realm, he does make the rise of a "town" consciousness, in opposition to that of a "court," coincident with the codification of civil laws that have exclusive administrative jurisdiction over economic and social exchanges. Thoreau places himself under these "more liberal laws" and hopes that they can again convene an autonomous society in the midst of the woods. In commending Walden Pond for its "good port," he is making a glancing reference to the shared history of liberal capitalism and urban development, though he maintains that Page 339  |  Top of Article the commercial city rising from Walden Pond would be built "on piles of your own driving."

Thoreau repeatedly argues a classically liberal ideal of individual autonomy, but he does not abstract even the discussion of inward nature from the infrastructure and institutions of an urbanized social form. His conception of a morally guided subject, obedient to "the laws of his own being," is derived from the self-governing commercial society, while his concern for the state of "true integrity" links him more particularly to the Whig-Federalist city's civic sphere, which fused the republican politics of disinterested virtue with an economically constituted social space. From the Revolution to the antebellum era, the commercial city was indeed the sphere in which the new nation's republican pretensions were given institutional form, often most effectively translated by the Whig-Federalist commercial classes. The lyceums, atheneums, libraries, and salons that composed the antebellum era's "republican institutions" were first developed in Atlantic port cities; with no attempt to disguise the city's principal indigenous activity, their wealthy patrons celebrated them as "cultural ornaments to mercantile society." In conjunction with Federalist architecture's French neo-classicism, these "cultural ornaments" fueled the post-Revolutionary city's comparison of itself to the classical polis, although this was more true for Philadelphia and Boston than for single-mindedly mercantile New York; the former two competed with one another for the title "Athens of America." Within the institutions of this civic sphere, self-seeking burghers could transcend their interests and exercise their rational faculties. Perhaps even more importantly, an unruly populace would learn how to govern itself by the laws of reason.

The Jacksonian era may have envisioned a form of society in the image of the rural majority, but in Walden the Whig-Federalist city plan is recovered and extended. In "Reading," Thoreau proposes that Concord proper be developed along the lines of a classically Federalist city, replete with indigenous salons, galleries, libraries, lyceums, and other educational facilities. He exhorts the citizens of Concord not to adopt a "provincial" life but to "act collectively in the spirit of our [prospective] institutions" and "take the place of the noblemen in Europe." This ambition to create "noble villages of men" is in keeping with a principal objective of the early republic, which was to authorize its sovereignty through the education of a rational public capable of governing itself. But in practical terms, this imperative is also an impetus for city-building, for the republican project of political education entailed the development of a cosmopolitan center capable of receiving information, influences, and goods, as Thoreau insists, from distant ports. "Reading" resituates republicanism in an urban tradition and suggests that the Transcendentalists' project of self-culture derives from its plans for civic development.

Jefferson's abhorrence of cities has led us to equate republicanism with the country, but politics and geography are often difficult to equate, especially during the early national period in New England. If agrarianism was celebrated as a republican ideal, it was promoted by the same Federalist urban merchants who were building and promoting the port city. In Boston, a group known as the Essex Junto was particularly effective in investing rural life with the same power to inculcate virtue that the urban institutions aimed at. The country seats and adjoining farms that dotted the eastern Massachusetts landscape were considered not as alternative economies in their own right but as necessary adjuncts to market exchanges that guaranteed the exchanges' virtue and their contribution to the public good. Agrarianism served urban commercial interests even more explicitly when it was accompanied by a program of political education. In lectures such as "The Duty of the Farmer to His Calling" and "Why a Massachusetts Farmer Should Be Content," farmers were told by an urban elite that they were the pillars of the republic and that their thrift, frugality, and increasingly unprofitable industry furnished the moral basis of a predominantly commercial society.

Thoreau may have sought respite from modern society in natural environs, but his plans for Walden Woods and vicinity reflect the traditional land-use patterns of the urban Federalist. In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived for," he reports that he roamed the countryside as a self-appointed real-estate broker, financier, and landscape architect of imaginary country seats; he then reinterprets this conventional pattern of subdivision as the simple experience of sitting. To further link his " sedes" to the development plans of the commercial class, he speculates that "the future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they had been anticipated."

Like the urban Federalist, Thoreau does not mean to associate himself with present or future farmers. His dedication to husbandry, on display in Page 340  |  Top of Article "The Bean Field," is in fact inspired by a civic tradition cultivated in the eighteenth century by the Anglo-American urban bourgeoisie. As J. G. A. Pocock reports, Whig liberals adopted the Catonian ideal of an agrarian republic to argue that virtue, the selfless participation of a citizen in the life of his polity, could be exercised by the members of an urbanized commercial society whose profits advanced the interests of the public. Their inspiration for an actively moral citizenry came from the classical polis, though as first developed in the seventeenth century, "country" ideology did attempt to secure England's status as a republic by invoking a natural basis for virtue in nondependent landholding. But as Britain evolved into an international trading empire, "country" signified an opposition political party whose model republic was less associated with nature than with free commerce. Against speculative, debt-inducing, and state-sponsored monopolist ventures, proponents of a liberalized marketplace envisioned a virtuous society governed by laws of just commerce, of wide distribution of capital, and of equitable exchange. To ameliorate the influence of financial interests in the government, to mitigate the power of the state, and to establish the authority of the public, Cato's Letters proposed "agrarian law or something like it." The polity entailed by these laws corresponded not to a farm but to an idealized commercial society whose market exchanges exemplified classical ideals of citizenship.

We readily accept Thoreau's investment in classical politics as determining his relation to pastoralism and agrarianism; as Horkheimer says, his "escape into the woods was conceived by a student of the Greek polis rather than by a peasant." What we should add to this truism is that his understanding of the civic tradition is mediated by the civil discourse of the urban bourgeoisie. Thoreau likewise refuses to distinguish between virtue and commerce, arguing instead that the value of rural life comes from its contribution to civil commerce. In this sense, he too pursues agrarianism, "or something like it." In "The Bean Field," he archly notes the derision his bastardized husbandry elicited from locals and reserves his pride not for his agricultural expertise and certainly not for his noble toil but for $8.72, "the result of my experience in raising beans." This narrowly economic assessment might seem at variance with the disinterested ideals of agrarian republicanism, but Thoreau's interest in farming is to prove Cato's dictum: "the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just." Such profits are conducive to virtue because they can be obtained without debt, without state capitalization, and particularly without submission to the "slave-driver" within. To the extent that husbandry allows him to maintain his independence from a neomercantilist, slave-driving economy, Thoreau has fulfilled the promise of urban liberalism and made commerce into a medium of virtuous citizenship. In this context, "country" does not denote a natural setting or even a natural economic order. On the contrary, Whigs used agrarian republicanism to place the imprimatur of the civic ideal on their commercial city. By Thoreau's time, this city does not exist in nature, so he is in the strange position of having to imagine a civic space as nature—or, to use an important eighteenth-century distinction, as second nature. Through his ersatz agriculture—indeed, through an imitation of nature—Thoreau wants his readers to look beyond his immediate environs and imagine the unrealized, nonlocalizable realm of the commercial city, wherein profit was in proportion to virtue. There they would find not only the advantages of civilization but the evidence of their own imagination.


Robert Fanuzzi, "Thoreau's Urban Imagination," in American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 321-29.

John Carlos Rowe

In the following essay excerpt, Rowe examines how Thoreau likens human language to other natural phenomena in Walden.

To learn means: to become knowing. In Latin, knowing is qui vidit, one who has seen, has caught sight of something, and who never again loses sight of what he has caught sight of. To learn means: to attain to such seeing. To this belongs our reaching it; namely, on the way, on a journey. To put oneself on a journey, to experience, means to learn.

—Heidegger, "Words," On the Way to Language

I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid. In letters, in journals, in reports of happenings I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.

—William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Walden is Thoreau's perfect form; it has the mathematical precision of a musical composition. Thoreau certainly appears to demonstrate in this work the radically formalized truth he had foreseen in an earlier work: "The most distinct and beautiful statement of any truth must take at last the mathematical Page 341  |  Top of Article
Thoreau's room at Walden Thoreau's room at Walden form." Walden is "addressed to poor students," who love to play its verbal games and diagram its architectonic order in the place of healthier sport. Such economy and control are rare in the literature of the American Renaissance, which seems better represented by the outwanderings of Whitman or the divine rage of Melville. There is little voyaging here; this is a book of construction and possession: "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking." All radiates concentrically from this artificial "I," whose insistent presence organizes and determines what we might see. Thoreau has much to say against ownership, but in this book he appropriates nature and brings it within his compass. The writing defines and encloses a Transcendental fiefdom; Walden legalizes the everlasting wholeness of natural creation. All seasons speak the same truth in but varied manifestations, so that the poet need only lift the corners of his veils to disclose the divinity in things.

This is a book of discovery, but not of creation. Perhaps it is no accident that the most extended literary discussion concentrates on "Reading" rather than on writing. Of course, Thoreau emphasizes the intimate bond between the two activities: "Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." Yet, Walden is primarily intended as a Baedeker to the order of nature, the primacy of which remains unquestioned. Writing is sacred and mystical in its universal appeal and endurance, but nonetheless secondary to the literal text of nature: "It is the work of art nearest to life itself." "Reading" quickly gives way to "Sounds" more basic to "the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard." William Drake writes, "The step from 'Reading' to 'Sounds' is that from the language of men to the 'language' of things, from what can be said about nature, to nature itself." The classics play an important role throughout Walden, but they must be put aside in the early stages of Thoreau's ritualized self-purification: "I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans."

Walden betrays the desire for an established metaphysical center to determine human behavior and organize knowledge. The metaphors of building and clothing appear to offer human beings the freedom of a creative imagination, but such activities are themselves merely techniques for discovering and obeying the dictates of an authoritative Being. Fishing, diving, and mining are basic to this Page 342  |  Top of Article work of reconnaissance: "My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine." Such deep diving intends to bring to light what is hidden, freeing what has been imprisoned in humans by their faulty methods of perception and cognition. Awakening is the avowed aim of Walden, and it means the arising of truth into consciousness by means of a systematic removal of barriers in order to open a path. For Thoreau, to awaken is to "come into being" rather than to "bring into being." Language facilitates such discovery only to the extent that it serves a prior perception and thus may be made "pertinent" to reality. Metaphor is employed ironically to reveal the "commonsensical" in everyday speech and thus to free us to receive the tangible, literal spirituality that only nature presents. As Drake remarks, "To say that nature has a language, is itself a metaphor. Metaphor as Thoreau speaks of it always defines human experience, within human bounds." Thus, in a work that is nothing but metaphor, Thoreau struggles to destroy the metaphorical in order to allow the presence of the indwelling god to emerge.

The achievement of Walden is the result of this confidence that the natural origin of language escapes the symbolism of words and remains eternally and creatively present. In such a bookish work there is remarkably little reflection upon language itself, as if the natural facts were sufficient for the grammar of our lives. There is something disturbingly evasive in such passages as the following from "Higher Laws": "Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them." Substituting the body for the materials of the sculptor, Thoreau disparages the symbolic mode of the traditional artist. True art speaks directly in and through natural existence, spontaneously manifesting itself in the life of the artist.

And yet, such sophistry is purchased only by means of an elaborate metaphoric structure yoking temple and body, style and behavior. Thoreau is able to elide the conventional distinctions between body and soul, substance and spirit, only by means of a language that operates by syntagmatic associations and paradigmatic substitutions essential to figurative language. Thoreau may employ language in Walden more cleverly than in any of his other works, but he scrupulously avoids the problematic of language itself. Emerson insists that "Nature is the symbol of spirit," thus suggesting a correspondence between the production of words as "signs of natural facts" and the recognition of "natural facts" as the "symbols of particular spiritual facts." Emerson's view involves a rich and varied language coordinated with natural symbolism; Thoreau's insistence on the ultimate literality of natural facts reduces language to a secondary representation.

There are, of course, many ways in which Walden can be read as an extended meditation on the use and abuse of language. In The Senses of Walden, Stanley Cavell employs Wittgenstein to interpret Walden as the discovery of "what writing is and, in particular, what writing Walden is." Walden certainly abounds with evidence that self-knowledge is as much a linguistic process as a purely natural one; in fact, the entire work turns on the doubling of the place of Walden in its textual realization. The awakening promised in the epigraph and the spring that concludes the work's seasonal cycles are metaphors for the composition of the text; the dwelling that Thoreau builds is ultimately a house of words. Yet, the aim of this "wording of the world" is a simplicity and clarity that result in the resolution of true self-knowledge.

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" Walden betrays the desire for an established metaphysical center to determine human behavior and organize knowledge."

The discipline of Thoreau's deliberation is equivalent to Wittgenstein's goal of learning how what we say is what we mean. Thoreau relies, however, on his confidence in a fundamental language of Nature from which human speech derives; Wittgenstein's problems are compounded by the fact that his investigations must remain totally within the domain of ordinary language. Wittgenstein must repeat the basic Kantian move of bracketing the thing-in-itself as unknowable, thus shifting the concern Page 343  |  Top of Article of understanding to the development of such internal linguistic distinctions as literal and figurative, grammatical and performative, conventional and original. In Walden, Thoreau decidedly does not bracket the thing-in-itself, even though he acknowledges the difficulty of expressing it. Cavell brilliantly suggests that Thoreau provides in Walden that "deduction of the thing-in-itself" that Kant "ought to have provided" as "an essential feature (category) of objectivity itself, viz., that of a world apart from me in which objects are met." Transcendental deduction, however, can be performed only on a system of representation; Thoreau's ability to offer such a deduction of objectivity depends upon his confidence in the "language" of Nature, on the possibility of an "objective" language. Thus, Thoreau can assert in Walden what Kant in the three critiques only subjunctively "wished" for: that the order of the mind has a structural identity with the order of Nature.

The objectivity of Nature in Walden thus secretly governs the subjectivity of human language, which eternally symbolizes that literal origin. Cavell argues that "the externality of the world is articulated by Thoreau as its nextness to me." This idea of the proximity of man and Nature determines Cavell's understanding of philosophical unity in Thoreau: "Unity between these aspects is viewed not as a mutual absorption, but as perpetual nextness, an act of neighboring or befriending." I shall develop a similar notion of metaphysical difference in my Heideggerian reading of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which draws, as Cavell's reading of Walden does, on Thoreau's paradoxical "friendship" (itself a metaphor for self-consciousness) as a complex of proximity and distance. However, I employ Heidegger's metaphor of the "between" (of earth and sky, of man and nature, of beings and Being), which differs crucially from "nextness."

The "neighborhood" of man and Nature is made possible by the authority of the language of Nature, whose objective and literal presence always exceeds human speech. When we say what we mean, when we speak deliberately, we approach the simplicity of such natural language, and words become facts. But the "between" of man and Nature describes a different space of human dwelling, because this between constitutes a relation that does not exist as a possibility prior to human language. In Walden, the language of Nature makes possible human speech, but the human language of A Week invents the idea of Nature as part of the measurement of our being. The grounding of human language in an inexpressible natural presence is symbolized in Walden in terms of building: a house, a self, a neighborhood with what is. The displacement of natural presence into the "difference" of human language in A Week is expressed in metaphors of voyaging, of traveling the between of beings and Being that is measured only by such movement. This "bridging" and "crossing" is the essential activity of metaphor. The text of Walden celebrates its departure from Walden as the realization of the natural experiment; the text of A Week celebrates the return to Concord as a "fall" into that language that has forever displaced the Nature it set out to discover.

In this description of the spring thaw flowing down the railroad cut, Thoreau offers one of the most extended and self-conscious verbal plays in Walden. The intricate blending of natural energies is a metaphor for the act of composition as an interpretation of specific phenomena in Nature: "As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds." At such a moment language appears to call forth not only the intricate relations of the natural scene but also the pure metaphorics of such relations. Such poetry seems to constitute the truth of Nature by means of an integrated verbal display that challenges the self-sufficiency of natural phenomena. Everything observed seems to contribute to the production of signs that announce their metaphorical powers. Such technical descriptions as "laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens" signify through poetic complexes of alliteration, assonance, consonance, condensation, and syllabic rhythm. Yet, at such a critical moment Thoreau hesitates and then retreats, insisting that the true "artistry" remains external and divine: "I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with an excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about."

Metaphor has made such vision possible, but it is quickly rejected in favor of "such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body." And as if checking the dangerous excess implied in the verbal dance, Thoreau insists on dissecting words themselves Page 344  |  Top of Article to reveal their natural grounding, effectively emptying them of their autonomous powers:

No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (λειßω, labor, lapsus, to flow or flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λoßoσ, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words,) externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, the double lobed,) with a liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the gutteral g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat.

Thoreau's phonemic, phonetic, and etymological analyses serve to restrain the flight of metaphor and situate the imagination within the "facts" of nature. Language is reduced to the physical associations of words and things that reveal a hidden natural form. Walden clearly argues for a natural principle of growth and unfolding that denies any sense of completion or closure, but language imitates that organic development only by means of a formal precision with respect to external facts that restricts imaginative play by narrowing the range of authentic (or pertinent) meanings. Emerson avoids some of these dangers by insisting that art is "a nature passed through the alembic of man. Thus in art does Nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works." For Emerson, both natural and linguistic symbolisms require a reciprocal interpretation, whereas Thoreau insists on the presence of unmediated truth in the earth's "living poetry."

Thus, in Walden every impulse to discuss poetics is quickly diverted back to the controlling meditation on the permanence and variety of natural forms. The mastery of this work relies largely on Thoreau's insistence that language and thought would be indistinguishable from natural phenomena if we fully understood our being. In his study of Thoreau, James McIntosh argues that the principal drama in Walden is the struggle of the "I" to sustain his integrity in the face of an encompassing natural order. Revisions made between 1847 and 1852 seem to indicate that in the process of composition Thoreau grew "less anxious to write of himself as a part of nature, more intent on asserting his intelligent separateness." But the very diversity and activity that individualize the narrator and his style merely confirm the determining power of the underlying natural forms. The anxiety of alienation is neatly resolved as the illusion of separation that properly honed senses may see beyond. Every verbal strategy seems designed to measure and refine the a priori ground of being in nature.


John Carlos Rowe, "The Being of Language: The Language of Being," in Henry David Thoreau, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 145-51.

Paul Schwaber

In the following essay excerpt, Schwaber describes how readers can "perceive experientially Thoreau's psychic and moral growth" in Walden.

When a man is able to live his philosophy, it becomes more than a theoretical construction of his mind. It becomes his attitude, his way of having experience. Few men achieve this unification of mind, aspiration, and event. Too few, perhaps, even try. Yet some do; and as any reader of our literature knows, one of the very few masterpieces of American writing, Thoreau's Walden, has as its subject precisely this attempt.

Though apparently an account of Thoreau's two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, Walden reveals his coming of age during the years in which he wrote it. It can be read, therefore, as Henry David Thoreau's spiritual autobiography for the years 1845 to 1854. Walden is, of course, more than an account or an autobiography. It is a work of art. Because of its artistry, we are able to perceive experientially Thoreau's psychic and moral growth, and we can begin to understand the relevance of his growth to us.

In 1845 Thoreau built a hut near Walden Pond and moved into it as a practical expediency: he wanted to live inexpensively in order to write and think. He also wanted to feel that he was living excellently. As he explained in the most famous passage in the book, "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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary." To live essentially meant first of all to distinguish between labor which a man must do in order to survive and respect himself, and labor which he does without realizing that it is aimed at acquiring or preserving things which impede his life because they are not worth the effort they entail. Thoreau thought his neighbors in Concord sacrificed too much of their life energy to this latter type of busy-ness, and he Page 345  |  Top of Article characterized it astutely as "doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways." His interest was in living, not merely in making more than a living. He objected to a man wasting his mind and soul in incessant labor which was intended, ironically enough, to provide for a fuller life. Thoreau thought life too short to postpone it. Perhaps therefore he devoted his first chapter, "Economy," to his radical distinction between essentials and inessentials, or, as he would have believed, between practicalities and impracticalities.

For it was just such a practical problem he faced. He tells us cryptically that his purpose in going to Walden was "to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles." He never tells us directly what this "private business" was, but we may fairly deduce that it had largely to do with protecting, strengthening, and reconstituting his soul. He was then twenty-eight years old and had not yet been able to find a way of getting his living without injuring his spirit. After graduating from Harvard, he taught school, lived with the Ralph Waldo Emersons, lectured before the Concord Lyceum, published in the Dial, and went to Staten Island as a tutor in the house of Emerson's brother William; while in New York he tried to break into the literary market there, but he met with little success; finally he returned home to Concord to work in his father's pencil factory. By none of his varied attempts at earning a living had he managed to live his chosen life as a writer and as a man. The move to Walden afforded a good solution to his economic problem. It seems also to have been an admirable gesture toward the solitude that this young man needed to grow from an apprentice philosopher and a spiritual youth to an independent adult.

Thoreau tells us early in Walden that he aspired to live a noble life though most men live mean ones, and, to judge from the resolute tone of the opening chapter, he has a pretty fair idea of how stubbornly he—Henry David Thoreau—has had to proceed toward his goal. Furthermore, he knows the specific qualities of the life to which he aspired. What becomes clear through the course of the book, and what commands our respect for the man and the lessons he would teach us, is that he slowly, patiently, even arduously, attains that life he values and by which he judged the lives of his neighbors to be insufficient models for him to follow.

What did Thoreau judge to be the salient qualities of essential life—once, that is, a man has attended honorably to life's physical necessities? Though he spends a good deal of the first chapter sniping at inessentials, he points to two compendious values. The first is self-reliance, the quality of soul to which a man wins through by consciously struggling for it: "I am resolved," he writes with exaggerative humor and undoubted seriousness, "that I will not through humility become the devil's attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word for the truth." A self-reliant man can bear to be free, and only such a man is ready to love and respect other men: "I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much freer." "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluous coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them… Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men."

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" Thoreau thus rejected the practices and assumptions of his neighbors in Concord with good cause. He had the courage to be as radical, or as eccentric, as he had to be."

The second of Thoreau's compendious values is more elusive, doubtless because it cannot be taken by frontal assault, however arduous: "In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." Near the end of the book he reiterates: "We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew which falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty." The present moment fully lived does not admit of penance for past deeds or omissions; nor does it admit of postponement now in favor of future gratifications, whether secular or religious. The present is not for self-chastisement or even for Page 346  |  Top of Article earnest and studious attempts to make the future better. In short, a man lives well only when he is at peace with himself, which is to say when he is without anxiety; and Thoreau knew that for some people anxiety is a "well nigh incurable disease." As he wrote in his journal, "It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once."

To the lives of quiet desperation that he refused to imitate he contrasted a life of joyous and manly independence in the present. Instead of committing himself to responsibilities of past and future, such as "inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools," commitments which enslave a man's spirit, Thoreau asserted proudly that he was a "sojourner" in the woods and in civilized society. A skeptical, canny, and withal hopeful man, he insisted on finding for himself what life was about by living it: "Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; … [M]an's capacities have never been measured, … [we cannot] judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried." The sojourner and experimenter alone can feel pleasure, the feeling that more than all others eluded his contemporaries; Thoreau remarked that their very games concealed "stereotyped but unconscious despair… There is no play in them." He insisted that a man's life should include the joy that can come only with living—which includes working—as a man should. And joy for Thoreau meant lyrical participation and even playfulness: "Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is by failure." "I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theater, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel."


Thoreau thus rejected the practices and assumptions of his neighbors in Concord with good cause. He had the courage to be as radical, or as eccentric, as he had to be. His protest, to use Whitehead's phrase in a new context, was "a protest on behalf of value." The goal he set for himself was compounded of utilitarian skills and spiritual ease. He envisioned a life of manly independence, which he understood to be the prerequisite for freedom and love, and of full experience of the ripeness of the moment lived.

I have said that in Walden we see Thoreau move toward and, I think, reach the goal he set for himself in the early part of the book. That movement is the great moral development of the book. And that moral development is central to the book's aesthetic excellence.

So much perceptive comment has been written in recent years in appreciation of Walden's artistry—its stylistic aptness and its structural and imagistic unity—that one must wonder if he has anything more to add. I need only mention here how the themes of wildness and civilized control, privacy and sociability, freedom and servitude, and joy and despair alternate and interrelate; how images of night and sleep are contrasted with those of morning and wakefulness, and how these images become metaphors for spiritual conditions; how Thoreau's two-year experience at Walden and some of his subsequent experiences are presented as transpiring in one year; and how the passage of the year from summer to spring is made to coincide symbolically with the details of Thoreau's activity and with the rebirth of his spirit. I would suggest, however, that Thoreau's rebirth of spirit accords with the life he values and that the moral development of the book thus provides its dramatic unity. As we read on in Walden we became witnesses to Thoreau's dramatic, though quiet, psychic development. It is reflected in the changes that are evident in his tone of voice and in the quality and type of his responses to the things about him.

At the beginning of the book Thoreau speaks as a man apart, though, as the act of writing itself and even his acerbic humor would suggest, he is never cut off entirely from some good feeling for his fellow men. He writes, as he is the first to admit, about himself and what he did. His tone as he tells of moving out of Concord to Walden Pond alternates between defiance, scolding, and preaching; it is always resolute. One assumes that he is so insistent because he knows the truth and wants to be heard. But why so harsh a tone? Why so argumentative a rebellion? He seems to attack his neighbors' way of life and to defend his own at least as much as he celebrates it. Perhaps he is not so sure of himself as he would like to be. His distinction between a professor of philosophy (one who has subtle thoughts and professes what is admirable) and a philosopher (one who lives admirably) is helpful. To be a philosopher is "so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically." In the long first chapter of Walden, Thoreau breaks idols, teaches, and asserts, but to use his own Page 347  |  Top of Article distinction, he sounds more like a professor than a philosopher:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than gotten rid of … Who made them serfs to the soil? … They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood lot.

This is the tone of a reformer of others rather than of himself. Thoreau can be astute in his social criticism, as he is in the passage just quoted or when he attacks the factory system of production for having as its object not necessary and useful goods for men but profits for corporations. But it was not as a reformer of systems or of other men that Thoreau wished to live; and, as can be seen from his statements about philanthropy and abolition in the first chapter, he thought that the only reform that was both honorable and possible was self-reform. Whatever influence he might have on other men would be the result of the example and not the form of his self-reform. "I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself." The man's honesty is breathtaking. Henry David Thoreau was problem enough for him to solve. Yet his tone in the first chapter suggests that when he went to Walden he was only within shouting distance of the mode of life he valued most highly.

Mid-way through the book, in "The Village," Thoreau provides further suggestion of a deep inner uneasiness which has yet to be assuaged. He writes that walking in the village seemed to him like running a gauntlet and that at such times the woods afforded him snug haven. By the time he reaches the concluding chapter, however, he has grown significantly. Not that he is unrecognizable. He still confronts us as a moral teacher who exhorts us to live well. What has changed is his attitude. He encourages rather than scolds; he is assertive but not biting. He is, above all, magisterially confident for himself and presumably for all who have attended to him. He is not sentimentally optimistic, for he has directed his eye inward and he remembers what he has seen. Instead he is stubbornly and stoically hopeful: "However mean your life is, meet it and live it; … Love your life, poor as it is." Though he remains at odds with the habitual and wrong attitudes and institutions of men, he is not nearly as prickly as he has been. He seems more aware of the humanity of his listeners than formerly and no longer to be alone in the universe of men; he writes as if he can assume agreement or sympathy in at least some of his readers. And it is these men of kindred spirit—his sympathetic readers—whom he invites to the most perilous task of all, the exploration of their own souls: "Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to wars, cowards that run away and enlist."

Having begun by lecturing somewhat shrilly and telling of his move away from his townsmen to care for his embattled soul, Thoreau ends his book by returning to town and by reaching out, in his own way, to his neighbors. A wiser, stronger, and shrewder man than he had been, he is now more at peace with himself because more in tune with his aspirations and, therefore, more amiably disposed toward the men and women with whom he will be living again. Now at last he can brag for mankind "as lustily as chanticleer in the morning." The final words of Walden glisten with hope and possibility, with courage, and with implied will: "[S]uch 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."


Paul Schwaber, "Thoreau's Development in Walden," in Criticism, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter 1963, pp. 64-70.


Bagnall, Nicholas, Review of Walden, in New Statesman, December 5, 1997, p. 57.

"New Publications," in Boston Daily Journal, August 10, 1854, p. 1.

"New Publications," in Salem Register, August 10, 1854, p. 2.

Trent, W. P., J. Erskine, S. P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren, eds., "Thoreau, Walden," in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Vol. 16, Oxford University Press, 1907-21.

"Walden; or, Life in the Woods," in Lowell Journal and Courier, August 10, 1854, p. 2.

White, E. B., "A Slight Sound at Evening," in The Points of My Compass, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1962.

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Further Reading

Myerson, Joel, The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

In addition to essays covering all of Thoreau's major works, this volume also includes essays discussing the author's friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his changing reputation over the years, and other topics.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, University of California Press, 1986.

This well-reviewed and highly regarded biography includes discussions of Walden and Thoreau's other major works.

Smith, David Clyde, The Transcendental Saunterer: Thoreau and the Search for Self, Frederic C. Beil, Inc., 1997.

Smith, a Thoreau scholar, focuses on Thoreau's walking—it is said that he spent more time walking than doing anything else—and how it influenced his life, his writing, and his philosophy.

Versluis, Arthur, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, Oxford University Press on Demand, 1997.

Part of the Oxford Press Religion in America series, this book covers the beginning of Transcendentalist Orientalism in Europe and the complete history of American Transcendentalism to the twentieth century, with a focus on how Asian religions and cultures have influenced transcendentalism in the West.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424200084