Walden (1854 – Henri David Thoreau)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) is an American book written by noted Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self reliance.

Published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.

Thoreau did not intend to live as a hermit, for he received visitors regularly, and returned their visits. Rather, he hoped to isolate himself from society to gain a more objective understanding of it. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period. As Thoreau made clear in his book, his cabin was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, about two miles (3 km) from his family home.

Synopsis

Economy: In this first and longest chapter, Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a cozy, “tightly shingled and plastered,” English-style 10′ x 15′ cottage in the woods near Walden Pond.[2] He does this, he says, to illustrate the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He easily supplies the four necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, and fuel) with the help of family and friends, particularly his mother, his best friend, and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter provided Thoreau with a work exchange — he could build a small house and plant a garden if he cleared some land on the woodlot and did other chores while there.[2] Thoreau meticulously records his expenditures and earnings, demonstrating his understanding of “economy,” as he builds his house and buys and grows food. For a home and freedom, he spent a mere $28.12 1/2, in 1845. At the end of this chapter, Thoreau inserts a poem, “The Pretensions of Poverty,” by seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Carew. The poem criticizes those who think that their poverty gives them unearned moral and intellectual superiority.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: After playing with the idea of buying a farm, Thoreau describes his house’s location. Then he explains that he took up his abode at Walden Woods so as to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Although he criticizes the dedication of his neighbours to working, he himself is quite busy at Walden — building and maintaining his house, raising thousands of bean plants and other vegetables, making bread, clearing land, chopping wood, making repairs for the Emersons, going into town, and writing every day. His time at Walden was his most productive as a writer.

Reading: Thoreau discusses the benefits of classical literature (preferably in the original Greek or Latin), and bemoans the lack of sophistication in Concord, evident in the popularity of unsophisticated literature. He also loved to read books by world travellers. He yearns for a utopian time when each New England village supports “wise men” to educate and thereby ennoble the population.

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

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

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

The Bean-Field: Thoreau relates his efforts to cultivate 2.5 acres (10,000 m2) of beans. He plants in June and spends his summer mornings weeding the field with a hoe. He sells most of the crop, and his small profit of $8.71 covers his needs that were not provided by friends and family.

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

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

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

Higher Laws: Thoreau discusses whether hunting wild animals and eating meat is good. He concludes that the primitive, animal side of humans drives them to kill and eat animals, and that a person who transcends this propensity is superior to those who don’t. (Thoreau eats fish and occasionally salt pork and woodchuck.)[2] In addition to vegetarianism, he lauds chastity, work, and teetotalism. He also recognizes that Indians need to hunt and kill moose for survival in “The Maine Woods,” and ate moose on a trip to Maine while he was living at Walden.[2] Here is a list of the laws that he mentions:

  • One must love that of the wild just as much as one loves that of the good.
  • What men already know instinctively is true humanity.
  • The hunter is the greatest friend of the animal which is hunted.
  • No human older than an adolescent would wantonly murder any creature which reveres its own life as much as the killer.
  • If the day and the night make one joyful, one is successful.
  • The highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth.

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

House-Warming: After picking November berries in the woods, Thoreau adds a chimney, and finally plasters the walls of his sturdy house to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter. He also lays in a good supply of firewood, and expresses affection for wood and fire.

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

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

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

Spring: As spring arrives, Walden and the other ponds melt with stentorian thundering and rumbling. Thoreau enjoys watching the thaw, and grows ecstatic as he witnesses the green rebirth of nature. He watches the geese winging their way north, and a hawk playing by itself in the sky. As nature is reborn, the narrator implies, so is he. He departs Walden on September 6, 1847.

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

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

Background

Thoreau’s intention during his time at Walden Pond was “to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions?”[4] He thought of it as an experiment in “home economics”. Although Thoreau went to Walden to escape what he considered, “over-civilization”, and in search of the “raw” and “savage delight” of the wilderness, he also spent considerable amounts of his time reading and writing.

Thoreau spent nearly four times as long on the Walden manuscript as he actually spent at the cabin. He went through eight different drafts over the course of almost ten years.[4] Walden was a moderate success when it was first published in 1854. It sold well and was received favourably among reviewers.

After Walden’s publication, Thoreau saw his time at Walden as nothing more than an experiment. He never took seriously “the idea that he could truly isolate himself from others.”[5] Without resolution, Thoreau used “his retreat to the woods as a way of framing a reflection on both what ails men and women in their contemporary condition what what might provide relief.”[6]

Themes

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

Thoreau regarded his sojourn at Walden as an experiment with a threefold purpose. First, he was escaping the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution by returning to a simpler, agrarian lifestyle. Second, he was simplifying his life and reducing his expenditures, increasing the amount of leisure time in which he could work on his writings (most of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was written at Walden). Much of the book is devoted to stirring up awareness of how one’s life is lived, materially and otherwise, and how one might choose to live it more deliberately. Third, he was putting into practice the Transcendentalist belief that one can best “transcend” normality and experience the Ideal, or the Divine, through nature.

Critical response

American poet Robert Frost wrote of Thoreau, “In one book … he surpasses everything we have had in America.”[7]

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau’s endorsement of living alone in natural simplicity, apart from modern society, to be a mark of effeminacy, calling it “womanish solicitude; for there is something unmanly, something almost dastardly” about the lifestyle.[8]

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier criticized what he perceived as the message in Walden that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: “Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs”.[9]

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