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Henry David Thoreau was one of the most influential transcendental American writers and Walden was one of the movement’s most important works. Let’s explore why.

Thoreau’s Walden: An Exercise in Solitude

Today, many Americans don’t have very positive associations with someone who spends a year alone in a cabin he built himself. However, when Henry David Thoreau did that in the mid-19th century, it inspired one of the greatest works of American literature to date.

Henry David Thoreau was a Transcendentalist
Henry David Thoreau

Published in 1854, Thoreau’s Walden is one the most prominent works of transcendental literature.

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The book was originally titled Walden; Or, Life in the Woods and chronicles the two years that Thoreau spent in a cabin on the property owned by his friend and fellow transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The cabin was near a body of water called Walden Pond. Thoreau’s book made Walden Pond so famous that today it’s often used to signify any beautifully natural serene scene, the same way someone might refer to any large, opulent house as the Taj Mahal.Though the cabin was only a couple of kilometers from town (Concord, MA), Thoreau considered it as a place of true introspection, a place to commune with nature and be completely self-reliant, all central notions to the transcendental literary movement in the US.

The book is also a spiritual journey, which seems to be popular fodder for books these days: think Eat Pray Love or Wild, the memoir about a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by herself in order to fix her broken life.Holing up in a cabin by yourself for two years probably doesn’t sound too appealing to many of us, but instead of trying to sell you on the validity of the idea, I’ll let Thoreau explain it himself. He says: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. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Walden Summary and Thoreau’s Motivations

It seems like Thoreau thought that by cutting out interaction with other humans and the modern conveniences (or what was considered modern in the 1850s), Thoreau thought he could get down to the true essence of what living really meant.

Instead of writing a book that speculated about the meaning of life, he was hoping to know it from experience – a seriously lofty goal.You might think a book with such an ambitious aim would be difficult to read, and you would be right. Thoreau’s language is not terribly accessible, and he frequently uses irony, witticisms, and satire to make his point, and it can be difficult for a reader to tell when he’s being serious and when he’s not. The book is divided into several chapters, with names like ‘Economy’, ‘Solitude’, and ‘The Bean Field’, and those chapter titles serve as helpful guideposts throughout the book, if you’re having trouble following Thoreau’s point.In those chapters he addresses many of the questions one might ask when they hear someone has spent two years living alone in a cabin, like:

  • What do you do? Thoreau worked a small bean field most mornings, which helped cover his living expenses. He spent his evenings taking walks, reading great works of literature, and contemplating himself and the world.

    He believed that this simple lifestyle was freedom and that people who worked for others and pursued material possessions were enslaved.

  • Did you meet any other people? Though Thoreau did live alone and often avoided communication, he would encounter other people during his time by Walden Pond. Beyond random chance encounters with locals, he would go see friends in Concord, and particularly valued interactions with people whose character he admired.
  • Isn’t it lonely? Thoreau admits to feeling lonely during this time, but believes that people can feel lonely even when they’re around others and he believed nature to be an excellent companion. As a transcendentalist, Thoreau believed heavily in the importance of the individual and would argue that loneliness isn’t something to combat by finding other people, but by searching within one’s own heart.

Themes in Walden

There are many recurring themes in Walden. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Seasons: The changing seasons drives the narrative of Walden. He has chapters devoted to ‘Winter Animals,’ ‘The Pond in Winter’, and ‘Spring’. Winter looms large in the book, as many preparations must be made for the coming cold. A Massachusetts winter can seem bad enough to someone with access to modern heating and a Starbucks – imagine preparing for a New England winter living alone in a cabin!
  • Dislike for materialism: Thoreau would have hated a show like MTV’s Cribs and would have been horrified by someone like Paris Hilton. He advocated for a simple life and rejection of material possessions beyond what was necessary. This notion is likewise related to his focus on self-reliance, as he argues that building his own home allows him to fully own it, versus someone who takes out a loan with the bank and technically does not own the things he considers his.

  • Rejection of ‘progress’: In the ‘Sounds’ chapter, Thoreau seems annoyed by the local train that disturbs the peace of Walden Pond when it passes. Transcendentalists didn’t really see the point of travel, preferring to stay in one place to focus on the journey of one’s self, and of one’s mind. Thoreau thought modern developments like the train were just something new to enslave people.

Lesson Summary

In summary, Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in a cabin outside Concord, Massachusetts, near a place called Walden Pond, because he wanted to understand himself and be completely self-reliant. He documents his experiences and observations in the American classic Walden. Though Walden champions simplicity and rejects materialism and modern technology, it’s important to note that at the end of the book, Thoreau has declared his experiment over and is back living in the modern world again.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Summarize Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his purpose for writing it
  • Identify and discuss the themes of Walden

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