Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden as a personal declaration of independence, memoir, and a social experiment. On July 4, 1845 (Independence Day), Thoreau moved into the cabin he built at Walden Pond on land which his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had purchased. He would spend two years, two months, and two days living at the pond. He didn’t go there with the intention of writing Walden, nor did he intend to use his time there to “live deliberately.”  However, these things happened naturally. According to Jeffrey S. Cramer, the editor of Penguin’s The Portable Thoreau, “his account… transformed… into Walden, when the “I” changed from the personal pronoun to a representation of the everyman, or the every-person, or of the possibilities of the every-person” (198). For Cramer, it is important that we read Walden not as mere autobiography but as “a book about man living,” that asks important questions about life itself (ibid).

The project of Walden is deeply inspired by Transcendentalist philosophy and the American Romantic period. It focuses on self-sufficiency, simple living, personal introspection, and living in nature.

Plot Summary

I chose to read three sections of Walden:

Part memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden opens with the announcement that Thoreau spent two years at Walden Pond living a simple life without support of any kind. Readers are reminded that at the time of publication, Thoreau is back to living among the civilized again. The book is separated into specific chapters, each of which focuses on specific themes:

Economy: In this first and longest chapter, Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a cozy, “tightly shingled and plastered”, English-style 10′ × 15′ cottage in the woods near Walden Pond.[4] 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.[4] Thoreau meticulously records his expenditures and earnings, demonstrating his understanding of “economy”, as he builds his house and buys and grows food. For a home and freedom, he spent a mere $28.12½, in 1845 (about $934 in 2018 dollars). 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. Much attention is devoted to the skepticism and wonderment with which townspeople greeted both him and his project as he tries to protect his views from those of the townspeople who seem to view society as the only place to live. He recounts the reasons for his move to Walden Pond along with detailed steps back to the construction of his new home (methods, support, etc.).

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: Thoreau recollects thoughts of places he stayed at before selecting Walden Pond, and quotes Roman Philosopher Cato‘s advice “consider buying a farm very carefully before signing the papers.”[5] His possibilities included a nearby Hollowell farm (where the “wife” unexpectedly decided she wanted to keep the farm). Thoreau takes to the woods dreaming of an existence free of obligations and full of leisure. He announces that he resides far from social relationships that mail represents (post office) and the majority of the chapter focuses on his thoughts while constructing and living in his new home at Walden.[4]

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 travelers.[6] He yearns for a time when each New England village supports “wise men” to educate and thereby ennoble the population. 1

Notes & Quotes

  • Thoreau is interested in gaining the ability to live completely in the present or in “the nick of time” (210). While speaking directly to his readers, he states that “I have no doubt that some of you who read this book… have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour” (202). For Thoreau, living in society often means being poor and in debt to others. Time must be spent in working to pay back these debtors, but he imagines his readers guilty of taking time to read. By leading a self-sufficient life in nature, Thoreau is able to be in debt to nobody- something he is very careful of, as evidenced by his account of making sure the ax he borrows to build his house at Walden Pond is returned more sharp than it was when first loaned to him (229). Additionally, through this experiment, Thoreau works for himself and owns his own time and life.
  • 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. (271)

  • In the above quote, Thoreau briefly summarizes his goal in living at Walden Pond (although, as stated in the background section, Cramer doesn’t believe that these were really his original intentions). Thoreau’s fear of not truly living (are those in civilization the living dead by his estimation?) pushes him to “live deliberately” with only the bare essentials of life, which can only be done in nature. Earlier in Walden, he asks “But why do men degenerate ever?” (209). The answer for Thoreau appears to be that men degenerate when they are not truly living, when they are enslaved by their own property, when they don’t own their own time/life, and when they live in civilization and are therefore not entirely self-sufficient. This view is the exact opposite of the ideology posed by ecogothic texts, which work on the belief that wilderness is dangerous in its ability to infect humans and turn them wild and violent. For Thoreau, the wilderness makes him into more of a man (or human) while civilization infects and degenerates mankind.
  1. Summary from Wikipedia.

Walden (1854) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.