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Henry David Thoreau



In the mid 1800s a man named Henry David Thoreau borrowed an axe and built himself a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in the woods near Boston. He then lived there, alone, for a little more than two years. He did as little work as possible, only what was absolutely necessary. He wanted to get away from what he called "the lives of quiet desperation" that most men led. He wanted to see if he could become "rich" by making his wants few. He raised beans, observed nature, and wrote in his journal. Seven years after he left the cabin Walden: or, Life in the Woods was published.

Walden may appear to be only a series of essays on topics that don't seem to have much in common- topics such as "Reading" and "The Bean-Field"- but it does follow a literary plan. In the first few chapters Thoreau defines what he called his "experiment in living." He describes how he lived the way he did, how he fed and clothed and housed himself. He also describes why he lived the way he did: "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."

In order to "learn what it [life] had to teach" Thoreau follows many courses. He studies what can be read in the language of literature, and what can be heard in the language of nature. He studies what it means to be solitary. He studies with visitors what it is to be in the company of others.

You follow him through the book- along his travel through space and time- through space first, as he takes you with him, wandering away from his cabin to explore neighboring ponds, the village, and a farm. Then you follow through time as you watch the seasons unfurl in his life: first spring and the building of the cabin; then summer and fall on his walks; then winter with its own society; and then spring again, and the renewal he is always seeking.

When he decides it is time for him to leave the cabin on Walden Pond, he tells you this reason as clearly as he told you his reasons for going: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

Thoreau answered the question about whether he had learned what the experiment had to teach, by saying:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.... If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

[Walden Contents]



There is scarcely a page of Walden that does not make some reference to the place in which it is set. The pond is located in the Massachusetts woods between the towns of Concord and Lincoln, near Boston. Walden is a small pond, a half-mile long and a mile and three quarters around. Its shore is paved with rounded white stones, except for a couple of small sandy beaches. The water is clear and its color depends on the place from which it is viewed. Wooded hills rise up around it on all sides so that it is impossible to see anything beyond it. It has some fish, and it is populated by an assortment of animals and waterfowl.

The cabin that Thoreau built there was shingled and plastered, ten by fifteen feet. It had a chimney with a brick fireplace at one end, a door at the other, and one large window on each side.

Setting refers not only to the site in which a work takes place, it refers to the time in which it takes place, as well. Walden is set during a two-year period between 1845 and 1847 when Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. It was a time before the Civil War, when slavery was still permitted. It was also a time when the Industrial Revolution was taking place, bringing division of labor, factories with poor working conditions and low pay, and a new breed of materialism. And it was the time of the Transcendentalist movement, when the philosophers of the Boston area were conducting experiments in new styles of life that broke with convention.

Walden Pond was not so wild; wilder places still exist near cities today. And the problems of the times were not much different than ours. The setting could be any time and any place and still make sense.



    To Thoreau, the cost of something is not so much its actual cost in dollars and cents, but the amount of life that must be exchanged for it. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can let alone. Rather than accumulating things- possessions- Thoreau wanted the richness of time. His experiment in living at Walden Pond is an attempt to break away from the lives of desperation that he saw most people lead.


    Thoreau was an emphatic opponent of slavery. In fact, while living at Walden Pond he was arrested and jailed for failing to pay the $1 poll tax, a tax levied against anyone registered to vote. His refusal to pay was based on his refusal to support a government that tolerated- if not encouraged- slavery. (His aunt paid the tax and he was released from jail.) But even more prevalent at that time than the enslavement of blacks was everyone's enslavement to the material world- the world of things. At Walden Pond Thoreau found freedom.

  3. TIME

    Our lives are finite so we mustn't waste time on what is unnecessary, "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity," says Thoreau. At Walden Pond Thoreau lived according to what you might call "real time" or "natural time." His day was determined by the sun rising and setting, his years by the seasons. He was not at the mercy of a structure imposed by the industrialized, so-called civilized world.


    Each man must search for his own path, and the search must take place within himself. "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."


    The symbolism of rebirth is mirrored in the structure of the book, in which follows the changing seasons. Thoreau follows the process of decay and renewal as seen in the seasons and in the spiritual growth of a man.


    Thoreau urges us to meet our lives, regardless of what they hold for us. Knowing is always better than not knowing. It is only through this courage that we may find our independent glory.

  7. TRUTH

    In his search for truth a man attains some measure of immortality that he can never achieve in any of his meaner pursuits. The wisdom of the ages is eternal life.


The style of Walden owes a great deal to the way in which the material that makes up the book was first written. Thoreau kept a journal, not only while at Walden, but all his life. It was from the journal of his time at Walden Pond that he constructed the book. When keeping a journal, one tries to make an entry every day. This attempt to keep a daily account often results in brief jottings, and in changing quickly from one subject to another. This is evident when within a single chapter Thoreau switches from one topic to another.

Thoreau was concerned about his prose style. Listen to his description of ideal sentences: "Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build." Thoreau's sentences were, indeed, expensive, distilled as they were from volume after volume of his journals. The fact that they are distilled, and that they were revised several times (there were at least six drafts of Walden) makes them seem concentrated, like nuggets. Thoreau tries to express universal truths, which often results in his sentences being like axioms, propositions accepted as self-evident truths, or being like epigrams. We have to read Walden only once to discover how many familiar quotations have been taken from its pages. It has been said that Thoreau was "a great craftsman whose trade was sentences."


There is never any question about whose point of view is being expressed in Walden. This is characteristic of literary compositions such as the essay, which usually deal with a subject from a personal point of view, and the journal or diary, which is a record of personal activities or feelings. You notice that the key word here is personal. In the second paragraph of Walden Thoreau says, "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained.... We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking."

The voice you hear speaking in Walden is the voice of a man who has lived an experiment. It is not the voice of a "professor of philosophy," defined by Thoreau as one who merely "professes," but the voice of a philosopher, a person who tries to solve some of the problems of life "not only theoretically, but practically."

One function of Transcendentalism was the attempt to influence society with the philosophies of the movement. As a member of the movement Thoreau drew on his own experience to form conclusions that apply to society as a whole. In many places in Walden we find his worldview widening. From the most distant horizon of his far shore to the village that could be seen from the top of a nearby hill, his truths could always be extended to society. You see his point of view broaden from what he sees as his own sun, moon, and stars, to what he sees as a sun that illuminates other worlds as well.

His ability to see and report on two levels lies in what he describes as his "distance" or "doubleness." In the chapter called "Solitude" he says, "I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it." It is from this "doubleness" that he derives his critical judgment. Remember that every search, according to Thoreau, begins within the self. Of this point of view he remarks, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well."


Walden's form lies somewhere between the essay, a literary composition that considers its subject from a personal point of view, and the journal or diary, a daily account of personal activities and feelings. Its foundation is the journals Thoreau kept while at Walden, but he then elaborated on that material to set up larger arguments. Whereas Thoreau was actually at Walden Pond for a little over two years, the span of Walden is one year- from spring to spring. Hence it is more of an essay than a journal.

In its structure, Walden is organic. It follows the course of the natural year. Thoreau describes building his house in the spring, in the summer he moves to the pond, during the early fall he explores the surrounding area, in the winter he explores the area again. Finally we celebrate the return of spring, and the cycle is complete.



ECC [Walden Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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