Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...©
a book-length series of essays centering on the ideas and activities of
Henry David Thoreau during his residence at Walden Pond in northeastern
Massachusetts, near Concord, from July 1845 to September 1847.
Boston firm of Ticknor and Fields published the work in 1854 under the
title Walden, or Life in the Woods. Thoreau shortened the title
to Walden upon publication of the second edition of the work in
writes of his experiences at and near Walden Pond, a lake about twenty
miles west of Boston and two miles south of Concord. There, he built a
small dwelling on the northern shore of the pond. If one walked around
the pond, he would cover 1.7 miles. Thoreau frequently ventured into the
woods in the vicinity and often visited the nearby town of Concord for
news and supplies.
uses first-person point of view and frequently switches to second-person
point of view to address the readers, as the following passage from Chapter
1, "Economy," demonstrates:
Be sure that you
give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves
them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not
merely abandon it to them. We make curious mistakes sometimes. Often the
poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross.
It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him
money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. I was wont to pity the clumsy
Irish laborers who cut ice on the pond, in such mean and ragged clothes,
while I shivered in my more tidy and somewhat more fashionable garments,
till, one bitter cold day, one who had slipped into the water came to my
house to warm him, and I saw him strip off three pairs of pants and two
pairs of stockings ere he got down to the skin, though they were dirty
and ragged enough, it is true, and that he could afford to refuse the extra
garments which I offered him, he had so many intra ones. This ducking was
the very thing he needed. Tone
tone of Walden ranges from lighthearted to deeply serious. Thoreau
delights in the activities of a partridge or mouse in one chapter, expresses
awe at the marvels of nature in another chapter, and soberly comments on
morality, philosophy, religion, and related subjects in another chapter.
Henry David Thoreau:
Author of Walden and a native of Concord, Massachusetts.
Wood-Chopper and Post-Maker:
French Canadian of Thoreau's acquaintance. Although he lacks a formal education,
he is interested in books. Thoreau translates a passage from Homer's Iliad
for him. Thoreau says of him, "A more simple and natural man it would be
hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over
the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him. He was about twenty-eight
years old, and had left Canada and his father's house a dozen years before
to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm . . . perhaps in his
native country ("Visitors").
John Field: Impoverished
Irish-American farmhand in whose dwelling Thoreau takes shelter during
a storm. Thoreau describes him as honest and hard-working but aimless and
inefficient. "He had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here
you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day," Thoreau says. "But
the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue
such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the
state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and
other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the
use of such things" ("Baker Farm"). If Field built his own little house
(as Thoreau did) and gave up his desire for meat, tea, and coffee, he could
live a better life, the author maintains. Thoreau's attitude toward Field,
overall, is patronizing.
Mrs. Field: Wife
of John Field. Thoreau criticizes her, calling her a woman with a "round
greasy face and bare breast" with a "never absent mop in one hand, and
yet no effects of it visible any where" ("Baker Farm").
Children of Mr. and Mrs.
Hollowell: Man from
whom Thoreau purchased a farm before building his cottage at Walden. He
sold the farm back to the Hollowell after the latter's wife regretted her
husband's decision to sell the farm to Thoreau. Thoreau sold the farm for
the same price at which he purchased it.
Channing: Minister who visited Thoreau at Walden. Channing was an organizer
of groups opposing slavery, war, and drunkenness.
James Collins: Irish
worker on the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau buys his shanty and uses its
boards to build his Walden cottage.
Mrs. Collins: Wife
of James Collins.
who pulls nails, staples, and spikes from the boards of the Collins shanty
and keeps them for himself. He does so whenever Thoreau leaves the shanty
site to haul the boards to Walden.
Cato Ingraham: Deceased
slave who once occupied a house east of Thoreau's land at Walden.
Deceased slave who planted apple trees down the road from Walden Pond.
The trees still yield apples.
Fenda: Wife of Brister
Freeman. She was a fortuneteller.
Owner of Brister Freeman.
People who once had an orchard in the vicinity of Walden Pond.
Zilpha: Black woman
who once made linen for Concord residents. English soldiers burned her
house in the War of 1812.
Irish Laborers: Men
who cut blocks of ice from the pond for commercial use.
Poet: Visitor to
Runaway Slave: Man
who arrives at Walden Pond on his way to Canada. Thoreau helps him.
visitor to Walden.
Old Fisherman: Visitor
to Walden with whom Thoreau occasionally goes fishing. He can no longer
hear, but Thoreau finds him a welcome companion.
Hunter: Old man who
visited Walden once a year in warm weather to bathe in the pond.
Weston Squire: Man
searching for his hunting dogs.
Sam Nutting: Man
who hunted bears and traded their skins in Concord for rum.
Le Grosse: Neighbor
Boys who burn down a hut on an election day.
Gilian Baker: Owner
of a cat whose long fur on its sides flattens out to resemble wings. Baker
lives in Lincoln, about two miles south of Concord Battlefield.
Mrs. Baker: Wife
of Gilian Baker.
Wyman: Deceased potter
who lived in the woods near Lincoln. He refused to pay taxes.
opens Walden with a message for his readers: Live your life according to
your convictions; have the courage to be different, regardless of what
other people say.
opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion," he says.
"What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates,
his fate" ("Economy").
too many people go the way of crowd, allowing others to determine or dictate
their destiny. And so, they do not live life fully; something is missing.
In fact, Thoreau says, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"
however, listens to his own inner voice. He even ignores the so-called
wisdom of older people: "You may say the wisest thing you can, old man—you
who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind—I hear an irresistible
voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the
enterprises of another like stranded vessels" ("Economy").
describes the cottage he constructed in woods near Walden Pond, about one
mile from Concord, Mass. The dwelling is on the land of his friend, fellow
writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The cottage has a room fifteen feet long and
ten feet wide, an attic, a closet, windows on each side of the cottage,
and a brick fireplace. Thoreau paid $28.50 for the materials, which include
boards and nails from the shanty of an Irishman with whom he struck a bargain.
He also incurred expenses for oil, clothing, household goods and tools,
and various other items.
furniture, part of which I made myself . . . consisted of a bed, a table,
a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair
of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper,
a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a
jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp," Thoreau notes ("Economy").
addition, he borrows some needed items, such as an axe. Before completing
the dwelling, he plants beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. Thoreau
takes up residence in his new home on July 4, 1845. He still has plastering
to do and a chimney to build.
Thoreau says he once decided to purchase a farm and live on it. It belonged
to a man named Hollowell. But when he had the deed in hand, Mrs.Hollowell
regretted her and her husband's decision to sell the place, and she asked
Thoreau to sell the farm back to them. He did.
The real attractions
of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement, being, about
two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and
separated from the highway by a broad field; its bounding on the river,
which the owner said protected it by its fogs from frosts in the spring,
though that was nothing to me; the gray color and ruinous state of the
house and barn, and the dilapidated fences, which put such an interval
between me and the last occupant; the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees,
nawed by rabbits, showing what kind of neighbors I should have; but above
all, the recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river,
when the house was concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through
which I heard the house-dog bark. ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for").......But
Thoreau retains the desire to for a place in a secluded rural setting.
His purpose in fulfilling this desire at Walden, he says, is
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 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 text. ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived
spends part of his time at Walden reading books. He keeps a copy of Homer's
on a table in his house. Occasionally, he opens the book and reads a few
pages. It was not for nought, he says, that Alexander the Great took The
Iliad with him wherever he went on his long marches in foreign lands.
some days, when the beauty of nature and a bright sun beckon, "I sat in
my sunny door from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines
and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while
the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by
the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's
wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time" ("Sounds").
house sits on the side of a hill. In his front yard, plants thrive, including
johnswort, shrub oaks, goldenrod, sandcherry, and groundnut. The sounds
are pleasant to listen to—hawks, pigeons, small ground animals. But there
are also the sounds of civilization—in particular, from a little more than
a third of a mile to the south, the sounds of the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau
The whistle of the
locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream
of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless
city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous
country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they
shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes
through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your
rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that
he can say them nay . . . When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo
with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing
fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon
they will put into the new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the
earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. ("Sounds").......The
railroad becomes a familiar sight in society. It brings commerce, tells
men the correct time, takes people to far off places, and disturbs Thoreau's
sleep. After a train passes, Walden becomes serenely quiet again—save for
the sounds of nature, such as the song of a whippoorwill, or "the faint
rattle of a carriage" ("Sounds") on a distant road. Thoreau loves to hear
the screech owls—"their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along
the woodside"—and the hoot owls. The latter make "the most melancholy sound
in nature," he says ("Sounds").
evening, Thoreau enjoys a walk along the shore of the pond even though
it is cloudy, windy, and cool. Bullfrogs croak, the whippoorwill sings,
the leaves flutter, and the pond ripples with little waves. On some nights
when he returns from walks, he finds tokens visitors have left—flowers
picked nearby, an evergreen wreath, or a walnut chip or leaf bearing a
name written in pencil.
of the time he is alone at Walden.
have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself," he says ("Solitude").
alone with nature does not make him melancholy or lonely, however. Even
when it rains, he is happy. For storms make music, and rain makes his crops
grow. When violent weather comes, he enjoys the cozy protection of his
little house. He does not miss the hubbub at "the depot, the post-office,
the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, or busy
sections of big cities" ("Solitude").
says, "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. I
love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable
as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among
men than when we stay in our chambers" ("Solitude").
he enjoys solitude, Thoreau does not eschew visitors, and occasionally
one comes his way. One of them is an escaped slave on his way to Canada.
Thoreau helps him.
Thoreau's bean crop thrives. He has such a bounty of beans that he sells
a goodly part of his crop for $8.71 and uses the money to meet many of
goes into Concord every day or two—generally in the afternoon, after spending
the morning reading, writing, or doing outdoor work. In town, he takes
in the latest gossip.
homoeopathic doses, [the gossip] was really as refreshing in its way as
the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs," he says ("The Village").
his visits to town, he also buys necessities such as rye and Indian meal.
One afternoon when he goes to Concord to pick up a shoe at the cobbler's,
he is arrested and jailed because "I did not pay a tax to, or recognize
the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children,
like cattle, at the door of its senate-house" ("The Village"). He is released
the next day after someone pays his back taxes, then gets his shoe and
representatives are the only people who ever bother him, he notes. Others
respect him and his abode.
tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire," he says, "the literary
amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening
my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had
of a supper" ("The Village").
does not always eat indoors. Often, he dines in woods or along a road.
The fare is huckleberries and blueberries picked fresh when they are in
is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never
plucked them," he says. "The ambrosial and essential part of the fruit
is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they
become mere provender" ("The Ponds").
from Walden Pond is a frequent entree when he dines in. Sometimes he fishes
in a boat with a neighbor, and sometimes—after returning from town in the
evening—he fishes by the light of the moon while "serenaded by owls and
foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown
bird close at hand" ("The Ponds").
pond—about a half-mile long—is deep and pure, he says. Having no detectable
inlet, it receives its water from the clouds and from evaporation. The
water is so clear that one can see the bottom in some places. While fishing
for pickerel through a hole in the ice in the winter, he says, he accidentally
dropped an axe through the hole. But thanks to the clarity of the water,
he was able to see and retrieve it with a slip knot on the end of a long
are three other ponds in the vicinity: Flint's Pond, Goose Pond, and White
Pond. But only White Pond has the same crystal-clear water characteristic
of Walden Pond. It is two-and-a-half miles to the west.
the fish in Walden Pond, besides pickerel, are perch, pouts, shiners, chivins,
and eels. In addition, there are a few mussels. In and around the pond
are frogs, turtles, minks, muskrats, ducks, geese, kingfishers, and fish
day while walking through the woods, Thoreau passes through Pleasant Meadow,
part of the Baker farm. Thoreau had once considered purchasing the farm.
Rain begins to pour, forcing him to take shelter under a pine tree for
half-an-hour. Soon he is standing in a pool of water, just as thunder rumbles.
He makes a dash for a hut, which supposedly is uninhabited. But when he
enters it, he finds John Field, an Irishman, along with his wife and children.
Field is a hard-working farmhand who makes very little money for his effort—$10
to dig up an acre of land for a local farmer, along with the right to use
the land for a year. Thoreau tries to persuade him to build his own place.
If he imitated Thoreau—who does not rely on meat, butter, and milk as his
main fare and does not drink coffee or tea—he could get along well. Field
could catch plenty of fish for his family and harvest wild-growing fruits.
However, Field wants to pursue the American dream his own way. But Thoreau
doubts whether he will ever graduate from his hard labor in the fields.
his stay at Walden, Thoreau realizes that fishing and hunting spring from
man's primitive side as opposed to his spiritual side. He begins to make
progress in moving away from his primitive side. "There is unquestionably
this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation," he
says; yet with every year I am less a fisherman . . . " ("Higher Laws").
develops an aversion to animal food, explaining that.
The practical objection
to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had
caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have
fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more
than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well,
with less trouble and filth. ("Higher Laws").......Thoreau
also prefers water to coffee, tea, and especially alcoholic beverages.
If he has to be intoxicated by anything, he says, it should be by the air
to morality, he says, "Goodness is the only investment that never fails"
("Higher Laws"). He also says,
Chastity is the
flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the
like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God
when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our
impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is
dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established. ("Higher
day, Thoreau "visits" himself, becoming a hermit and a poet who talk to
each other. The hermit comments on the silence in the woods. He has not
heard a locust for three hours; the pigeons apparently are all asleep.
Then he hears rustling in the leaves. He wonders, "Is it some ill-fed village
hound yielding to the instinct of the chase? or the lost pig which is said
to be in these woods, whose tracks I saw after the rain?" ("Brute Neighbors").
asks the poet how the world is treating him. The poet says the great sight
he has beheld so far on this day is the clouds, which show up in all the
old paintings. The poet and the hermit go off to catch fish.
then discusses animals, which he calls his "brute neighbors." A strange
kind of mouse inhabits his house. It can climb the sides of the room like
a squirrel. When Thoreau finishes his meals, it comes over and eats the
crumbs, showing no fear. On one occasion, it runs up his leg and onto his
sleeve. He sends one of these strange creatures to a naturalist, who finds
it interesting to study.
becomes interested in the habits of partridges, in particular the way the
young observe their mother's calls to evade humans. If a person approaches,
the mother signals them to disperse, and they become part of the landscape—resembling
dried leaves or twigs—making them difficult to detect. He also studies
birds and otters and witnesses an all-out battle between red ants and blacks
ants. These insects are fighting fiercely to the death, literally tearing
one another limb from limb. He takes into the house a wood chip on which
three ants are locked in combat and places it under a microscope.
Holding a microscope
to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing
at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler,
his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to
the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick
for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone
with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour
longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had
severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads
were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow,
still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with
feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a
leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which
at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass,
and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. . . .I never
learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt
for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed
by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle
before my door. ("Brute Neighbors")Thoreau ends his discussion
of his brute neighbors with a description of the wild sound of the loon
and the ways ducks escape the guns of hunters.
leaves begin taking on their autumn colors in September, and in October
wasps by the thousands begin taking refuge in Thoreau's cottage from the
coming cold weather.
Moles find a home in his
cellar, along with Thoreau's store of potatoes, which they nibble on.
he builds a chimney from old bricks after studying masonry. He also plasters
the walls of his house, making it warmer.
All the attractions
of a house were concentrated in one room; it was kitchen, chamber, parlor,
and keeping-room; and whatever satisfaction parent or child, master or
servant, derive from living in a house, I enjoyed it all. Cato says, the
master of a family . . . must have in his rustic villa "cellam oleariam,
vinariam, dolia multa, uti lubeat caritatem expectare, et rei, et virtuti,
et gloriae erit," that is, "an oil and wine cellar, many casks, so that
it may be pleasant to expect hard times; it will be for his advantage,
and virtue, and glory. I had in my cellar a firkin of potatoes, about two
quarts of peas with the weevil in them, and on my shelf a little rice,
a jug of molasses, and of rye and Indian meal a peck each. ("House-Warming").......Thoreau
tells of blacks who once lived in the region. One was Cato Ingraham, the
slave of Duncan Ingraham, of Concord, who constructed a house for Cato
in Walden woods east of what is now Thoreau's bean field. Cato may have
come from Guinea. Another was Zilpha, who made linen for Concord residents
and was noted for her excellent singing voice. English troops burned her
house—which was at the corner of Thoreau's property—during the War of 1812.
A third was Brister Freeman, the slave of Squire Cummings, who lived just
down the road. The apple trees he planted continue to bear fruit. His wife,
Fenda, was a fortuneteller.
Thoreau has visitors.
the snow, when I returned from my walk at evening I crossed the deep tracks
of a woodchopper leading from my door, and found his pile of whittlings
on the hearth, and my house filled with the odor of his pipe. Or on a Sunday
afternoon, if I chanced to be at home, I heard the cronching of the snow
made by the step of a long-headed farmer, who from far through the woods
sought my house, to have a social "crack"; one of the few of his vocation
who are "men on their farms";(13) who donned a frock instead of a professor's
gown, and is as ready to extract the moral out of church or state as to
haul a load of manure from his barn-yard. We talked of rude and simple
times, when men sat about large fires in cold, bracing weather, with clear
heads; and when other dessert failed, we tried our teeth on many a nut
which wise squirrels have long since abandoned, for those which have the
thickest shells are commonly empty. ("Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors") .......A
poet also visits Thoreau, sometimes traipsing through deep snow or tempests
to reach Walden. So does Ellery Channing, a minister who organized groups
to oppose slavery, war, and drunkenness.
the cold months of winter, Thoreau spends most of his time alone except
for the animals that entertain him—muskrats, owls, mice, squirrels, foxes
hunting for partridge, red squirrels, rabbits. Sometimes Thoreau puts out
sweet corn for the animals. There are birds, too, that catch his attention,
such as chickadees and jays.
times, there is a great deal of activity at Walden Pond from laborers cutting
blocks of ice for merchants.
spring thaws the pond and the countryside, Thoreau enjoys another show,
the rebirth of nature.
concludes the recounting of his stay at Walden Pond with these observations:
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. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular
route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week
before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it
is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is
true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep
it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of
men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty,
then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition
and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go
before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see
the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. ("Conclusion")
Discovery and Enlightenment
Chapter 2 ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for") Thoreau enunciates the
main theme, discovery and enlightenment, when he explains why he decided
to live alone in the woods for a time.
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 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 . . . .Self-Reliance
choosing to live alone in the woods, Thoreau also chose to rely primarily
on himself to sustain his body and his mind. He devoted substantial portions
of the book to how he built his house, how he planted and harvested his
crops, how he obtained supplementary food through fishing and foraging,
how he entertained himself and enriched his life by observing nature and
forest life, how he educated himself through books and contemplation, and
how he remained active in the world through visits to Concord and through
positions he took on major issues of the day, such as slavery, and activities
he undertook to promote his positions.
Respect for Nature and
Thoreau exhibits respect for nature and its wildlife. His experience at
Walden, in fact, breeds in him a desire to give up his gun and fishing
pole. Of Walden Pond, he says in "The Ponds":
I am its stony shore,
Opposition to Slavery
And the breeze that passes
In the hollow of my hand
Are its water and its sand,
And its deepest resort
Lies high in my thought.
makes many references to the inhumanity of slavery in Walden, written
before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
When Thoreau encountered a runaway slave at Walden, "I helped [him] toward
the northstar," he says.
is more, Thoreau declares in Walden. Living simply frees you of
worry about material possessions and rewards you with more time for what
really counts in life. Throughout his book, Thoreau returns again and again
to the theme of a simple life. Following are quotations from the first
chapter, "Economy," that focus on this theme.
The ancient philosophers,
Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been
poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.
Encroachment of Technology
It is desirable that a man
be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and
that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy
take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed
Who knows but if men constructed
their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves
and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally
developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas!
we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other
birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical
if one would live simply
and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and
not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive
things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground,
I learned from my two years'
experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one's
necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet
as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory
dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply off a dish of purslane
(Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted.
acknowledges the importance of technological advancement, represented in
Chapter 4 ("Sounds") by the railroad. But he also bemoans its detrimental
effect on the environment and on his peaceful existence at Walden. Disturbed
that the railroad carries trees stripped from forests, he writes, "Warned
by the whizzing sound [of a train], I look up from my book and see some
tall pine, hewn on far northern hills, which has winged its way over the
Green Mountains and the Connecticut, shot like an arrow through the township
within ten minutes." He then comments that " I will not have my eyes put
out and my ears spoiled by [the locomotive's] smoke and steam and hissing."
Thoreau criticizes American
society for not doing more to improve itself. For example, in the following
paragraph, Thoreau criticizes the town of Concord for failing to take the
necessary steps to improve its educational system.
We boast that we
belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides
of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture.
I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for
that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked, —goaded like
oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of
common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved
Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested
by the state, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article
of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment. It is time that
we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we
begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities,
and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure—if
they are indeed so well off—to pursue liberal studies the rest of their
lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever?
Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies
of Concord? Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to us? Alas! what with
foddering the cattle and tending the store, we are kept from school too
long, and our education is sadly neglected. ("Reading")Writing
Approach and Style
living at Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote notes for use in Walden and
other works. Then he pieced together his notes, memories, impressions,
and so on to write of his days at Walden and the thoughts he incubated
there on social, moral, and other issues. He did not necessarily want the
reader to imitate his lifestyle; rather, he wanted to prod the reader into
writing style is succinct. His sentences are sometimes short and—though
he preached simplicity in writing—sometimes long and involved. Following
are examples from the first chapter, "Economy," of the long and the short
of his sentence structure.
and obscure references occur frequently in Walden. An example is
this passage in "Economy": It is said that Deucalion and Pyrrha created
men by throwing stones over their heads behind them. (In Greek mythology,
Deucalion was the son of Prometheus, who created humankind. Pyrrha was
Deucalion's wife. The king of the gods, Zeus, decided to destroy humanity
in a great flood, but Deucalion and Pyrrha survived on an ark they constructed.
After the ark came to rest on a mountain, they created a new crop of humans
by throwing stones of Mother Earth backward, over their shoulders. Deucalion's
stones became males; Pyrrha's became females.)
The mass of men lead lives
of quiet desperation.
What I have heard of Bramins
sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging
suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens
over their shoulders "until it becomes impossible for them to resume their
natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids
can pass into the stomach;" or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot
of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth
of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars,—even these
forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than
the scenes which I daily witness.
was deft at fashioning quotable and pithy axioms. Here are examples:
Use of Anaphora
The finest qualities of our
nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate
handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
I would rather sit on a pumpkin
and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. ("Economy")
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. ("Economy")
I say, beware of all enterprises
that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. ("Economy")
To be awake is to be alive.
("Where I Lived and What I Lived For")
A man is rich in proportion
to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. ("Where I Lived
and What I Lived For")
I have a great deal of company
in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls." ("Solitude")
Things do not change; we change.
"What old people say you cannot
do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds
for new." - Walden
frequently uses anaphora, a figure of speech in which a word or group of
words occurs at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.
Following are examples.
Some have asked
what I got to eat; if I did not feel
lonesome; if I was not afraid; and
should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to
eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they
begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?
is hard to have a southern overseer; it
is worse to have a northern one.
would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than
be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather
ride on earth in an ox cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven
in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.
When we are unhurried and
wise, we perceive that only great and
worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,—that
petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. ("Where
I Lived and What I Lived for")
Yet I experienced sometimes
that the most sweet and tender, the
most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural
object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. ("Solitude")
Many of our houses, both
public and private, with their almost
innumerable apartments, their huge
halls and their cellars for the storage
of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to me extravagantly large
for their inhabitants. ("Visitors")
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of symbols in Walden are the following:
Walden Pond: (1) Thoreau's
self-reliance, implied by the fact that the pond has no detectable inlet;
(2) the depth of Thoreau's convictions. Regarding the latter, note the
following passage in "The Pond in Winter":
I fathomed it easily
with a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half, and could
tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much
harder before the water got underneath to help me. The greatest depth was
exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which
it has risen since, making one hundred and seven. This is a remarkable
depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the
imagination. What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the
minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a
symbol. Ice Cutters: Society's
invasion of nature for profit. The icemen cut away ten thousand tons of
ice for commercial use.
Railroad: (1) Progress;
(2) technology's invasion of the countryside; technology's unwholesome
effects on civilization.
Thoreau begins "giving birth" to Walden in the spring of 1845.
War of the Ants:
The brutality of war between humans.
The Bean-Field: Thoreau's
connection with the earth and nature. Note the following passage in the
chapter entitled "The Bean-Field": "I came to love my rows, my beans, though
so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got
strength like Antaeus." (In Greek mythology, Antaeus was a Libyan giant
who challenged all passers-by to a wrestling match. He was unbeatable so
long as his feet touched the earth, his mother. Hercules defeated him by
lifting him off the ground and crushing him with his arms.
July 4: Date of Thoreau's
personal declaration of independence. (He moved into his new home at Walden
Pond on July 4, 1845.)
late summer during Thoreau's first year at Walden Pond, he was arrested
when he was in Concord to pick up a shoe at a cobbler's. "I was seized
and put into jail," Thoreau says, because, as I have elsewhere related,
I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which
buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its
arresting officer was Sam Staples, a tax collector and constable. He was
attempting to collect poll taxes. After spending the night in jail, Thoreau
gained his freedom the following morning after a woman paid his back taxes.
The incident demonstrated Thoreau's willingness to back up his words with
believed every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize
and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through
the physical senses. Using this inborn knowledge, an individual can make
a moral decision without relying on information gained through everyday
living, education, and experimentation. One may liken this inborn knowledge
to conscience or intuition.
and others who believed that this inborn knowledge served as a moral guiding
force were known as transcendentalists—that is, they believed that this
inner knowledge was a higher, transcendent form of knowledge than that
which came through the senses. Because Thoreau and his fellow transcendentalists
trusted their own inner light as a moral guiding force, they were possessed
of a fierce spirit of self-reliance. (A central theme in Walden
is self-reliance.) They were individualists; they liked to make decisions
for themselves. If the government adopted a policy or a law that offended
their consciences, they generally reacted strongly.
and other works by Thoreau express his reaction and measured response to
government dictums that legitimized slavery and the Mexican War. Transcendentalism,
as Thoreau’s moral philosophy was called, did not originate with him or
his fellow transcendentalists in New England but with the German philosopher
Emanuel Kant. He used the word transcendental to refer to intuitive or
innate knowledge—knowledge which is a priori rather than a posteriori.
Study Questions and Essay
How do Concord residents view
Thoreau's decision to live alone at Walden Pond?
Would you characterize Thoreau
as a hermit?
If he were alive today, would
Thoreau install a computer and Internet connection in his cottage at Walden
Write an essay evaluating the
impact of Thoreau's writing and ideas on later writers and thinkers. Use
library and Internet research.
Write an essay that explains
the transcendentalist movement.
Thoreau opposed the Mexican
Do you agree with Thoreau's
observation that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"? Explain