Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. His grandfather, Jean, a French Huguenot, had come to Boston in 1773, taken part in the American Revolution, and become a shopkeeper on the city’s waterfront until he moved to Concord in 1800. Thoreau grew up in Concord with his father, John Thoreau, one of the first American makers of lead pencils; his mother, Cynthia Dunbar, a nature lover and abolitionist; his older brother, John; and two sisters, Helen and Sophia.
Since Walden is, on one hand, a sort of spiritual autobiography, Thoreau himself is its central character. The narrator of Walden resembles Thoreau in many ways, but is also a distinct narrative persona. The real Thoreau was a much pricklier personality than the sunny tone of the book indicates. Thoreau as narrator is an apologist for Transcendentalist beliefs and for the rights of eccentric personalities to live as they choose. But privately, as entries in his personal journal have indicated, Thoreau did not always feel that nature held the answer to most social and spiritual problems.
In Walden Thoreau records both his experiment in self-sufficient natural living and his ideas about nature, human society, and the proper way for people to live. In a series of essays, linked by Themes and the progression of the seasons, Thoreau describes building his own cabin and living alone in the woods beside Walden Pond. The result is a blend of Transcendentalist philosophy, autobiography, biting social commentary, and superb nature writing that is unique in American literature. As modern life has become increasingly urbanized, complex, and isolated from nature, Thoreau’s insistence that people should simplify their lives and interact with nature has appealed to a growing number of readers.
Unlike his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau has a sense of organic form, and as a result Walden-in contrast to many of Emerson’s essays-is more than a collection of brilliant, briefly stated ideas. Thoreau revised the book at least seven times after writing the first draft during his stay at Walden. As usual, sections of it were tried out on audiences at his lectures, and rewritten according to their reactions. Walden is Thoreau’s best book, for it displays his keen insight and his skill as a prose stylist.
Thoreau considered himself a reformer, and he genuinely wanted to change human lives for the better. He was distressed by the poverty he saw in the Concord area, but was convinced that the answer to poverty was not philanthropy. Thoreau felt a personal responsibility for the poor but believed that the inner person had to change before gifts or donations would do any good. So he preached to those poor people he met on his walks.
1. Why do you think the essay “Economy” is by far the longest chapter in Walden?
2. What does Thoreau hope to achieve at Walden Pond?
1. Seven centuries before Thoreau, a Japanese philosopher, Kamo no Chomei, carried out an experiment similar to Thoreau’s by living in a cabin in the woods. Compare Hojoki, Chomei’s account of his stay there, to Walden. Hojoki is included in the Norton Anthology of Oriental Literature.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, like Walden, mixes observations of natural phenomena with discussions of their symbolic significance. The Maine Woods and Cape Cod read more like pure travel literature. In these last two books Thoreau encountered forms of nature not easily reconcilable to his faith in an external world friendly to man. In Cape Cod he describes the purely destructive force of a storm at sea. In The Maine Woods he writes of climbing Mt. Katahdin, New England’s second highest peak; he reaches the summit, possibly only the sixth person ever to do so, and is shocked by what he finds there: a grey, barren expanse, strewn with rocks and totally indifferent to human existence. Thoreau’s confidence in a benign nature did not outwardly change, but a reading of his Journals reveals that he sometimes continued an adherence in his published books to ideas that he had privately abandoned.