Literary Qualities

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’s actual stay at Walden lasted two years, two months and two days. The book presents a single year, beginning in early spring 1845, when he starts work on the cabin, and ending the following spring after the ice has melted on the pond. The chapters are carefully linked to assure continuity. Thoreau employs metaphors with a skill that makes his work a prose poem surpassing the traditional poems he wrote during his lifetime. The pond itself is a central metaphor, its purity a standard to which all humans should aspire. Metaphors suggesting rebirth and renewal are frequent, and express Thoreau’s almost missionary zeal.

Thoreau’s imagination reworked his experience into an American myth. He drew freely from other sources, especially his journals, in his revisions of Walden. His account of his life and thought at Walden Pond struck a strong responsive chord in the American consciousness. Although Thoreau often sounds like a sage in his pronouncements, he was essentially a writer, and most critics now agree that Walden should be considered a piece of imaginative literature rather than an autobiography or nature book. Thoreau, who never read novels, not even those of his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, would not have liked this conclusion. But in Walden he created a Henry David Thoreau quite different from the one who spent those two years by the pond.

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