Although about an actual experience two years in a log cabin in the woods, Thoreau's Walden is now usually read as a journal of personal freedom and awareness. It is a treasure on both levels.
Thoreau walked into the woods on 4th July 1845. They did not take long to get to, being only a couple of miles from the centre of Concord, Massachusetts, where he had lived most of his life. Yet solitude could still be had, and Thoreau wanted to strip life to its core, away from the lies and gossip of society. After building a ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin, his time was pretty much free. Yes, he did grow some beans to sell at market, but even this he enjoyed, and continued with it only as long as necessary to cover some very modest costs. An idyllic life ensued, of walks, reading, watching birds, writing, and simply being.
This is a concept so foreign to most people, then as now, that it seems either a waste of time, or subversive. Yet Thoreau felt that he was richer than anyone he knew, having everything he materially needed and the time to enjoy it. The average person, with all their things, had to constantly labour to afford them, meanwhile neglecting nature's beauty and the gentle work of the soul, which solitude brings.
Thoreau lived in the time of slavery. He once spent a night in jail for not paying his taxes to the government that maintained it. But his objection was not just to the slavery of the Negro, but slavery of all people. As one commentary has noted (Michael Meyer, 'Introduction', Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin, 1983, pp 25&27), Walden could be seen as an emancipation narrative, the chronicle of an escape from delusion. For Thoreau, the metaphorical deep South was two miles away; Concord, though it contained friends and family, was a sort of prison people did not know they were in, enslaved by materialism and conformity. Thoreau famously declared to his blank page, 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.'
The impact of Walden
With his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau now stands as a pillar of what might be called the ethic of American individualism. The irony of this is that they both railed against so much of what the United States and other Western countries have arguably become: rich consumer playgrounds shadowed by a lack of personal meaning. Yet Walden, and the writings of Emerson that so influenced it, is as attractive as ever to those seeking something more. Many of the thoughts and ideas in it have entered public consciousness, and it has been one of the key inspirations for the modern generation of personal development writers. For example, among the descriptions of nature and people we find these now-famous lines:
If one advances confidently in the direction of his own dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours .
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour.
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.
And this, which could have been written by Deepak Chopra:
The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.
Walden was also ahead of its time in environmental sensibility. It roughly follows the sequence of the seasons; Thoreau enjoys the winter (having built himself a fireplace and chimney) but particularly looked forward to the power and grace of spring's renewal. Nature was worth saving for its own sake, but few things were more instructive to the examined life than the trees, the waters and the creatures. In one classic confession, he remarks, "A match has been found for me at last: I have fallen in love with a shrub oak."
And in some of the more poetic lines, Thoreau conveys a feeling of oneness with his environment:
This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is in one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.
Yet what the author sees in nature is never long left unrelated to what he sees in us:
I should be glad if all the meadows of the earth were left in a wild state, if that were the consequence of men's beginning to redeem themselves.
Progress and prosperity
A railroad passed by the other end of Walden Pond, and its busy comings and goings amused and fascinated Thoreau. Technological progress reflected the nation's glory - or did it?
Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour...; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.
This poke against the obsession with innovation and newness is spot-on for today's culture too.
It comes as no surprise that Thoreau dismissed the Benjamin Franklin style of up-by-the-bootstraps hard work heroism. Social standing was unimportant, and prosperity was less something to be achieved as to be witnessed in the bounty of nature. Thoreau did not 'do much' throughout his twenties. Work was only necessary to buy time to read, write and enjoy nature.
But this does not mean that we have to go and live in a hut and sow beans - Thoreau's woods are symbolic of the abundance of nature generally, which provides everything when we make the decision to act true to ourselves. By staying in the 'village' of our minds, fearing what the next person will say about us, we will only see evidence of lack, pettiness and limited horizons. His oft-quoted lines on staying unique:
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 he hears, however measured or far away.
Walden is the collective musings of a free spirit, deeply knowledgeable of the classics, Eastern religion, native Indian lore and nature itself, sketched out against a background of great physical beauty and stillness. What better vacation for the reader's mind? The book invites you to become Thoreau's companion, enjoying the woods and Walden Pond as he does, and delighting in his commentary on people and society.
Near the end of Walden there is the story of a beetle that emerged from an old table, resurrected after a 60-year hibernation, thanks to the heat of an urn placed upon it. The story sums up Thoreau's philosophy, in that he felt all of us have the potential to emerge from the 'well-seasoned tomb' of society, like the beetle, to enjoy the summer of life.
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Walden Pond was on land owned by Emerson. In the years following the experience, Thoreau worked as a land surveyor, whitewasher, gardener, as well as lecturing and writing for magazines, including the Transcendentalist journal Dial. In 1849 he wrote Civil Disobedience , the essay provoked by opposition to the Mexican war which was to influence Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The essay Slavery in Massachusetts was published in 1854, the same year as Walden. Cape Cod (1865) and A Yankee in Canada (1866) followed his death in 1862. Emerson's essay Thoreau marvels at his friend's phenomenal knowledge of nature and practical skills.