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Walden and Civil Disobedience (Penguin American Library) Paperback – August 25, 1983
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Critical of 19th-century America’s booming commercialism and industrialism, Henry David Thoreau moved to a small cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts in 1845. Walden, the account of his stay near Walden Pond, conveys at once a naturalist’s wonder at the commonplace and a transcendentalist’s yearning for spiritual truth and self-reliance. But Thoreau's embrace of solitude and simplicity did not entail a withdrawal from social and political matters. Civil Disobedience, also included in this volume, expresses his antislavery and antiwar sentiments, and has influenced resistance movements worldwide. Both give rewarding insight into a free-minded, principled and idiosyncratic life.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,800 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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About the Author
Kristen Case teaches at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she is associate professor of English. She is the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe (Camden House, 2011) and Little Arias, a collection of poems (New Issues Press, 2015). She is coeditor of Thoreau at 200: Essays and Reassessments (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and has published articles on Thoreau, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William James. She lives inTemple, Maine.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
WALDEN AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
HENRY DAVID THOREAU was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817. Self-described as “a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot,” Thoreau was known for his extreme individualism, his preference for simple, austere living, and his revolt against the demands of society and government. The several years he spent in a homemade hut, writing and observing nature, resulted in Walden (1854). He was the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Civil Disobedience (1849), Excursions (1863), and The Maine Woods (1864). Thoreau died in Concord in 1862.
MICHAEL MEYER teaches American literature at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Several More Lives to Live, Thoreau’s Political Reputation in America–awarded the Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize by the American Studies Association–and coauthor, with Walter Harding, of The New Thoreau Handbook. Mr. Meyer has published articles on Thoreau, in a variety of journals.
With an Introduction by
On July 4, 1845, while many Americans waved miniature flags amid the sounds of firecrackers and bells in honor of their country’s independence, Henry David Thoreau unceremoniously moved his meager belongings from his parents’ home in Concord, Massachusetts, to a cabin beside Walden Pond, where he would quietly declare and celebrate his own independence. For Thoreau, the true America was yet to be discovered, and its revolution was still only a promise rather than an achievement. As the patriotic citizens of Concord noisily showed their colors, this native son methodically began weaving the flag of his disposition out of the hopeful green stuff he explored in the woods less than two miles from the center of town. Unlike Walt Whitman, who populated his writings with the “divine average,” Thoreau “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Thoreau demanded a singular relationship with nature that would allow him to leave behind the average and the mundane so that he could discover the liberating divinity within himself and his world. He pledged allegiance not to the Republic but to the individualism for which he stood.
Although Thoreau went to the pond for solitude, he was not entirely alone in spirit. On the day he settled into his ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin, Margaret Fuller, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century appeared in February of the same year, published an article titled “Fourth of July” in the New York Daily Tribune. Instead of offering readers the usual holiday panegyric, Fuller chastised Americans for their toleration of slavery and their mean pursuit of wealth. She grieved that they were not as free and independent as their forefathers envisioned. Hearing little cause for hope in the country’s popular cry, she searched elsewhere for a voice that could lead a wayward nation back to “the narrow path” of virtue. According to Fuller, it was in “private lives, more than in public measures” that “the salvation of the country” was to be found. She called for “individuals” who could be “shining examples” and whose “deeply rooted characters . . . cannot be moved by flattery, by fear, even by hope, for they work in faith.” Fuller asked if there were any “on the threshold of manhood who have not yet chosen the broad way into which the multitude rushes, led by the banner on which, strange to say, the royal Eagle is blazoned, together with the word Expediency?” The individuals among her readers were urged to reject that well-traveled road and to pursue “the narrow, thorny path where Integrity leads.”
The language of Fuller’s article is worth preserving because it serves as an unintentional advertisement for Walden, though the book was not to be published until 1854, nine years later. The problem that she identifies—America’s slavish materialism—and the remedy she proposes—individual action based on principle—were among the chief reasons Thoreau took the path to the pond. If the narrator of Walden stands for anything, it is as an “example of the practicability of virtue,” the deeply rooted, self-cultivated individual who has the power to awaken his neighbors from their torpid lives of expediency to lives of principle. Fuller’s impassioned anticipation of Walden was a coincidence but not an accident, for she shared with Thoreau some of the same values and concerns that characterized the Transcendentalists of the period.
Because the Transcendentalists were eclectic rather than systematic, any brief description of their views tends to be reductive. For nearly every principle that can be attributed to the movement, it is possible to find a Transcendentalist whose values and attitudes would require a qualification. As James Freeman Clarke observed about himself and his contemporaries, the Transcendentalists were “a club of the likeminded, I suppose because no two of us thought alike.” The unity within this diversity was a feeling that American literature, philosophy, and religion, as well as government, society, and individuals, were not fulfilling the potential that the Transcendentalists believed was possible. Although Thoreau refused to be a member of any collective movement, he did occasionally refer to himself as a Transcendentalist (partially because this self-description could be counted on to confuse and dismay people). He sympathized with the Transcendentalists’ desire to move beyond the surfaces of American life—its commerce, technology, industrialism, and material progress—to a realization that these public phenomena were insignificant when compared with an individual’s spiritual life. “In the long run,” Thoreau declares in “Economy,” the first chapter of Walden, “men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”
The targets that the Transcendentalists aimed at were not always identical, but they consistently aimed high. This small group of New England idealists (among the more famous in addition to Fuller were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very) had an impact on American culture and literature that is hardly reflected in the few activities that actually constituted the movement during the 1830s and 1840s. Indeed, their primary activities were forms of self-expression rather than the kinds of social, economic, or political actions that the bustling nineteenth century would have been likely to comprehend. They discussed, wrote, and lived their ideas instead of inventing machines, initiating commercial enterprises, or introducing legislation. The major activities associated with the Transcendentalists as a group can be quickly summarized: some attempted to reform what Emerson eventually dismissed as “corpse-cold Unitarianism”; some participated in discussions of the times and the eternities during meetings of the informal Transcendental Club from 1836–40; some published and wrote for the Dial (1840–44), their quarterly journal of literature, philosophy, and religion; and some founded two different utopian communities, Brook Farm (1841–47) and the much less successful Fruitlands (1843–44).
Not all the Transcendentalists were involved with these projects or even supported them. Thoreau never considered himself a Unitarian (though the church attempted to claim him as one) and so he did not bother himself with formally repudiating their rationalistic orthodoxy as Emerson did. Thoreau did, however, attend many of the discussions of the Transcendental Club when they were held at Emerson’s house in Concord. He clearly shared Emerson’s belief that each generation must discover the world through its own eyes rather than through the eyes of previous generations, but in rejecting the dead hand of the past, Thoreau was disinclined to join hands with his contemporaries, even when they shared the common goal of enjoying “an original relation to the Universe,” as Emerson put it in Nature (1836). Thoreau did lend a hand to the Dial, which developed out of the discussions of the Transcendental Club. When the journal began in 1840, only three years had passed since Thoreau’s graduation from Harvard, and he was eager for an opportunity to publish his writings where they might be appreciated rather than graded. Over the next four years he published under the editorships of Fuller and Emerson more than thirty essays and poems in the Dial; he also edited the April 1843 issue. Although the Dial’s circulation remained small throughout its run and the hostile reviews it generated gave Transcendentalists notoriety as dreamy, unintelligible obscurantists rather than fame, the journal nevertheless provided Thoreau a vehicle with which to begin his career as a writer. He did not, however, join or endorse the utopian collective that George Ripley began at Brook Farm for the purpose of uniting the thinker with the worker. Nor would Thoreau have anything to do with the high-minded eccentricities of Amos Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, where a vegetarian diet excluded carrots and potatoes, because their roots grew down into the earth instead of aspiring toward heaven. Thoreau acknowledged their lofty aims but he could not abide their methods. He placed a higher premium on his privacy and made clear that he would not relinquish it for what he regarded as little more than a Transcendental “boardinghouse.” Thoreau’s own family home was a boardinghouse run by his mother, and he had experienced enough there to know that noble thoughts were often crowded out of such arrangements. His two-year retreat to Walden Pond was his response to the communal efforts of the Transcendentalists.
Thoreau shared the disappointment and dismay the Transcendentalists expressed concerning the lack of integrity they saw in American life. What characterized and distinguished these thinkers from most Americans was not their sometimes peculiar diets but a hunger for a living religion infused with inspiration and a sense of the mystery of life rather than the nationalistic, expedient perspectives provided by State Street, the Custom House, or the respectable ministries of the church. The Transcendentalists, it is true, were part of a broader reform impulse during the period that sought changes in nearly every phase of American life: tracts were written, lectures delivered, journals published, and conventions held to dispense benevolent advice on such matters as education, prison reform, capital punishment, women’s rights, poverty, the handicapped, the ill, the insane, marriage, domestic economy, gambling, peace, and slavery. Almost nothing escaped the scrutiny of reformers; what could not be improved upon could be abolished. Even Walt Whitman published, in 1842, Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, a temperance novel. But as much as Transcendentalism can be placed in this larger context of reform, the Transcendentalists sought, in addition to amelioration, liberation from the pervasive sterility and materialism they saw informing the bad faith all around them.
What most attracted Thoreau to Transcendentalism was not its social activism; he was drawn instead to the Transcendentalists’ attitudes concerning the desirability and necessity of cultivating one’s self. He had as little patience with reformers as he did with the problems that they attempted to reform. Reformers were unctuous and meddlesome; their “slimy benignity” he found uncomfortable, unclean, and unsettling. Thoreau demanded that they examine their own lives before prodding and poking around in someone else’s life, especially his: “If I knew for a certainty,” he wrote in Walden, “that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” This helps to explain why he recoils from any suggestion that he is foisting his way of life on his readers; instead, he insists that each reader of Walden “be very careful to find out and pursue his own way.” He offers his life as an example of how one can live “simply and wisely”; he does not prescribe a rigid program. In Thoreau’s mind, individual discipline, intellectual growth, and spiritual development were the only true methods of reform, methods that required neither conventions, membership lists, nor contributions. True reform was interior, private, and wholly individual. Reforming one’s self meant discovering the divinity within one’s self.
Thoreau followed Emerson in locating God within one’s soul and in nature. Because absolute values and authority could be discovered within one’s self rather than in the pulpit, the tract, the statute book, or the marketplace, a person could be totally independent and free if this divinity was developed and given expression. The problem was how one could know whether or not divinity was in man and nature when it could not be proven by traditional, logical, rational discourse. The Transcendentalists solved this problem by using other than analytic means to affirm that one soul circulates through all of creation. Rejecting the Lockean sensationalism and Common Sense philosophy then prevalent, which argued that knowledge could only come through the senses, the Transcendentalists insisted that this empirical argument was not responsive to a higher, ultimate reality, the world of the spirit. An act of consciousness, not experience, allowed the Transcendentalist to perceive the spiritual reality latent in matter. The experience of the senses was only one mode of perception used to organize visible phenomena so that physical properties and laws were understood. More important than this was a higher perceptual faculty—the power of one’s imagination—which spontaneously intuited the invisible spiritual reality underlying all natural phenomena. Because the true self was inseparable from God, this semirevelatory perception transcended the material world of space, time, and matter to apprehend absolute permanent spiritual life. The highest “wisdom,” Thoreau believed, “does not inspect, but behold.”
In addition to Thoreau’s God-reliant inner voice, there was another major source of sound teaching that informed the conduct of his life. His nature studies of flora and fauna, along with his detailed notes of cycles and seasons, were efforts to be instructed not only in the facts of nature but also in its ultimate meanings. As a naturalist Thoreau paid close attention to the facts he recorded in his journals. Because he perceived them through the eyes of a Transcendentalist as well, he had faith that those seemingly disparate facts would one day fuse into universal spiritual truths. Nature’s facts constituted a language for Thoreau, a language with which he could build a spiritual world that he carefully reconstructed in Walden. Having built his cabin on Emerson’s land, he also built his book on much of the groundwork Emerson provided in Nature, “The American Scholar,” and “Self-Reliance.” There were other important sources from the classics, Oriental literature, travel literature, and studies of the American Indian—sources that account for the rich allusive quality of Thoreau’s writings—but Emerson’s influence was seminal. This is not to say that Thoreau’s achievements were little more than a practical handyman’s imitation of Emerson’s thought or that there were neither differences nor frictions between them (they sometimes found each other incomprehensible and irritating), but it is to say that Emerson’s generosity granted Thoreau the landscape he needed for his explorations into nature and himself and that Emerson’s early, ebullient essays encouraged him to see that landscape from a Transcendental perspective.
For all of Thoreau’s sauntering, there was something very straight and narrow about his rambles through the woods. His announced purpose in Walden was to “transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.” Having found that Concord offered no opportunities for meaningful work, he took up the business of spiritual exploration, which was the only genuinely important work a Transcendentalist could pursue. What he left behind in the village was the “mass of men” who unconsciously lived “lives of quiet desperation,” unaware of their own highest needs and best desires. Rather than live a “desperate” life, Thoreau insisted upon living “deliberately.” He consistently used the word “desperation” to characterize the lives of his neighbors but described his own life as a series of “deliberate,” carefully weighed strategies that allowed him “to front only the essential facts of life.” He wanted to learn what those facts could teach him about living before he became as insensitive and blind as the neighbors he both pitied and satirized in his writings.
From the point of view of many people in Concord (neighbors that Thoreau complained were overfed, overprotected, overdressed, and overheated), he was underemployed. While he objected to their superfluities, they deplored what appeared to be a life of irresolution. In 1845, at the age of twenty-eight, he had after all done little for a graduate of Harvard College. Why was he not a clergyman, a lawyer, a farmer, a businessman, or at least a teacher? He could have pursued several professions or gone west in search of opportunities the way many of his contemporaries did. Instead, he had spent most of his time in his parents’ house. After his graduation, Thoreau was fortunate to be offered a job teaching in the public school in Concord where he had once been a student. Given the seriously depressed economy of 1837, his salary of five hundred dollars made the position both respectable and prudent, but he lasted little more than two weeks, resigning when he was instructed by the school committee that he was expected to use corporal punishment to discipline his students.
Because no other jobs turned up, Thoreau helped his father manufacture pencils until the following year, when he opened a private school in the family home with his brother John. The school closed in April 1841, owing to John’s failing health. In that same month, Thoreau moved into Emerson’s house, assuming the role of live-in handyman for two years. Next, during the summer of 1843, he moved to Staten Island, New York, for more than seven months to tutor the children of Emerson’s brother. This was the longest he lived anywhere as an adult outside of Concord. Quite naturally, he disliked New York, complaining that it was “a thousand times meaner” than he feared it would be. While at Staten Island, he avoided Manhattan in favor of finishing an essay about a winter walk through Concord. He returned home but abandoned teaching as a profession after his tutoring in Staten Island. As he explains in Walden, he had “tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”
If he was going to teach, it would be on his own terms in his writings. The cost of a thing for Thoreau was measured by how much life he had to give for it, a sensible rate of exchange by any standard. Consequently, he was content to live simply and modestly, because he believed that freedom meant learning to do without the trappings of a more complicated life. By working at what were essentially part-time jobs—ranging from pencil-making, carpentry, masonry, gardening, and surveying to lecturing—he was able to devote the better part of his time to his walks in nature, reading, and, most of all, to his writing. Writing did not pay his bills, but it sustained him nevertheless. He kept a journal, not a ledger, from the time he left Harvard until shortly before his death, in 1862, at the age of forty-four.
Modern editions of Thoreau’s writings come to over twenty volumes, but until the day he carted his few pieces of furniture, household items, and books to the pond, he had only published a few dozen essays and poems and delivered some lectures. His neighbors could hardly be blamed for not recognizing his vocation as a writer, because there was little work in print to suggest that he was a serious literary artist. Nor had he yet been allied in the public’s mind with the ecological and conservationist concerns that he is identified with in the twentieth century. He was notorious, instead, for carelessly burning down some three hundred acres of prime Concord timber (worth more than two thousand dollars) because he did not adequately clear the brush around a fire he made to cook some fish he and a companion had caught. Thoreau did not sufficiently apologize, if he did at all, to satisfy his neighbors, who remembered the incident long after those acres were reforested. He was perceived as slightly arrogant, aloof, and contrary. Even Emerson shrewdly remarked in his funeral address for Thoreau that there was something “military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition.” Emerson knew Thoreau for twenty-five years as a neighbor, writer, and thinker as well as a resident in his home. Appreciating much of his character, values, and prose, Emerson also had a good sense of what disturbed Thoreau’s neighbors and sometimes himself and was, perhaps, to disturb some twentieth-century readers too. Emerson understood how Thoreau’s aspirations were occasionally “a little chilling” to those who did not aim as high: “He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise . . . his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations of our daily thought.”
Thoreau did thrive on “opposition.” Much of his best writing is the result of the tension produced by the ideal life he envisioned and the shabby experience he actually encountered. Few readers would find Walden as provocative and challenging without Thoreau’s satirical assessments of life in Concord and civilization in general. These critical reminders serve as an effective foil to nature, emphasizing its role as a sane, reliable alternative to the meaningless complexity of the village. Without such opposition, it would be difficult for the narrator of Walden to “feel himself.” Thoreau certainly wanted to awaken his neighbors, but equally apparent is the personal delight his satire reveals when he finds them asleep. Many people in town saw this as Thoreau’s way of beating his own drum; therefore, recriminations were inevitable and he was judged to be out of step and out of tune with the measured beat of Concord. However, Thoreau’s opposition and impatience were related more to his Transcendental values than to a studied indifference toward living harmoniously with his neighbors. His insistence upon a moral, spiritually meaningful life would not permit him to have anything to do with compromise.
Emerson’s essay on “The Transcendentalist” provides a revealing profile of Thoreau’s personality. The essay was written in 1841 while he lived in Emerson’s house, and though Thoreau is not mentioned in it, his presence is evident in Emerson’s description of the “exacting and extortionate critics” whose “insatiable expectations” demand they withdraw from societal values and public rituals. These youthful Transcendentalists have “found that, from the liberal professions to the coarsest manual labor, and from the courtesies of the academy and the college to the conventions of the cotillion-room and the morning call, there is a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming, which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without an aim.” Their temperaments and principles cause them to reject the world’s work for their own, and with Thoreau that meant writing. Like the exemplary heroic individual that Margaret Fuller searched for on July 4, 1845, Thoreau was not to be detoured from his calling by money, by disapproval, or by fear, because he worked in faith. The pond was to teach him that the art of writing and the art of living were inseparable.
At the pond he became a citizen of somewhere else, a place where his imagination and pen were free and fluent. There he wrote drafts of the two books he would publish during his lifetime, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. A Week commemorated a boating trip Thoreau made in 1839 with his brother, John, who died suddenly in 1842. Filled with quotations and a steady stream of discussions on literature, philosophy, religion, history, and other topics, the book seems to have been more a product of Thoreau’s readings and reflections than of his experience. Although modern critics have argued that the book is unified, many readers have found its organization distracting and difficult to follow. When published in 1849, it sank into immediate oblivion, offering little hint that Thoreau would one day be regarded as a major American writer. Out of an edition of 1,000 copies, about 75 were given away, some 100 sold, and, in 1853, the remaining 706 copies were shipped to Thoreau’s house when his publisher would no longer store them in a Boston cellar. Thoreau joked in his journal that “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself,” but this experience was nonetheless painful and chastening.
Although the failure of A Week was costly to Thoreau financially and emotionally, Walden profited from the experience. While at the pond, from July 1845 to September 1847, Thoreau worked on a first draft of Walden, which he originally planned to publish shortly after A Week in 1849. However, the mediocre reception and almost nonexistent sales of A Week changed those plans, and so Walden was not published until 1854, after it had gone through more than a half dozen drafts that skillfully incorporated and revised journal materials from April 1839 to April 1854. The major effect of these revisions was to unify his recreation of his experiences at the pond. Thoreau’s two years in the cabin were carefully shaped into one year in order to follow the natural cycle of the seasons, thereby grounding the narrator’s spiritual growth in nature’s rhythms. Walden is more than simply an account of a life in the woods. His prose successfully evokes nature without being sentimental or distorting the natural world. The Transcendental individualist who emerges is appealing and convincing because the vivid details of the woods, the pond, and the seasons are used as symbolic means to validate his vision of a spiritual life.
Walden was more widely reviewed and sold more copies than A Week, but there was neither extraordinary praise nor impressive sales for what was to become an American classic in the twentieth century. Its initial run of 2,000 copies was not sold out until 1859. Like Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), Walden would have to wait for later generations of readers to establish its importance in American literature. Though there were contemporary readers who appreciated the book, the only significant literary artist to review Walden within a year and a half of its publication was the English novelist George Eliot, who, in a brief notice appearing in the Westminster Review (January 1856), admired the “deep poetic sensibility” that informed the natural description in the book and defended its “unworldliness”: “People—very wise in their own eyes—who would have every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy.”
The utilitarian point of view that Eliot describes was very much on Thoreau’s mind. Thoreau was fond of pointing out that his sensibilities were antithetical to Benjamin Franklin’s when it came to getting an honest living. Franklin’s frugal industry led the way to wealth, but Thoreau was less interested in the self-made man than he was in the self-made soul. Poor Richard did not speak to the dispirited condition Thoreau diagnosed among his contemporaries. Committed to saving himself rather than his money, Thoreau economized for the purpose of buying time to cultivate himself. He kept scrupulous accounts of what he earned and how he spent his money, but the rationale behind his lists of expenses and earnings was to demonstrate how little he needed, not how much he could accumulate. He bought time (working only about six weeks a year) to be free, to be alert to the “infinite expectation of the dawn.” He associated the morning with the kind of alertness that could redeem the rest of a day, or a life, from sleepy unconsciousness. The cock crowing—Chanticleer, waking up his neighbors—was one of his favorite sounds; hearing that, “Who would not be early to rise, and rise earlier and earlier every successive day of his life, till he became unspeakably healthy, wealthy, and wise?” This humor in Walden is at Franklin’s expense. Perhaps no single comparison of passages better measures the distance between Franklin’s and Thoreau’s sensibilities than the following revealing lines. In “The Way to Wealth,” Franklin repeatedly warns against going into debt, because as Poor Richard says, “For age and want, save while you may; / No morning sun lasts a whole day.” In Walden, however, Thoreau concludes his book with these final words designed to serve as a beginning for his readers: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” With Franklin there is a sense of desperation, of time running out, of life closing down, but with Thoreau, this constriction gives way to expansiveness and open-endedness. Thoreau, like the Artist of Kouroo in the concluding chapter of Walden, believes that there is time to live deliberately if a commitment is made “to strive after perfection.” Measure life in loan payments and time quickly runs out; measure life by infinite values and time keeps out of the way. The economic freedom that Franklin prescribed for eighteenth-century Americans exacted too high a price from the souls of nineteenth-century romantics such as Thoreau. He offered his readers the peace and freedom of a balanced soul rather than the security of balanced books.
When Thoreau describes his life at the pond in Walden, he exudes good feelings and confidence. There he can “go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” Antaeus-like, he draws strength from nature and creates a personality that shares with the reader his insight “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.” In this innocent environment he can shed imposed social identities to discover an essential self not dependent upon “the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance.” His essential self is nature’s self: free, autonomous, and symbolic of an infinite spiritual identity that all human beings can potentially become.
The unabashed announcement on the first page of Walden that Thoreau is writing about himself should not prevent his readers from recognizing that, despite all those first-person singular pronouns (the printer ran out of the type pieces for them setting the first edition), his purpose is to reveal more about the reader than himself. His “simple and sincere account of his own life” is less genuinely autobiographical than it is an image of Transcendental individualism carefully posed, cropped, and retouched. For example, when Thoreau makes his principled case for abstaining from “animal food” in “Higher Laws,” he knows better than to mention that he had all his teeth pulled (they had troubled him for years) and replaced by dentures at the age of thirty-three, in 1851. There is more at stake here than preserving the chronology of his stay at the pond. The facts of his life are shaped and reconstituted for the purpose of telling not so much the whole truth as they are for creating a representative identity that readers can use, in Margaret Fuller’s words, as a “shining example.”
A number of studies have successfully distinguished between the heroic myth created by Thoreau’s art and the historical identity who created it. Evidence abounds that the historical identity who brilliantly builds his own world in memorable sentences, clever wordplays, puns, startling paradoxes, and the many other rhetorical strategies created to open his readers’ eyes to the unlived possibilities of their lives was more complex and vulnerable than the symbolic Transcendental individualist who discovered himself at Walden Pond. The identity that intones “I make my own time, I make my own terms” is not the same voice heard in a chatty letter home to his parents from Staten Island when he was twenty-six, a letter that ends with: “I miss you all very much. Write soon and send a Concord paper.” This may render Thoreau less heroic to some people—perhaps even a fraud to those who read Walden carelessly and demand isolation when Thoreau preferred only solitude—but to many his created identity becomes all the more interesting as a work of art in light of the inconsistencies, tensions, and doubts in his life. The “shining example” also turns out to be a human being.
Thoreau’s readers must turn to biographies to learn about the actual circumstances of his life, for Walden provides only his symbolic identity, an identity created to free his readers from the confining circumstances of their own lives. As for freedom from circumstances, there are numerous similarities (and inversions) between Thoreau’s “autobiography” and Franklin’s. Many commentators have noted these qualities, but there is another pertinent analogy to be made, one that has not attracted much attention. One can see Walden as close to another tradition in American literature, the slave narrative. Given the quest for personal freedom in Walden, and given Thoreau’s antislavery sympathies in the ferment of his times, Thoreau’s work glows in the context of another kind of literary effort to achieve liberation. Although the Morning Star and the North Star are in different parts of the sky and shed different kinds of light, they both pointed to a dawn of freedom.
Two days after he moved to the pond and a little over a month after Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself was published and selling extremely well, Thoreau reflected upon slavery in his journal and later included this in Walden: “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, [when] there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south.” What Thoreau expresses here is not callousness concerning the plight of black Americans but an anxiety that we are all slaves. Just four months before his escape to the pond, Thoreau described Frederick Douglass in the pages of the Liberator as “a fugitive slave in one more sense than we; who has proved himself the possessor of a fair intellect, and has won a colorless reputation in these parts; and who, we trust, will be superior to degradation from the sympathies of Freedom, as from the antipathies of slavery.” Despite the obvious puns, Thoreau makes a subtle point: being white does not necessarily mean being free. Thoreau’s narrative addresses itself to Americans who were legally free but not spiritually free; in that sense Walden can be read as a white version of a slave narrative. In the Narrative Douglass creates an identity that explains how a single slave becomes a free man, and, more significantly for the cause of abolitionism, how blacks are the human, spiritual equals of whites. Both the Narrative and Walden are, in part, about human potential, and each employs an emblematic life to dramatize the fulfillment of that potential.
“It is hard,” Thoreau wrote at the beginning of Walden, “to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” This may appear as a luxurious white perspective, but the parallel Thoreau draws between the major moral and political issue of his time and the conditions he sees his readers laboring under is worth pursuing for a moment. Whereas Douglass refutes proslavery arguments that blacks were happy to be in bondage because they were less than human, Thoreau challenges the assumption that the majority of his readers were happy to be the slave-drivers of themselves because they lived in material comfort. He saw them as the tools of their tools, herded by their own herds, their lives mortgaged to landscapes they half owned but never saw. Thoreau describes the village world he left behind as a moral trap; its failures are presented satirically rather than urgently, but that makes the village no less dangerous to Thoreau’s consciousness and desire for autonomy. The heroic journey he takes from a slave-driven life to freedom is not through fierce struggles and dismal swamps but through experiments in self-culture, self-discipline, and his announced commitment to living a life dedicated to principle. Just as ex-slaves chronicled the dehumanizing effects of slavery on blacks, so does Thoreau lament the coarsening desperation and despair of misspent lives. Like an ex-slave looking back on a dead past, Thoreau tells us he is fully capable of living more than a predetermined life. His signing off from the social values of his contemporaries is the individual, moral equivalent of slaves’ voting with their feet. Readers come away from slave narratives shocked by descriptions of injustice and human waste, and they come away from Walden startled by the realization that they have forged their own limitations, chaining themselves to impoverished values. The ex-slave exposes the welts on his back, and Thoreau reveals the subtler interior scars (where the meanings are, as Emily Dickinson would say) that previously had been covered over by a social fabric.
The point of this sketchy and reductive comparison is not to suggest that the free northern white suffered in the same way as the enslaved southern black, but to turn attention to the fact that both Thoreau and Douglass ultimately use their lives as models to ratify the human potential their representatives’ lives are created to embody. To note these similarities is not to collapse the radical differences that are so painfully obvious when one compares what Douglass had to endure with what Thoreau chose to do without. Although they were born within six months of one another—Thoreau in the nick of time, Douglass in the worst of times—the kind of freedom Thoreau imagined was several generations beyond the fundamental liberties Douglass had to steal for himself.
Perhaps the major difference between the identities presented in their writings is that Douglass’s purpose is to convince his mostly white readers that he is really no different from them. His life gives the lie to racist ideology. Obversely, Thoreau attempts to alert his readers to the possibility that they can be like him. This crucial difference allows Thoreau considerably more latitude. He can be outrageous, he can exaggerate, and he can be whimsical, because he is writing essentially for those readers who are already politically and socially like himself. Douglass, on the other hand, was burdened with the task of demonstrating that blacks were fully capable of living conventional virtuous lives and following Franklin’s advice. It is difficult to imagine Douglass or any ex-slave in the middle of the nineteenth century writing a witty, subversive sentence about the work ethic like this one of Thoreau’s: “It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.” Thoreau had the liberty to write sentences that continually outmaneuvered his readers with his rhetoric because he had to worry only about raised eyebrows rather than raised fists. He knew his task was not to reassure his readers by appealing to their dormant or undeveloped sense of decency but “to leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.” Thoreau had nothing to lose because he was convinced that a person was “rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and public approval was one of them. Acceptance was not a prerequisite to freedom as it had to be for Douglass. No black slave could agree with Thoreau’s emphasis on the primacy of consciousness over experience. “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion,” he insisted. “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”
As much as Thoreau wanted to disentangle himself from other people’s problems so he could get on with his own life, he sometimes found that the issue of black slavery spoiled his country walks. His social conscience impinged on his consciousness, even though he believed that his duty was not to eradicate social evils but to live his life independently of the “trivial” nineteenth century. The abiding concern Thoreau expressed about slavery was centered on the value he placed upon individual freedom and also in the place where he lived. His mother and sisters were deeply involved in antislavery activities, and many abolitionists visited the house. Thoreau never joined any abolitionist organizations (it is impossible to imagine him serving on a committee), but his temperament and environment inevitably led him to take a strong stand on slavery by organizing three powerful essays around the issue: “Civil Disobedience” (1849), “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859).
In the middle of his two-year experiment at the pond, Thoreau was arrested in July 1846 for not having paid his poll tax. He had refused to pay the tax for several years as a way of demonstrating that he did not recognize the authority of a government “which buys and sells, men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” This episode is briefly mentioned in “The Village” chapter of Walden and was the occasion for Thoreau’s writing “Civil Disobedience,” an essay delivered in 1848 as a lecture entitled “The Relation of the Individual to the State” and first printed in Aesthetic Papers in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government.” Not until 1866, after Thoreau’s death, when it was included in a A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, was the essay entitled “Civil Disobedience.” The midsummer’s night in jail was a minor incident in Thoreau’s life, but this symbolic action (someone paid the tax for him) had an enormous impact on his reputation, because “Civil Disobedience” became in the twentieth century what is very likely the most famous essay in American literature.
Neither Thoreau’s night in jail nor “Civil Disobedience” had any impact on the slavery issue. Aside from his neighbors, few people knew about his arrest or read the essay when it finally appeared in print three years later. Ironically, this distinctly American essay first earned its reputation abroad around the turn of the century. Thoreau enjoyed a modest reputation in the United States as a nature writer then, but it was British Labour party members and Fabians who first discovered the usefulness of “Civil Disobedience.” The essay also found a warm welcome from others who shared Thoreau’s intense desire for freedom. Mahatma Gandhi played a significant role in connecting the essay with nonviolent resistance in Africa and India, and Martin Luther King, Jr., cited it often during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as did the activists who protested against the war in Vietnam. The essay has been influential and appealed to a wide variety of individuals and causes that share the belief that individual conscience supersedes civil law when it conflicts with a higher moral law.
Especially since the 1960s, the essay’s reputation has had the effect of transforming Thoreau into a social activist advocating nonviolent resistance as the most effective means of generating social change. This is the Thoreau that has appeared at a variety of demonstrations in the form of posters, sweatshirts, and quotable phrases tucked into speeches. Unlike the Transcendental identity written into Walden by Thoreau, his identity as a social activist was largely manufactured by enthusiasts who were looking for a voice to articulate their own visions. “Civil Disobedience” clearly represents Thoreau’s hatred of slavery and his outrage with a government that wages war to support injustice, but the essay is not entirely representative of his relationship to social issues or his views on reform.
Thoreau’s focus is on the individual’s relationship to government more than it is on the government’s oppression of blacks. Slavery is most certainly the problem, but the more urgent issue that emerges for Thoreau is withdrawing his support from an unjust government. He refuses to pay his tax because he will not participate in the state’s immorality. His withdrawal from unjust government should be seen in the same context as his withdrawal from the village. Thoreau was less interested in changing the world than he was determined that the world would not change him by diverting him from a life of principle: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong . . . but it is his duty, at least to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” Thoreau had an active social conscience that sometimes shifted his vision from the timeless world of spirit to history, but that did not make him a social activist.
Nor was Thoreau an advocate of only nonviolent resistance; he considered a range of apolitical methods. Because he regarded voting and legislative programs as little more than gambling when it came to making moral choices, he placed his faith in other means. In 1843, for example, he published a review of J. A. Etzler’s The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery in which Thoreau argued that internal “moral reform,” not the mechanical, physical means Etzler called for, was the only effective way to create a better world. “Love” is the word Thoreau used to characterize the kind of power that can transform the individual and his world: “it can warm without fire; it can feed without meat; it can clothe without garments; it can shelter without roof; it can make a paradise within [,] which will dispense with a paradise without.” Individual “moral reform” and “love”—a recognition of the Transcendental unity of things—leads up to the self-reliance at Walden Pond. In “Civil Disobedience,” however, Thoreau has less faith that the world can be trusted to take care of itself or that individuals may safely disregard it. He calls on his readers to make a distinction between law and justice and to assert the truth in their hearts over the laws on the books. At the end of his description of how going to jail and resistance to taxation can clog the systems of government and thereby create needed changes, Thoreau includes this sentence: “This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” The final qualification is important because it looks forward to Thoreau’s gradual movement toward accepting violence as a means of ending slavery in America. Though Thoreau liked to think that time kept out of his way, he was nonetheless borne along on the same current of history as the country itself.
By the time Thoreau wrote “Slavery in Massachusetts” in 1854, many Americans opposed to slavery had even less faith in the government’s intentions or abilities to prevent its spreading. Moral suasion and nonviolent resistance could not eliminate the Fugitive Slave Law and the court decisions during the 1850s that thwarted abolitionist efforts. The same year in which Thoreau published his sylvan book about driving life into a corner, he felt driven himself in “Slavery in Massachusetts”: “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” The frustation and rage he expresses in this essay (originally an address delivered before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on July 4) are finally mitigated by his remembering the pure scent of a white water lily, but his violent anger is still apparent.
Four years later Thoreau discovered the “shining example” he had been looking for in John Brown, whose raid on Harpers Ferry in October of 1859 shocked the nation and provided Thoreau with an action that was both symbolic and more promising than tax refusal. Historians have demonstrated how badly planned and futile Brown’s raid was, an assessment that was already obvious in newspaper reports in 1859, but Thoreau ignored both this and the reports that Brown was responsible for a massacre of five unarmed proslavery men in Kansas several years earlier. Thoreau insisted upon seeing Brown as a “Transcendentalist above all” who understood that “the question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it.” Thoreau had had enough: “I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave.” There were other methods than nonviolence to end what for Thoreau had become not only an abomination perpetrated against blacks but also a symbol of a foulness that contaminated the entire human race.
There is evidence available indicating that when Thoreau discovered that neither nonviolent civil disobedience nor Sharp’s rifles in the hands of a righteous “Transcendentalist” were capable of resolving the slavery issue, he briefly turned to black emigration outside the United States as a possible solution. This would allow blacks to withdraw from white exploitation and oppression, an action not totally unlike Thoreau’s reasons for moving to the pond. The impracticality (and injustice) of this approach suggests how desperate Thoreau was to get on with the business of focusing on his own liberation. Indeed, just before the start of the Civil War he wrote an abolitionist friend that “I do not so much regret the present condition of things in this country (provided I regret it at all) as I do that I ever heard of it.” And, “As for my prospective reader, I hope that he ignores Fort Sumpter [sic], and Old Abe, and all that, for that is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal, weapon you can direct against evil ever.” Even knowing about evil made him feel complicit in it. Being socially active meant for Thoreau being spiritually dormant, and yet he could not turn his back on the most important moral and political issue of his time.
Thoreau was inconsistent in his attitudes toward reform because the solutions he advanced were only provisional, though the issues he raised were chronic. Emerson says as much in his eulogy: “He lived for the day, not cumbered and mortified by his memory. If he brought you yesterday a new proposition, he would bring you to-day another not less revolutionary.” This, in part, accounts for one of Thoreau’s most impressive stylistic qualities—his memorable and quotable aphorisms, which were Franklinesque in style, didactic purpose, and tradition, however anti-Franklinesque in sentiment. These direct, sharp, incisive sentences give his readers a sense that what needs to be said has been said. He takes an idea and shapes it into an expression that seems to settle the matter permanently, though everything else remains fluxional. His sentences provide a momentary stay against confusion: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right”; “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one”; “He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light”; “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Depending upon one’s own sensibilities, these may or may not be true, but they certainly feel true. His sentences stick like burrs, reminding us of where we have been and where we would like to be. Perhaps that is Thoreau’s strength and fascination. His readers can disagree with him, but they can still feel his truth, even when it is only the truth of the moment. He is a pleasure to read despite the fact that his readers often find themselves quarreling with his distinctly nineteenth-century American perspectives, but no one is obliged to follow precisely in his footsteps. Thoreau travels well enough alone.
for Further Reading
Thoreau’s collected works in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston, 1906) will eventually be superseded by The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (Princeton, 1971– ), a more complete edition that incorporates modern textual principles in its editing.
The most extensive guide to scholarship and criticism on Thoreau is Walter Harding and Michael Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook (New York, 1980); following each chapter on his life, works, sources, ideas, art, and reputation is a bibliographical essay listing the sources that inform the discussion. Useful bibliographical sources include Jeanetta Boswell and Sara Crouch, Henry David Thoreau and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism, 1900–1978 (Metuchen, N.J., 1981); and the continuing bibliographies appearing in each quarterly issue of the Thoreau Society Bulletin. The following brief selection of books and articles includes general approaches to Thoreau as well as some specialized studies relevant to Walden and “Civil Disobedience.”
BIOGRAPHY AND GENERAL STUDIES
Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. Lincoln, Neb., 1982.
Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca, N.Y., 1973.
Garber, Frederick. Thoreau’s Redemptive Imagination. New York, 1977.
Glick, Wendell. The Recognition of Henry David Thoreau. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1969.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York, 1965.
Howarth, William. The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer. New York, 1982.
Lebeaux, Richard. Young Man Thoreau. Amherst, Mass., 1977.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York, 1941.
McIntosh, James. Thoreau as Romantic Individualist: His Shifting Stance Toward Nature. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974.
Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration. Urbana, Ill., 1958.
Sayre, Robert. Thoreau and the American Indian. Princeton, N.J., 1977.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man? Amherst, Mass., 1981.
Wolf, William. Thoreau: Mystic Prophet, Ecologist. Philadelphia, 1974.
Anderson, Charles R. The Magic Circle of Walden. New York, 1968.
Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. San Francisco, 1981.
Lane, Lauriat, Jr., ed. Approaches to Walden. San Francisco, 1961.
Michaels, Walter B. “Walden’s False Bottoms.” Glyph. 1 (1977), 132–49.
Moldenhauer, Joseph, ed. The Merrill Studies in Walden. Columbus, Ohio, 1971.
Ruland, Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968.
Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of Walden. Chicago, 1957.
West, Michael. “Scatology and Eschatology: The Heroic Dimensions of Thoreau’s Wordplay.” PMLA, 89 (1974), 1043–64.
Woodlief, Annette M. “Walden: A Checklist of Literary Criticism through 1973.” Resources for American Literary Study, 5 (1975), 15–58.
“CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE” AND SOCIAL ISSUES
Broderick, John C. “Thoreau, Alcott, and the Poll Tax.” Studies in Philology, 53 (1956), 612–26.
Buranelli, Vincent. “The Case Against Thoreau.” Ethics, 67 (1957), 257–68.
Christie, John A. “Thoreau on Civil Resistance.” Emerson Society Quarterly, 54 (1969), 5–12.
Eulau, Heinz. “Wayside Challenger: Some Remarks on the Politics of Henry David Thoreau.” Antioch Review, 9 (1949), 509–22.
Glick, Wendell. “Civil Disobedience: Thoreau’s Attack upon Relativism.” Western Humanities Review, 7 (1952), 35–42.
Herr, William A. “A More Perfect State: Thoreau’s Concept of Civil Government.” Massachusetts Review, 16 (1975), 470–87.
Hicks, John, ed. Thoreau in Our Season. Amherst, Mass., 1966.
Meyer, Michael. Several More Lives to Live: Thoreau’s Political Reputation in America. Westport, Conn., 1977.
——. “Thoreau and Black Emigration.” American Literature, 53 (1981), 380–96.
Moller, Mary Elkins. Thoreau in the Human Community. Amherst, Mass., 1980.
Stoehr, Taylor. Nay-Saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. Hamden, Conn., 1979.
Stoller, Leo. After Walden: Thoreau’s Changing Views on Economic Man. Stanford, Calif., 1957.
A Note on the Texts
The text for Walden is the first edition, published in August 1854 by Ticknor and Fields of Boston. Thoreau made some corrections and notes in a copy of Walden after it was published. Readers interested in these minor changes will find them compiled in Reginald L. Cook, “Thoreau’s Annotations and Corrections in the First Edition of Walden,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, 42 (Winter 1953), 1. On March 4, 1862, Thoreau wrote to Ticknor and Fields requesting that they eliminate the subtitle from any future editions. Therefore, Walden; or, Life in the Woods is now known as Walden.
The text for “Civil Disobedience” is from A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866). There are four significant differences between this text and the first printing of the essay, in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers (Boston, 1849): the titles are not the same; part of a sentence is deleted from the 1866 text; and two brief passages are added to the 1866 text. These variations in the text are identified in the notes to the essay.
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent. Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained. I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
I would fain say something, not so much concerning the Chinese and Sandwich Islanders1 as you who read these pages, who are said to live in New England; something about your condition, especially your outward condition or circumstances in this world, in this town, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and every where, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins2 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. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolas to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.3
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why 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? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables4 never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book,5 laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before. It is said that Deucalion and Pyrrha6 created men by throwing stones over their heads behind them:—
Inde genus durum sumus, experiensque laborum,
Et documenta damus quâ simus origine nati.
Or, as Raleigh rhymes it in his sonorous way,—
“From thence our kind hard-hearted is, enduring pain and care,
Approving that our bodies of a stony nature are.”
So much for a blind obedience to a blundering oracle, throwing the stones over their heads behind them, and not seeing where they fell.
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. 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.
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Ten year's later, I decide that I would pick "Walden" up again. I told myself that I would stop whenever the reading became too discursive or abstract... And I did not stop until I reached the end!
As any student of early American lit. knows, Thoreau built a small house for himself in the woods of Walden Pond in Concord, MA, where he lived for two years (1845-1847), documenting his experiences living there in "Walden." He hoed beans for a living, lived a mile from his nearest neighbor and survived on the absolute minimum that he could. In his downtime, he would swim, fish, read and take in his surroundings, describing every sight and sound with the utmost care. Thoreau creates for his reader an unforgettable Nature-observing experience with such richness of detail that we feel we are right there with him. We hear the owl's cry, we witness the loon diving into the pond and the two ants going head-to-head in battle, we see the blue of Walden Pond. He is a student of Nature of the highest order and extracts from each of these experiences a parable about humanity: what we lack and how we can be free. For Thoreau, Walden Pond is a place of purity, an oasis, an Eastern paradise on earth, a Ganges.
An ardent non-conformist, Thoreau also uses this book as a sounding board for his "radical" views and practices. He detests the railroad and its encroachment upon his land (and more generally, that of technology on human and animal life). He refuses to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery and the Mexican War (for which he is briefly imprisoned during one of his sallies to the village). He prefers Eastern spirituality and meditation to Western religiosity. He spurns the high life and abstains from drinking and eating meat. He believes that man is in a dormant intellectual state, from which he can one day rise and embrace the dawn. And the list continues...
Thoreau's prose is also rather unique. What one must remember is that he is faithful student of Emerson and like Emerson, his paragraphs often contain non sequiturs, digressions and sometimes outright contradictions. It was perhaps this lack of logical linearity that initially kept from enjoying his work as a college student. We must be indulgent with Thoreau: his wit, his aphorisms, his acumen are well worth the sometimes uncomfortable task of deciphering his prose. I am very glad that at nearly the same age as Thoreau, I took a journey to Walden Pond with him.
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Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 10, 2021