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"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Walden, or Life in the Woods

“Walden is the only book I own, although there are some others unclaimed on my shelves. Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine. It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest, and I keep it about me in much the same way one carries a handkerchief - for relief in moments of defluxion or despair.” ~E.B. White (Quoted in “The New Yorker,” May 23, 1953)

Walden has always been one of my favorite books, too. It’s basically a personal journal and social commentary that the author wrote during a two-year period (July 1845 - September 1847) when he lived at Walden’s Pond in Massachusetts. Thoreau describes the first year of his life at Walden Pond in great detail, and tells us that the second year was much the same. In his writing, he emphasizes the importance of self-reliance, solitude, and closeness to nature in transcending the “desperate” existence that he believes is the circumstance of most people.

At Walden Pond, Thoreau built a cabin on a tract of land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was two miles from Concord, Massachusetts, and one mile from his nearest neighbor. Where Thoreau lived was not totally isolated, however, and he did not intend to live as a hermit. Thoreau often went to visit friends in Concord, to lecture, and to ramble about the countryside. A railroad passed nearby, and the pond was frequented by farmers, hunters, fishermen, picnickers, and others, including a runaway slave whom Thoreau helped steer in the direction of Canada.

In the opening chapters of Walden, Thoreau describes his motivations for living at Walden Pond. Thoreau seeks both authenticity and simplicity in his life. He wants to experience the spiritual benefits of a natural lifestyle; to live free of encumbrance in order to find inner peace. Thoreau states: “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.” He documents his efforts at living a simplified life by meticulously recording his earnings and expenditures, demonstrating the importance of economy with his only necessities being food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.

According to Thoreau, most people do not own their possessions but are rather owned and enslaved by them. That is what Thoreau told a local farmhand, as he urged him to live an independent but fulfilling life in the woods, thereby freeing himself of employers and creditors. But the man didn’t want to give up his dreams of luxury, which is still the ultimate American dream. Over 150 years later, our materialistic, throwaway society more than ever would be wise to heed Thoreau's message about the satisfaction gained through living simply, and about the difference between want and need.

On a superficial level, Walden is an account of Thoreau’s life in the woods. He tells about the books he read, his activities at the cabin, his efforts to cultivate two-and-a-half acres of beans, the changes of the seasons, the sounds he hears, the pond, woods, plants and animals. An epic battle between red and black ants is described in great detail, as are Walden Pond and its creatures. Thoreau amuses himself by watching wildlife and notices that he is never lonely as long as he is close to nature. While living in this place of pastoral beauty, Thoreau had plenty of time to observe, think and reflect.

On a deeper level, Walden is an exploration of Thoreau’s thoughts. The two years spent living at Walden Pond represented an inner journey in which he spiritually connected with nature, to the extent of viewing the interconnectedness of everything including seeing himself as a vital part of it. Thoreau advises the reader to embark on a similar voyage of self-discovery. We don't need to live in a secluded cabin, journey to far-off corners of the earth, or turn our backs on civilization; we just need to get off the “beaten track” and immerse ourselves in our own special, wild places.

Walden takes a serious approach to wisdom, which is a far cry from the “mind candy” you often find in today's books. Indeed, Thoreau discusses the benefits of reading classical literature and bemoans the popularity of unsophisticated reading material. Walden contains numerous allusions to world history, Greek mythology, classical literature, the Bible, Christianity, even Eastern thought and religion. The book is also filled with many short, pithy, and provocative comments which have become proverbial in American literature and culture; i.e. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” However, Thoreau himself warns against relying too much on literature, believing that people need to get out and experience life for themselves.

Interestingly, Thoreau was ahead of his time in understanding the futility of mass communications when he says: “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Nowadays this could not be closer to the truth – only the names have changed. Do you know who Princess Adelaide is? Do you really care? How much of our so-called “news” is dominated by the likes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and other starlets whose names will soon be forgotten.

Despite Thoreau’s biting criticism of modern society, there has never been a book that better expresses the spirit of American optimism. Thoreau always has an upbeat outlook, turning the negative into something positive: “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us…and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.” For example, when he imagines the seeds he planted in the ground rotting because of too much rain he says, “it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me.”

Towards the end of the book, Thoreau recollects some of the lessons that he learned. Thoreau lauds simple living, self-sufficiency, vegetarianism (though he eats fish), work, chastity, and teetotalism. He criticizes conformity, consumerism, materialism, the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution, the destruction of nature, and the mass of men who live lives of quiet desperation. During his time spent at Walden, Thoreau became an outspoken antiwar protestor and tax resister, even spending a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supports slavery (his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson bailed him out).

Walden has never been out of print since its first publication in 1854, and for good reason. This is a book to read in high school, college, and throughout one's life. Walden is as relevant today as it was 160 years ago, and like all great literature, with each subsequent reading new depths of understanding are achieved. Unfortunately, a side effect of the multicultural curriculum in modern schools is that it detracts from many of the traditional classics. Consequently, since Thoreau wrote for an audience thoroughly versed in Western civilization, many of Thoreau's metaphors, puns, and allusions are unrecognizable to today's students. Nevertheless, a familiarity with as many references as possible will do much for discerning the author’s meaning.

Although some readers may find Walden challenging, Thoreau’s writing was really down-to-earth compared to Emerson’s extravagant prose. Thoreau’s masterpiece is actually a relaxing read, perfect for a lazy summer day when you can sit back and contemplate the things that he says. Many of my favorite quotations come from Walden, such as: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer…” and “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Since Walden is a book that you will want to refer to again and again, it would be worth investing in a quality copy. I have my favorite little green hardcover edition, perfect for carrying with me to read out back under a tree. If you would like further explanations to accompany your reading, try “Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition” by Jeffrey S. Cramer (2004). Cramer is the curator of collections for The Thoreau Institute and therefore has access to some of the best source material available. This Thoreau scholar’s labor of love is shown on each and every page, with meticulously researched notes and annotations in the margins alongside the text, thus adding more understanding to an already rich reading experience.

See Also: - Online annotated version of Walden with old and new photos, Henry's survey of Walden, the Walden Express (an abbreviated tour of Walden), a brief history of Walden, and a report on “progress” at the pond.) - Walden Study Guide from SparkNotes includes a plot overview, key facts, quotes, study questions, essay topics, and a quiz.


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