Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
What it’s about: Concord, Massachusetts, USA, the 1850s. Thoreau relates two years of his life in which he “lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a houe which I had built myself…. and earned my living by the labour of my hands only“. Arguing that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation“, and that modern industrialised life leaves men “with no time to be any thing but a machine”, Thoreau proposes a “primitive and frontier life“, giving up the “so called comforts of life” which are “hinderances to the elevation of mankind“, in order to extend moral and spiritual development, and uses his time in the woods to test and demonstrate his theories. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he explains, “to confront 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 describes the construction of his cottage and his attempts to plant vegetables and beans for food, presenting his expenditure as a lesson in how to live frugally. Despite his savage instincts to hunt and eat animals, he salutes the higher virtues of vegetarianism, arguing that “every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind“. He also encourages readers to pay attention to details of the world around them (“Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour“), describing the sights and sounds of the woodland and local flora and fauna.
He praises the moral and spiritual benefits of living alone (“To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating“), preferring “the sweet and beneficial society in Nature” where “[e]very little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” He laments the lack of sophistication of his townsmen, who “dissipate their faculties” with “easy reading”, preferring the classical Greek and Roman authors, which he reads in the original Greek and Latin. His role as an outsider is emphasised when he describes being put in jail for refusing to pay a tax to or recognise “the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.” Despite his preference for solitude, he has a number of visitors: a French-Canadian lumberjack, whom he praises for his mirth and self-sufficiency but laments his primitive thinking and “animal spirits“; a runaway slave whom he helps to escape to Canada; and his fellow philosopher-gentlemen friends.
He pays particular attention to the pond over different seasons, and the changes in bird and animal life. As winter arrives, he describes his efforts to heat his cottage, the workmen who cut ice from the frozen pond to sell in town, and his own experiments on the frozen pond to try and measure its depths. As spring arrives at the pond, he draws sermons from nature, reflecting that “[w]e should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”
In his final chapter, he describes leaving the pond (“Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one“), concluding that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” He exhorts his readers to follow their own paths (“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 which he hears, however measured or far away”) and to “Say what you have to say, not what you ought“.
Why it’s a classic: Walden was a modest success on its publication, selling around 1,700 copies of the original print run of 2,000 in its first year, but taking nearly five years to sell the remaining copies, not reprinted until after Thoreau’s death in 1862. Reviews were mixed – many readers were puzzled by its eccentric and satirical tone, and unclear how much of Thoreau’s philosophising was meant to be taken seriously. One of the first reviewers to take Walden seriously was the English novelist George Eliot, who praised its “observations of natural phenomena… passing through the medium of a deep poetic sensibility.”
Its fame grew after Thoreau’s death, most famously by poet Robert Frost, who said “In one book … he surpasses everything we have had in America“. Walden is now widely regarded as one of the most influential books in American literature, and a foundational document for many of the most cherished cultural values of individualism and self-reliance. Novelist John Updike wrote, “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible“. Updike has a point – Walden is one of the most books most likely to be quoted in greeting cards and self-help books, and many of its famous lines have become shorthand for a particular kind of (white, male) American bohemianism and anti-authoritarian sensibility.
That said, Walden’s influence has been enormous – and like the Bible, has been subject to a number of wildly different and conflict interpretations. Thoreau’s love of nature has been an influence on generations of nature writers, and has been acknowledged as an inspiration for ecologists and nature conservationists. His condemnation of slavery and support of the Underground Railroad made him one of the heroes of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement. His disregard for the authority of a corrupt government, both here and in his polemic Civil Disobedience, has inspired political dissenters from Ghandi and Martin Luther King to Extinction Rebellion. Like his contemporary Walt Whitman, Thoreau found a new wave of popularity in 1960s counter-culture, who thrilled to his vision of a Godless universe in which Nature is king and capitalism is evil. He’s regularly referenced by American writers and artists: the films of Terrence Malick, in particular, owe a huge debt to Thoreau, creating a gorgeous visual equivalent to his rhapsodising about nature. But it’s not just the liberal lefties who love Thoreau. As Updike notes, Walden has also been embraced by an assortment of libertarians, Log Cabin Republicans and far-right cranks, who approve of his criticism of government, the idealisation of self-reliance and his apparent contempt for charity and philanthropy.
As one would expect after 150 years of intense fandom, Thoreau and his writing also has its fair share of detractors. Biographers have turned up some interesting inconsistencies between the sermonising narrator of Walden and its rather more complicated human author. The Thoreau of Walden says “For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands”; the real Thoreau was in receipt of an income from his father’s pencil factory, and received financial support from family and friends. The Thoreau of Walden makes much of his splendid isolation and infers that he lived in his cottage for two years; the real Thoreau was more like a weekend tourist at the pond and spent much of the week dining with friends in town. The Thoreau of Walden says he could easily do without the post office; the real Thoreau was an enthusiastic and regular visitor to the post office at Concord. The result is a book which, as Stephen Fender argues in his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, reads as “Do as I say, not as I do”, lessening its authority as a moral guidebook. In 2015, Kathryn Schulz wrote a blistering attack on Thoreau for the New Yorker: wittily titled “Pond Scum”, she took Thoreau to task for his unchecked white male privilege, misanthropy and misogyny, scratching her head as to why he’d become so beloved. 166 years after its publication, Walden is still being taught and debated, and is still in print – not bad for a book that struggled to sell its first run.
Bouquet or Brickbat: This is a tough one. My relationship with Walden goes back nearly 30 years to when I saw the film Dead Poet’s Society as a teenager, in which a band of eager young white male WASPs rebel against the strictures of their conservative boarding school. “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately“, one of them reads in a late-night contraband beer ritual, “and suck out all the marrow of life.” It was and still is an extraordinary line, full of magic and possibility, its portentousness hugely appealing to the sensibility of teenaged boys. Off I popped to the public library and started to read Walden, but didn’t make it past the first chapter, losing interest as Thoreau pedantically listed out his expenses for building his log cabin. I’ve made several attempts over the years since then to try and finish it, but with similar lack of success. As the Updike quote suggests, this appears to be one of the signal characteristics of Walden, and why it makes for such a frustrating read – it’s great for a stand-alone inspirational quote, but less satisfying when considered in its rambling, shambolic and inconsistent entirety. As the world was sucked into lockdown this year, I was reminded again of Walden, and wondered if Thoreau’s philosophising could be of comfort to readers, like me, living in enforced solitude, and so decided to give Henry and his log cabin one more chance. Even with more time on my hands, it was still a challenging read: Thoreau’s language is complex, his syntax labyrinthine, and his fondness for narrative asides and Biblical and classical allusions can make wading through his sentences hard work.
There’s a deep fault line running through Walden that can often make it feel like two different books – a travel diary by a middle-class urbanite slumming it in a forest, with all the discoveries and setbacks to be expected from someone not born or raised for a rural existence; and an extended sermon exhorting disaffected men (it’s always men) to drop everything, take to the woods and live alone in a rustic log cabin. E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, describes this disparity rather well: “Henry went forth to battle when he took to the woods. Walden is the report of a man torn by two powerful and opposing drives – the desire to enjoy the world and the urge to set the world straight.”
When he’s enjoying the world, Walden is a delightful read, with some of the most beautiful nature writing since the days of Wordsworth and Keats. Whether he’s describing the call of the owls (“such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum…. It was one of the most thrilling discords I ever heard“), or the shifting colours of the pond (“I have discerned a matchless and indescribable light blue, such as watered or changeable silks and sword blades suggest, more cerulean than the sky itself“), or wind in the pine forest (“At a sufficient distance, over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles on the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept“), his writing is astounding, and some of his insights are very beautiful: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment? [….] Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for a moment?”
Alas, Thoreau isn’t always able to follow his own advice. Many of his judgments and exhortations are particularly difficult to stomach, particularly for a 21st century audience, since they are shored up by his status as a wealthy, educated white man. His unawareness of his own privilege stings particularly in his description of an Irish immigrant who came to America to “get tea, and coffee, and meat every day“. Thoreau pities the man, arguing that he should not make himself a slave to commerce but should instead concentrate on the development of his soul. As a man of means, Thoreau can choose to go without these things and play at being a hermit in the woods; a privilege not afforded to the Irishman, who is truly poor and has a family to support.
As with many a Pale Male, his philosophy only seems to extend to white men. In that sense, the Walden quotation in Dead Poet’s Society is very well chosen – the 1950s schoolboys in that story have the same privileged background as Thoreau, and so could imagine “going to the woods” in a way that a group of girls or children of colour in the same era couldn’t do. Kathryn Schulz rightly takes aim at Thoreau for barely mentioning women and for apparently holding them in contempt. The only woman of any consequence in Walden is an unnamed “lady” unnamed, who offers him a doormat for his cottage. In response, Thoreau says “but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” It’s tempting to give Thoreau the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that he’s joking. (His tone is often quite ironic and acerbic, making me wonder if the world has gotten things wrong by reading him so literally). But it’s also hard to ignore the allusions here to the Biblical story of Eve, the woman who tempts Adam with forbidden fruit, leading to their banishment from Eden. Thoreau, by his own account, practiced a strict celibacy in which there was no room, figuratively or metaphorically, for women to exist, making Walden a very problematic read in a post-feminist age. I’d go further than this and suggest that Thoreau was a closeted gay man, in love with a macho ideal of frontier-era masculinity (the text leaps to life when he describes the young Canadian farmer) and living a life of austere isolationism as a kind of displacement activity for his repressed desires. It certainly provides a different spin on lines like “[I] am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes my way“.
I finished Walden with a degree of relief, knowing I could put it back on my shelf and leave it there, undisturbed, for another twenty years. Yet the number of times I’ve quoted him in writing this review is its own proof that Thoreau is a marvellous writer, with a stunning, incantatory prose style that’s very addictive to quote from. Despite my 21st century misgivings, I have to award Thoreau his Bouquet – perhaps like the visitors at the cottage who leave “a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf” instead of a calling-card. On my walnut leaf, I’d write my thanks to Thoreau, for his foresight, his great appreciation of the natural world, and for showing us the treasures that come from being quiet and paying close attention. It’s this attention to nature that’s particularly resonated for me, living through an unusually sunny and fertile Northern Hemisphere spring, in which Nature was able to take a breath while we polluting destructive humans remained inside.
I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning… I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night.