Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Walden: Purpose and Method

"the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"

Thoreau lived most of his life in the town where he was born, Concord, Massachusetts. He is remembered as a naturalist, a conservationist, and an abolitionist. In one famous incident, Thoreau publicly acclaimed John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. He refused to pay taxes that year in protest against the government's prosecution of Brown, and he spent time in jail. He wrote of the citizen's duty to protest unjust laws peacefully in "On Civil Disobedience". Years later Mahatma Gandhi would cite Thoreau as one of the originators of his own tactic of peaceful protest.

Thoreau earned his reputation as a nature writer. He took many expeditions into the wilderness; famously, he was among the first Americans to explore the Maine Woods and he canoed the Allagash and St. Johns Rivers. But he was probably most famous for the expedition he took into his own backyard. 

"Walden; or, Life in the Woods described a two-year period in Thoreau's life from March 1845 to September 1847. From the Fourth of July, the author retired from the town to live alone at Walden Pond. Much of Walden's material was derived from his journals." (Henry David Thoreau)

The text, though, was published in 1854: during the interval Thoreau revised and added to his original journal entries (although he left the impression that his responses are examples of "free writing" improvised while he was living at Walden.)

Our task in class today is to learn more about Thoreau's central purpose, both as a person and as a writer, in his experiment in living on Walden Pond.

Discussion Questions:

Look at Thoreau's first description of the house.  And then look at his description of Walden Pond itself. Note the way that his imagination functions: after grounding his observations in clear, concrete details, his vision expands to include... the cosmos.


Re-read Thoreau’s aria on the morning: how has he been influenced by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”? See "On Intuition"

When Thoreau describes his goal in living near Walden Pond, he says “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” What does he mean?

What mode of life is he leaving behind?

Thoreau mocks people who need ‘the news’ every morning. What would he have to say about our recent information revolution?

Thoreau says, “We think that that is which only appears to be….”  So he wants to tear away the veil of our habitual way of seeing and perceive reality itself in all its freshness. By living away from the hustle, bustle and gossip of town, he hopes to still the chattering monkey mind within him so that he can sense what is really going on: the unfolding of God’s eternal act of creation. (Final Paragraph)