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Walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau



Introduction:

Henry David Thoreau was a few days short of his twenty-eighth birthday when he moved into his cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1845, and began what was to become one of the most famous experiments in living in American history. 

Thoreau was born in Concord on July 12, 1817. Graduating from Harvard in 1837, he turned to teach, first for a few weeks in the Concord public schools, and then in a highly successful private school which he and his brother John maintained for three years and in which they anticipated many of the techniques of twentieth-century education. But his brother’s illness in 1841 forced abandonment of the school, and Thoreau’s interest turned toward writing. 

With John’s death in 1842, Thoreau determined to write a memorial tribute, an account of an excursion the two brothers had taken on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839. But the necessity of earning a living kept Thoreau from accomplishing his task until he moved out to Walden with the avowed purpose of writing the book. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when Thoreau determined to adopt the simple life and live by himself. He tells us that at the age of five when he first visited Walden Pond, he had told others he wanted to live on its shores. 

While he was a student at Harvard, his friend and classmate Charles Steams Wheeler spent a vacation living in a cabin on Flint’s Pond, only a few miles from Walden, and Thoreau, according to tradition, spent several weeks visiting with him there. Another close friend, Ellery Channing, spent some time living in a cabin alone on the Illinois prairies. So there was ample precedent for Thoreau’s experiment. In 1841 there was a special surge of interest on Thoreau’s part in such a project. On April 5th, he wrote in his Journal (I, 244), “I will build my lodge on the southern slope of some hill, and take there the life the gods send me. Will it not be employment enough to accept gratefully all that is yielded me between sun and sun?” On October 18th, Margaret Fuller wrote him, “Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut.” And on December 24th, he wrote again in his Journal (I, 299), “I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be a success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. 

On March 5, 1845, Ellery Channing wrote to Thoreau, “I see nothing for you in this earth but that field [at Walden] which I once christened ‘Briars’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive.” By the end of the month Thoreau had worked out an agreement with Emerson for the use of his land and started construction of his cabin. The writing of Walden was apparently not among Thoreau’s original plans when he went to live at the pond. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was the book he proposed to write (and did write) there. But from the very beginning of his stay at the pond, he was noting his impressions in his Journal, and most of these notes he eventually worked into the text of Walden.

 By February of 1847, he was delivering lectures to his fellow townsmen on his experiences at Walden—lectures that, too, eventually became a part of the text. And by 1849 he had sufficiently worked out the first draft of the book so that he was able to announce its publication “soon” in the back pages of the first edition of A Week. It is true the announcement proved to be premature, for the failure of A Week (only slightly more than two hundred copies were sold in the first four years) frightened publishers away from Walden, but Walden was eventually published in August of 1854. 

What happened to the book in those intervening five years, how it was reworked, revamped, revised, reworded, and polished through at least seven distinct versions, has been told so well by J. Lyndon Shanley in The Making of Walden (Chicago, 1957) that I shall not attempt to retell it here. The important fact is that out of all Thoreau’s labor the masterpiece that is Walden was developed.


Author:

Henry David Thoreau- 

Publication date:

1965 Shared by Congress Library



Henry David Thoreau was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. A leading transcendentalist, he is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience", an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.

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