Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Title: Walden
Author: Henry David Thoreau
Published:  1854
Challenges: The Well-Educated Mind Reading Challenge (Biographies), Literary Movement Challenge (Transcendentalism), The Classics Club, and The Manly Reading List 

This book was one of my most anticipated books on the entire Well-Educated Mind reading list.  It was like preparing for a visit from a good, old friend.  I was a little apprehensive though that I may not love Walden as I originally did over twenty years ago, since so much of my worldview has changed; however, I can confirm that Walden and I are indeed still friends.

When I studied architecture in college, my professor had us read Walden and "Civil Disobedience." He was a libertarian-type, and I can understand why he encouraged us to study Thoreau's life and principles.  Thoreau was self-sufficient, self-reliant, independent, and a lover of liberty.  He was also a naturalist, surveyor, explorer, philosopher, poet, and author.  He practiced a life of simplicity.  

Replica of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, in winter
(This is the life!  A fire, hot tea, some books; what more do you need?)

Walden is a short collection of experiences written by the author about his two-year experiment living in the woods near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts.  He divided his principles, opinions, and findings into sections: economy, reading, sounds, solitude, visitors, higher laws, brute neighbors, winter animals, the pond in winter, and spring, to name a few of my favorites.  His purpose for going to Walden Pond was this:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Map of Walden Pond

Here are a few common sense truths about Thoreau, in my own words:
  • He foresaw the booming industrial revolution as a threat to nature - which he understood to be an enhancement to one's life.
  • He built his own home and grew his own food, and expressed rationally a need for every man to build his own home and grow his own food, instead of paying someone else to do it.  
  • He was simple and plain, and had few material goods, and preferred to live that way. 
  • He believed ornaments, decorations, and fashion for houses and people were foolishness.
  • He thought man worked too hard, too long, and had nothing to show for it.
  • He knew man lived well beyond his means.
  • He felt charity, doing-good, and philanthropy were overrated and done out of selfishness.
  • He loved reading great books.
  • He was a realist.
Thoreau's Cove in spring

Some of my favorite quotes:

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?  We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.
The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.
This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.
Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.
 (Thoreau regarded the morning as the best time of day.  It is!)

The adventurous student will always study the classics.  For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? 
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.
A written word is the choicest of relics.  It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. 
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.  To be in company, even with the best, is wearisome and dissipating.  I love to be alone.  I never found the companion that was so companionable than solitude.
When I was a college girl, except for the vegan diet (Thoreau’s preference), I wanted to live like Thoreau.  I wanted a simple life (and I still do!).  At one time, I was so inspired by Thoreau's ideas, I wanted to move to Alaska and live in an igloo; that is how much I took the simple life to heart.  (By the way, I would have returned home to sunny California quicker than you could say "iceberg" because I am not that adventurous.  I don't even like camping in a tent in the local mountains.) 

Walden Pond in Summer (Don't you want to just live like this forever?)

Honestly, I had two opposing voices.  The first was my adult-ish, motherly, Christian-worldview voice, with husband, five kids, and the burdens of this life that scolded Thoreau and wanted him to mature and be adult-ish, too.  "This is sheer idleness, Thoreau!  Real men work.  Come in from the woods and contribute to society.  How can you 'love thy neighbor' and ‘serve others’ while being separated from the world?  Stop wandering off, writing poetry, pondering nature, and doing the bare minimum to get by." That was my first voice.

My second voice was the younger woman of a simpler time, screaming, “TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!!”  That was the voice that was starring and underlining and writing all over again these important words of Thoreau's thoughts that are still alive in me.  (Yeah, things changed once I got married and had kids; peace and serenity are a long way off in this crowded little house of seven, Plus, I live in a DESERT!)  Nonetheless, I am still free to imagine and create my own Walden Pond right here in my own little world. Like Thoreau said, "Live the life you imagined."  (I try.)

Walden Pond in autumn (Imagine waking up to this every morning.)

In the words of Thoreau, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”


  1. I read this in college, and I'm afraid I was not a fan. I thought he was prating and starry-eyed. But I should probably give him an adult try one day.

    1. I'm afraid you are right. I got those same feelings. I admit it would be nice to wake up every morning in the woods, feeling separated from the world, to focus only on nature and my inner thoughts. But...it's not that simple. People have families and business to tend to. He was a single man; how different the world was for him.

    2. When I read it, I felt like the pond was a metaphor. As in -- return to yourself. Live simply of yourself, & you can then offer more to humanity. Nature as simplicity before our modern world became so incredibly loud. I feel like he was saying -- it's within you.

    3. Perhaps the point for us in the modern world would be simply to try to find a place of solitude and retreat where we could occasionally remove ourselves from the helter-skelter world and be quiet. Meditate on God's Word, for instance, or pray, or simply allow ourselves to be at peace instead of always being busy doing doing doing. Thoreau felt selfish and isolationist to me for wanting to remove himself totally from society, but I can appreciate the idea of needing to be alone sometimes. I know I myself need solitude from time to time, even if it's just fifteen minutes of no one talking to me while I fold laundry.

    4. Corinne - now that you say that about the pond being a metaphor, I feel like I read something similar about Thoreau's ideas on nature and its connection to ourselves. But I cannot remember where I read it.

      Hamlette, We all need solitude for many reasons. Especially when we feel like we are overwhelmed with the ways of this world. When I was in college, the solitude that I desired (and had in abundance) was very selfishly motivated; but now that I am a mother, solitude is rare, but necessary. Like you said, we need private time to read Scripture, pray, even to write and just THINK w/o being interrupted in thought. Even our kids need solitude, to be alone, and to think on their own instead of constantly being stimulated and entertained. We love taking hikes in the local mountains w/ our friends. No phones, internet, or computer games. Just nature. That's like my Walden Pond. (I have to take what I can get.)

      In the end, I think Thoreau is making the case that if man would simplify his life, he would have more opportunities for solitude and nature - both of which are healthy for us.

  2. A very well-organized review, Ruth. You've managed to plow through the poetics and the philosophy and get to the heart of what Thoreau was really trying to emphasis. I kind of agree with Hamlette in that two years in the woods does not an expert make, or at least such an expert as he appears to profess to be. On the other hand, he has some really wonderful observations and ideas that deserve examination and reflection. All in all, I really enjoyed this read.

    1. Thanks, Cleo.

      I think a lot of what he writes about is common sensical; I just don't know that it is practical anymore. Not in this world or in this age. And another thing I found myself saying was that people like making a living off of their talents and providing their services to others. Not everyone is capable or successful in making or providing for themselves what they need to live with. There has to be a balance between the two. That's how community works.

      Just some of the arguments I was having with Thoreau.

    2. I had some of the same arguments but then I was wondering if this book couldn't speak to us on a different level. For instance, even though we may live in a city, when we do get into nature, turn off our cell phones, turn off our mouths and just look and listen to what is before us; take time to watch a spider or the actions of a bird. His ideas can be applied in other circumstances. And Thoreau wasn't actually isolated all the time; he lived near community and had visitors, so his precepts are much more reachable than we may think.

    3. Cleo - right. He walked to town frequently, and he spoke w/ those who used the woods for work and pleasure. I think he liked interacting w/ people and learning about how others lived. I read that he walked all over New England and to the Midwest, and I don't doubt he met a lot of people to interview in his curiosity.

      And while we may each have our own opinions about the ideal places or ways to live (some like the city, others more rural areas), if we want to simplify our lives, we can find ways to do it. Every era has its new distractions of technology, industry, and material goods. We have to use self-control. (That was a big part of his way of living.)

  3. I have never read Thoreau for the same reasons your opposing voice had. However, your review has encouraged me to give him a try. I know I have a copy here somewhere. I need to dust it off and try again.

    1. Oh, do try it again, when you get a chance. : )

  4. I really need to reread this one. My voice is definitely the second voice you describe. I can think of nothing lovelier than a cabin, a bit of snow, & nature. :)

  5. Great posting! But I wonder if _Walden_ will fit into my reading plan at "God and the American Writer." Am I reading too much into your commentary, or does Thoreau seem rather uninterested in religious matters?

    1. That depends what you mean by religious and what your topic is focusing on. I would say, "Yes, he is religious." But nature and simplicity is his religion." He's more spiritual in that regard. In Walden, he only makes a few references to God and the Bible.

      I also think he represents what was popular in America at the time: the idea was to acknowledge God, but not orthodox or organized religion. Ben Franklin thought this way. I think even Thomas Jefferson did, too.

      Thoreau may have put God on the same level with Nature, and he may have also believed that all roads lead to God. Those are two ideas I pulled from Walden. He has other writings that may better explain his ideas about God.

      Hope that helps.

  6. Excellent post, Ruth :) Love this book, as you know I've only recently read it.

    And I didn't know you lived in a desert! Wow!

    1. Thanks, o.

      Yes, I live in a brown desert. But we live very close to the mountains, so when we need to see green, we are never far away.