Thoughts on Transcendentalism and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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I am not as familiar with nineteenth-century American literature as I feel I am with British nineteenth-century literature, especially Victorian fiction. In fact, I don’t recall studying many American classics from the era since my junior year of high school, and I struggle to name classic authors from various decades in American literature. Walden was one book I know I studied in depth in my high school class. I remember I did a group project in which we handed out fortune cookies. Other than that, I don’t remember much about Walden. When Jillian announced a Transcendentalist month (see more details here), I was willing to give this American classic another try.

As most people know, as a young man, Henry David Thoreau left his comfortable home in the village of Concord to live in the woods near Walden Pond. Walden, his collection of his thoughts about his years living a life of simplicity which he called “self-reliance,” has been called one of the greatest books in American literature. Apparently, while Emerson began the concept of finding truth within one’s self, Thoreau was one who put it in to practice in a real way by living the life. He is essential to the transcendentalist movement.

In my case, very little of Walden inspired me. I personally found Thoreau unbearably egotistical and opinionated. There were a few gems here and there, and I did enjoy the beautiful style in which he described the nature around him (to some extent). He certainly was a talented writer and a well-educated man. But I felt there were a few essential issues about his “self-reliance” that left me annoyed, rather than inspired. Because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t misunderstanding transcendentalism, I even found a few essays and a book about the era in American literature to make sure I was interpreting his concepts “properly.” I believe the entire philosophy is simply not one I can subscribe to, although I appreciate aspects of Thoreau’s way of life in the woods.

First, the concept of Thoreau leaving “civilization” seemed a bit underwhelming, since he was living as a squatter on land two miles from the village. Although in an early chapter he complains about the downfall of nature because of the railroad (“Why not walk 30 miles?” Thoreau points out, trying to argue for the non-necessity of industrialization), he later discusses the train passing his own retreat regularly, the friendships he developed with the train workers, and so forth. He seems pretty happy to have a train running near his “retreat.”

He hardly seemed to be living an honest life as a squatter on some else’s land. He claims he is living a life of self-sufficiency away from civilization, but he does regularly visit the town. He also began his year of nature living with enough funds to buy the supplies to build a home and the plant a first year’s crop on the little bit of land of which he was using.1 Is this really self-sufficiency?

Further, Thoreau’s opinions seemed strange; his judgments of the others living in the area nearby him seemed unfair. Because he was living a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency, he adopted a very simple diet of fish (from the pond), some potatoes he bought (again, is that self-sufficient?), bread he made, beans he grew, and nuts he collected, among other things. Because he ate simply (or omitted eating on some days), he did not need to work hard. When he visited one neighbor, he observed that John Field labored all day in a hard job in order to feed his family; Thoreau insisted that if John stopped buying butter and tea, then he too wouldn’t have to work so hard. I found it so rude of him to assume that because he likes his spare way of eating, that others should adopt it too.

The transcendental concept of looking within one’s self for truth seems selfish to me. Personally, I see life as a time for nurturing relationships and, yes, of working hard, as John Field did. When Thoreau said things like that to John Field (assigning his own “values” on an honest hardworking man with a family), I despised him. I likewise groaned when Thoreau insisted things like “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” (page 102). I, too, am an introvert who enjoys solitude. However, I also believe that interacting and serving other people is a key way to find joy in life. I feel like Thoreau and the other transcendentalists missed the boat a little bit by secluding themselves in discovering one’s self.2

Thoreau seemed to have two sides to himself. He discusses at length his disgust with eating animals, and how it is not necessary to eat meat at all. Yet, he fishes for his food every day as a way of being “self-sufficient.” (He says this made him a little uncomfortable while he lived in the woods, but it was necessary to have enough food.) He works half the day and then stares into nature (and sometimes reads classic literature) for the rest of it.  In general, I found myself bored with his digressions (things like sounding the depth of Walden pond) and frustrated with the concept of transcendentalism: that living a solitary selfish life gives one a deeper life.

Some of what he had to say was fascinating. I liked the essay about reading (which I’ve written about on this blog before, and mean to write about again for my Reading Reflections feature that I havne’t done in forever). Also, I particularly liked the section in which, while digging, Thoreau found implements of war and other Indian remnants in the soil. I liked his reflections on the people who had lived there before him, and it was something I can relate to, although, of course, my wonders are more along the lines of the people who lived in the house before me, not previous civilizations (“The Bean Field,” page 119). Finally, I liked Thoreau’s observation of the battle of the ants – red ants versus black ants. His observations on the ant fight as a picture of human nature seemed quite appropriate (“Brute Neighbors,” page 166-171).

There were some concepts of Thoreau’s philosophy that I did like. Most particularly, I enjoyed his emphasis that a life of simplicity can bring peace. I don’t think one need to give up butter and other things that bring comfort (such as a home in town) but Thoreau did write the following:

The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others? (page 15)

I think this is something everyone need remember. There is much materialism in the world, as well as standards for success. By letting go of the accepted definition of success (whatever materialistic item or limited concept that may be) and creating our own expectations for our life, then we’ll be happier.

In his concluding chapter, Thoreau gave a few more pearls to remember.

In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. 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. (page 239)

Love your life, poor as it is. (page 242)

Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul. (page 243)

So, reading Walden was not a complete waste for me, but I certainly don’t intend to read it again. On Goodreads, it seems a number of readers love this book and reread it frequently. Others are in my camp: bored, annoyed, and otherwise wondering why on earth this is considered an American classic to adore.

Which camp are you in? Why?

  1. Although he gave the cost to build his home and it seemed a small sum, he also mentioned that it was the equivalent cost of rent for one year for a small home for a family. That seems like quite a bit to begin with in order to be “self sufficient.”
  2. I haven’t read Emerson since high school, but from what I read about transcendentalism this week, it seemed power of the self was the key concept. The transcendental “communes” that grew from the philosophy were to create a simple way of living for these people by living and working together, but those failed to work. Not sure how those would work when the emphasis is on “self”.
Reviewed on November 30, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I kept laughing throughout the review at all of the inconsistencies between Thoreau’s thoughts and actions. And while I think solitude is absolutely essential to self-awareness and discovery, I too agree that other people are necessary as well. We’ve just overloaded ourselves in modern times with too much socialization and not enough solitude in my opinion. We’re always in The Matrix so to speak.

    On a side note, he certainly was the master of quotes wasn’t he? 🙂

  • Ugh. I HATED Walden when I read it in high school (it wasn’t assigned, I for some reason thought I would enjoy it). He’s such a judgmental, hypocritical arse.

  • I think Walden‘s status as a “classic” is secure if only because of its influence over those who came later (so one must read it to understand later movements in American lit), but like you I find Thoreau well nigh unbearable in his smug self-satisfaction, hypocrisy and easy judgments of those around him. When he finally gets around to the nature writing I’ll admit he can be captivating, but at this point I’m not willing to slog through all the dreck to get there. Thanks in part to him, there are too many other great nature writers continuing the enjoyable part of the work Walden started; I’ll seek them out instead!

    • Emily » I think you make a good point, as he’s a precursor to other writers. I haven’t read many of the more modern stuff. Which ones are you thinking of? Like, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?

      • Yes, Annie Dillard, also Loren Eiseley, EO Wilson, and John McPhee are all folks I’ve enjoyed on natural themes. Even Michael Pollan owes a lot to Walden. And I very much enjoy essayists like Joan Didion who take a similar approach to writing about the lived environment but apply it to urban and suburban settings (since I am an urban girl myself).

        Re: nature writing, I’ve also heard great things about Wendell Berry and Edward Hoagland, though I haven’t read them.

  • I’m going to be reading this one soon (hopefully starting tomorrow?), so I intended to skim, but read the whole thing anyway. 😉 From what I know about Transcendentalism, what you say is true. The founders and believers truly felt that people needed to look inside themselves to find their true worth and purpose. This is why Emerson wrote his letter to a poet-the only real thing about Transcendentalism I am confident in talking about.

    Anyway, I digress…

    I’m curious to read Thoreau’s contradictions for myself. I think that this is a great example of showing how it is hard and almost impossible to live a life outside of society. Today we are so dependent on society for everything…but it is interesting to see that even Thoreau, in his time, couldn’t escape the convenience and help of a community around him.

    • Allie » I’m so late responding, you’ve probably already read Thoreau! Will be curious to hear your thoughts on Walden. Maybe I need to find that Emerson letter to a poet thing. I know I read it in high school. But then, I’m just not interested in Transcendentalism. Thoreau killed it for me.

  • I thought Walden was stupendously boring BUT I am rather fond of Thoreau. This is because before I ever read Walden I read The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Can’t recommend that play highly enough. It’s by the same people who wrote Inherit the Wind, and it’s just wonderful. Have you read it? You should if not!

    (Incidentally, we watched a documentary about Thoreau when we were reading Walden in high school, and the Thoreau scholar who was talking knowledgeably throughout it was wearing a button that said “Thoreau went home on weekends.” 😀 I loved it.)

  • You make some very valid points here. I read this book at a time in my life when my views where a little bit extreme. (I had gone through a bad breakup and I was determined not to depend on ANYTHING or ANYONE. I’m out of that phase now.) So I liked it then, but I don’t know if I would like it so much now.
    I listened to a really interesting podcast about Walden you might be interested in. The host of the show loves him and his guest has a lot of hesitations about him similar to yours. They get in a pretty heated argument. Check it out:
    It’s episode no. 99

    • Ingrid » ooo love the idea of heated argument! May have to check that out. And yeah, about WALDEN. I wonder if I’d have liked it at a different time. Obviously, as a teen it made no impact on me, and it didn’t 15 years later, so I’m thinking it’s just not for me.

  • I like how you discuss the seemingly judgmental nature that the book seems to possess. It really is a testament to the fact that we shouldn’t judge unless we are in the same situation- which we will never be as everyone is different.

  • I’ve only ever read a tiny bit of Walden and I guess it didn’t make that much of an impression on me because I don’t remember much about it. I think you make good points about the seeming selfishness of transcendentalism. I’ve always believed that it is in serving others that we find ourselves – something I definitely need to be reminded of as I lean toward solitude!
    I think it is also interesting that you mention how unacquainted you feel with American literature as I feel that way myself and have often wanted to embark on some kind of project to remedy it.

    • Anbolyn Potter » I think my problem is every time I want to get more well read in American literature I read something like THIS and then I’m not interested any more. I want me some British literature! I tend to like it so much more…

  • Transcendentalism, from what I’ve read so far, was a study in contrasts. For example, Bronson Alcott was a follower, and thus supported the self-searching. Yet he scolded his daughter Louisa when she filled her journal with thoughts of self. I want to love this philosophy and am still searching. So much of it sounds “right” to me — and yet so much of it seems to contradict itself and make its implementation impossible…

  • Claiming to be “self-sufficient” while buying potatoes and living two miles away from a village seem pretty hypocritical to me. However, for the sake of keeping an open mind, I still intend to read this book. Not sure I’m going to like it, though. Great review.

  • That’s funny, your post pretty much sums up EXACTLY what I thought about Walden! It’s been a couple years since I read it, but I remember being super annoyed with him the whole time, and thought the same as you did about his “holier than thou” attitude about everything and everyone. Like you said, it had some beautiful parts, but otherwise I just couldn’t quite stomach him.

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