Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
I'd imagined Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author of Walden, or, Life in the Woods (published in 1854) as a crotchety old hermit. But the mild-mannered Thoreau was just 27 when he lived for two years in a cabin at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. He considered his living situation to be an experiment. Only a mile and a half from town, he often visited friends and was visited by them. Supporting himself with small-scale farming and fishing, Thoreau had ample time to explore nature and write, and he began the manuscript that would become Walden.
Thoreau's background was what we might now call lower middle class--he worked in his father's pencil-making business and lived at his mother's boarding house. However, he had graduated from Harvard and had friends in the literary and scientific communities. Philosophically, Thoreau believed in extreme simplicity in house, furnishings, clothing, and diet; opposed any unnecessary work or possessions; and sought relative isolation.
Frugality and subsistence farming for the purpose of avoiding work must have appeared very peculiar in the context of Concord and Harvard. Yet it occurred to me that another young man might simply have decided to go West, where self-built log cabins, living off the land, and extreme simplicity were the norm. But then Thoreau would not have had the support of his parents and sisters; friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Branson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott); or the use of the Harvard library.
A careful reading of Walden shows that Thoreau was very aware of such contradictions. Anyone today who attempts to live authentically, to use modern terminology, or, as Thoreau put it, with self-sufficiency and simplicity, faces the same or similar contradictions. Walden is a lasting work of literature because the tension between authenticity, technology, and human interrelationships has only intensified since the 1840's.
Walden is not necessarily an easy read, but it has a very personal voice. Reading Walden is like making a friend. You learn nothing about Thoreau's background--Walden lacks the autobiographical detail that we tend to expect--but you become well acquainted with Thoreau's habits, preferences, and thought. Thoreau demonstrates--shows rather than tells--his love for Walden Woods and Walden Pond, and by extension, his love of nature. Thus Walden is also one of the great works of nature writing and justly beloved by many.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front 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. --Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro