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Henry David Thoreau: Writing Walden

Emerson's invitation gave Thoreau a chance to act on some ideas he had been mulling over. He was mystified by the modern world's urgent rush to consume and industrialize. Why did people insist on buying new clothes every year when the old ones were perfectly good? Why were people so eager for new roads and trains, when they didn't even need to get anywhere? "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things," he wrote. "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine to Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."8 (Who knows what he would have had to say about Twitter.) He decided to live as simply as he could, for as long as he could, along the banks of Walden Pond.

Using boards purchased form a construction site, Thoreau built himself a little cabin on the banks of Walden. On 4 July 1845, he moved in. He grew most of his own food, earned what little money he had through day labor, and wrote effusively of the joy he took in his simple activities. He lived unhurriedly, working only when he needed to. As he wrote in his memoir of the experience, Walden, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."9

Thoreau had a little more help than the proud self-sufficiency of his memoir would suggest. He lived rent-free, a luxury not many people have, and walked to Emerson's house or his mother's house frequently for meals. In Walden he wrote dismissively of newspapers and mail as carriers of useless information; in reality, his editor Frank Sanborn said, "Few residents in Concord frequented the post office more punctually, or read the newspapers... more eagerly than Thoreau."10 Even his friend and mentor Emerson was critical of Thoreau's seeming lack of motivation. "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition," Emerson wrote after Thoreau's death. "Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!"11

Thoreau also wrote prolifically while he was living on the pond. He had started a book called A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an account of a boating trip he and his late brother took in 1839. He also began penning the memoir of his experiment on the pond. In 1847 Thoreau moved out of the cabin and into Emerson's house, where he took up handyman duties. The cabin was later dismantled and its boards carted away to be used for a shed.

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