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by Henry David Thoreau

Walden Economy Summary

  • Thoreau explains that he wrote most of Walden while living by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts where he spent a total of two years and two months before he returned to civilization. (It sounds like he was taping Survivor: Walden Pond.)
  • So that his English teacher doesn't scold him, Thoreau justifies his use of the first person "I," since it is his own very personal experience that he's writing about.
  • Why is he spending so much time on himself? Well, he believes that most people work terribly hard, but that this work isn't personally fulfilling. Instead, man (Thoreau isn't too good with the gender-neutral "he or she," but that's his time) is reduced to a mere slave or machine, living "lives of quiet desperation" (Economy.9). That basically means their lives stink.
  • That's why he's conducting an experiment on the edges of Walden Pond, to figure out whether there's another and better way of living your life.
  • Thoreau also thinks that there are a lot of different types of personalities out there, so there is something to be gained by showing how completely unique his personal experience is. That way, his readers can see how much variety is possible if only we broke out from conformity. Be yourself, basically.
  • Now to the pressing question: what really are the necessities of life? Don't worry. This transcendentalist has all the answers. All you need is food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. (Hopefully not at $4.00/gallon).
  • And get this: if you want luxuries (meaning anything more than those four things), it's because – wait for it – you want to be warm. Yep, like blanket over your shoulders, fire at your fingertips warm.
  • But wait, there's a catch. Luxuries only overheat: they corrupt and make everything worse. Yet people work themselves to the max trying to get these luxuries. Ironically, humans lead very non-luxurious lives in their desperate efforts to gain these luxuries. Fail.
  • So, what has his life been up to this point? Thoreau describes his life before Walden Pond as a useless search for a "hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove" (Economy.24), that is, a search for the impossible.
  • Renaissance man that he is, Thoreau has been a journalist, a kind of storm inspector, a surveyor, and a herdsman. Honestly, Shmoop doesn't really even know what most of those things are, so don't stress.
  • Our author then relates the story of an Indian who attempted to sell some baskets to a lawyer, not understanding that he first had to convince the lawyer that he needed his products. This guy clearly didn't go to business school.
  • Unlike the Indian, Thoreau is no longer interested in finding success in the company of others. He's going to live alone to discover real wealth, i.e. the knowledge of who he really is – deep.
  • For clothing, Thoreau prefers his old clothes since they're basically worn in and adapted to his personal shape. He's not a fan of new clothes, which are impersonal and unnecessary luxuries. Let's just say he's probably still wearing his Converse from sixth grade.
  • For shelter, Thoreau decides on the most basic structure: pretty much a one-room cabin. Although, put that thing in Manhattan and he'd be paying an arm and a leg.
  • His set-up may seem primitive, but Thoreau prefers this to the housing of civilized communities. In more civilized settings, there is massive inequality between the mansions of the rich and the shacks of the poor.
  • Thoreau is not going to go so far as to live in a cave or a wigwam. He's close enough to civilization that he may as well take advantage of some of the benefits it offers, i.e., boards, shingles, lime, and bricks. Hmmm, sounds a little hypocritical, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Near the end of March, 1845, Thoreau takes an axe out to Walden Pond and clears out some pines to make space for his cabin.
  • Voila! By the middle of April, the frame of his house is set. He buys a shanty (i.e., a shack) from James Collins, an Irishman, and he plans to use its boards for his house. Why he doesn't just use the shanty for his house, we're not sure. He's just trying to make it hard on himself, it seems.
  • He digs out a cellar. In the beginning of May, some friends come over and help him complete the cabin. He waits to build his chimney till the fall, and finishes both the chimney and shingling the sides by winter.
  • All told, his house cost a whopping $28.12 ½. You know you're in the olden days when that half a penny is worth mentioning.
  • Thoreau thinks there is more to be learned from getting back in touch with the necessities of life than from years of attending Harvard, where he went to school. (So chew on that before you dole out $200,000 for a liberal arts education.)
  • He's also not a fan of "modern improvements," such as the railroad, which only lead people further away from the necessities.
  • To make a little extra cash, Thoreau planted some beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. He makes a total of $8.71 ½, and eats up $4.50 worth of vegetables. Mmm, homemade salad.
  • With odd jobs in town, he made $13.34. Have you lost track yet? So have we.
  • So, in expenses, he ultimately pays $61.99 ¾ but makes $36.78 through farming and odd jobs. He chalks up the $25.21 ¾ loss as necessary start-up costs. Silicon Valley, here he comes.
  • Living without all the so-called necessities such as fancy food, bread with butter (gasp! hide the jam!), or furniture, Thoreau feels freed up to do whatever he likes, which is to study, and presumably to write all these pages.
  • While he thinks philanthropy (giving to others) is a virtue, Thoreau believes people are hypocritical about it. Giving a small portion of your income may seem virtuous, but think about how much of the world is living in poverty while you enjoy the rest of your wealth. Harsh.
  • Thoreau thinks there might be some philanthropic good to come of his personal experiment, if he can show everyone what a good life one can have even without wealth and luxury – and butter.
  • Thoreau cites Thomas Carew's "The Pretensions of Poverty" to confirm his views on philanthropy. Sounds like another AP level book, which we'll save for another time.

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