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Henry David Thoreau was a pretty brilliant guy, but he didn't feel the need to answer to anyone. When The Advancement of Society asked him what kind of scientist he was, he refused to give a clear response. In his Journal, he writes, "I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot" (source). To boot!
Thoreau's refusal to be buttonholed is characteristic of this "wild child" of the American Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists – proto-hippies, you might say – were a group of writers and thinkers based in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-19th century. The leader of the pack was actually Thoreau's pal Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happened to loan him the land by Walden Pond where Thoreau would ultimately commence his personal experiment. Emerson expressed his Transcendentalist philosophy in famous essays like Nature (1836) and "Self-Reliance" (1841), where he promoted such values as individualism, freedom from conformity, and nature as a source of spiritual renewal for mankind.
So what distinguishes Thoreau from Emerson? Well, for the Walden author, it is nature, not man, that takes center stage. Thoreau is often known as the first environmentalist or ecologist. Sure, there were already nature conservationist movements at the time, but Thoreau's Walden (first published as Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854) was one of the earliest attempts to present these ideas as a coherent philosophy. He embraces the wildness of nature for its own sake and argues that man is obligated to conserve nature – total tree hugger.
Covering the years 1845-1847, Walden explores Thoreau's life in an isolated cabin, with the barest of necessities. ("Bare Necessities" – go ahead and sing it. We'll wait… Okay, ready?) In the book, Thoreau does a lot of observing, watching, and ruminating on nature and its seasonal changes. But he also takes it one step further. He uses his vast knowledge of philosophical and religious texts to turn these observations into answers. In particular, he answers the most universal of questions: what is a good life, and how should we live?
Walden's exquisite descriptions of natural life, with an attention to species-specific detail (and boy, do we mean detail), show us a richness of natural diversity that corresponds to the varieties of human experience. If we could just break out of our habits of conformity and prejudice, Thoreau thinks, the possibilities for living would be endless.
Let's say you are one of those people who just doesn't like nature. Sure, you might appreciate intellectually why there should be national parks, or you might consider yourself environmentally conscious and support environmental causes. But let's face it: grass leaves green smudges on your skinny jeans, it's always either too hot or too cold outside, squirrels can be vicious and annoying, insects bite, and flowers produce sneeze-inducing pollen. Not to mention, you can't go a day – let alone an hour – without plugging into your iPad. After all, there's a reason why we fly on airplanes, talk on cell phones, work at computers, wear nice clothes, and eat chocolate: civilization.
You can see why tree-huggers, granola-munchers, and English majors might enjoy Thoreau's Walden, but – no offense – what's in it for you?
Thoreau, you might be relieved to know, would totally get where you are coming from. He doesn't want his readers to follow the exact same path that he took. That would be missing the point of his entire book. He wants each of his readers to find his or her own unique and original path, and share it with the world. He's after that originality that doesn't necessarily look like originality. Besides, rock 'n' roll rebelliousness is hardly original, is it? Thoreau supports every one of us doing whatever we do really well and being whoever we are to the max. We do what we do for ourselves, and not to please others.
So you know what? If you're not the crunchy type, you may not resonate with Thoreau's bordering-on-obsessive love of and appreciation for nature. Surely, though, there's something you value, something you're passionate about, that can lead you to a fuller understanding of yourself. And we think that Walden might just be able to help you find that something.
The Real Thing
This is the official site of the Walden Pond State Reservation. It's worth a virtual and real-life visit.
Walden Woods Project
Here's a site dedicated to conserving Thoreau's Walden, with information about its ecology and history, and biographical and bibliographical links about Thoreau.
The Web of American Transcendentalism
This website from the Virginia Commonwealth University provides some great resources on the American Transcendentalist movement, of which Thoreau was a big part. You'll find text from Transcendentalist writers, essays from modern scholars, and biographies of Transcendentalist writers.
This is the website for an NPR program dedicated to Thoreau. In addition to great reporting from NPR, it contains links to multimedia resources related to the author, like video of an actor portraying Thoreau and an audio clip of "Tom Bowling," Thoreau's favorite song.
The full-text is available online here. We're not sure how Thoreau would have felt about that.
Read Thoreau's famous essay that advocates for peaceful resistance. This work has inspired everyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Compare Walden to Thoreau's buddy's essays on nature.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on self-reliance also has a lot of similarities to themes found in Walden.
Tour Thoreau's Cabin
Here's a YouTube tour of the replica of Thoreau's cabin. (We couldn't help but notice the road right behind it.)
150 Years of Walden
In 2004, NPR celebrated Walden's 150th birthday. Guests include Thoreau historians.
The man had a serious neckbeard.
Images of our favorite New England pond.
Here's a picture of the replica of Thoreau's cabin. It looks <em>tiny</em>. You can visit it at the Walden Pond State Reservation.
Inside the Cabin
Take a peek at the inside of the cabin replica. Looks cozy.
An old photo of the pond.