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ClassicsOnline Home » THOREAU, H.D.: Walden (Abridged)
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau, one of the principal New England Transcendentalists, left the town for the country. Beside the lake of Walden, he built himself a log cabin and returned to nature, to observe and reflect—while surviving on eight dollars a year. From this experience emerged one of the great classics of American literature, a deeply personal reaction against the commercialism and materialism that he saw as the main impulses of mid-nineteenth-century America.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
READ BY WILLIAM HOPE
‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps
it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he
hears, however measured or far away.’
“I am a Schoolmaster – a Private Tutor, a Surveyor – a Gardener,
a Farmer – a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a
Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a
Poetaster.” So wrote Henry David Thoreau.
But he is remembered for two extraordinary years of
reflection while sojourning in nature, and his account of it, Walden, which was published in 1854. Though it had little
impact during Thoreau’s lifetime, Walden is now recognized as one of the great works of American literature, a
sensitive but clear essay on life and living in nature, informed by an abiding
interest in classic literature and philosophy.
Henry David Thoreau was born in the village of Concord,
Massachusetts, in 1817, into an unremarkable family. His father owned a pencil
factory. Henry revealed academic potential early, and went to Harvard to study
‘navigation’ (as he says in Walden), but
spent much of his student years in the library, pursuing his own vicarious
On his return in 1837 he became a teacher at the Concord
Academy – for two weeks. His sensitive, poetic temperament was not suited to
keeping boisterous pupils in order. He left to join his father in the
pencil-making business. The following year, in 1838, he started a school with
his brother John, putting into practice his more progressive ideas about
education, but John’s growing ill health forced closure.
In 1839, he went, with John, on a canoe trip down the
McCormack and Concord rivers. It was a key experience, crystallizing his need
to combine his interests in nature and writing. It resulted in the publication
of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers ten years later.
By this time, he had already formed a close friendship with
the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the leading figures of the
Transcendentalists, who by coincidence had settled in Concord. Here, in this
movement, and particularly in the fatherly figure of Emerson, Thoreau found an
external, eloquent voice which accorded with his inner feelings: the concern
for the individual vision, the emphasis on living with an awareness of nature,
and the elevation of intuition rather than reason in dealing with life.
It was the vision that Thoreau craved, one that provided a
stance against the growing commercialism and materialism that he found
everywhere in the burgeoning American society. Prompted by Emerson, Thoreau
started a diary and wrote copiously. He began writing for The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine, producing essays,
reviews and poetry. It was here that his first writings on nature appeared.
Between 1841 and 1843, Thoreau lived mainly with Emerson, his wife and
children. It was a difficult period for Thoreau. His brother John died of
lockjaw, and a time spent on Staten Island (with the family of Emerson’s
brother William) trying to establish himself as a poet in a more metropolitan
Thoreau went back to Concord, and to his father’s pencil
factory. And then early in 1845, he decided to live alone in the countryside.
Emerson owned some land two miles outside Concord, by a small lake, Walden Pond
and Thoreau, now aged 27, found it ideally suited to his purpose. There, he
built a small cabin and, sojourning in nature, read and observed, living on
food that he could gather, and beans that he grew. This combination of living
in nature, all senses alert, with his background in classic literature and
philosophy, and a sense of spiritual purpose produced Walden.
Thoreau spent two years by Walden Pond – not exclusively,
for he returned to Concord from time to time. When he left his cabin finally,
in 1847, he went back to stay at the Emerson home while Emerson himself was
away in Europe. And gradually, he accustomed himself to more conventional
society. He took charge of his father’s pencil factory though it never became
particularly profitable; he developed a reputation as a reliable surveyor; he
made other naturalist trips.
But he also became involved in a variety of causes,
principally the abolition of slavery. He supported the Underground Railway; the
clandestine movement that helped runaway slaves reach Canada and freedom. He
admired John Brown, the anti-slavery campaigner, who was hanged for the debacle
at Harper’s Ferry. (His essay Civil Disobedience reflected his more proactive
political views, and widely influenced movements in the 20th century).
Thoreau continued to work at his writings and memories of
his time at Walden Pond. In 1854, Walden was finally published, but it wasn’t a
overnight critical success. Yet it did reach a select circle. In 1855, George
Eliot, in London, praised it in a review in the Westminster Magazine, commenting on its ‘deep poetic sensibility’ and
remarking on its ‘unworldliness’.
When A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was published in 1849, 1,000 copies were printed.
100 were sold, 75 were given away, and in 1853, the publisher dumped 706 copies
on Thoreau’s doorstep. Walden fared
better – the initial print run of 2,000 was sold within five years – though it
was only in the 20th century that it finally achieved status as a classic in
its own right.
Thoreau died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1862, at the age
of 44. It was said he went out into the woods to count tree rings, and caught a
bad cold. He was buried in Concord.
His cabin didn’t last much longer. When Thoreau left it,
Emerson who later sold it to his gardener, Hugh Whelan, bought the cabin. It
started to fall into repair, and in 1849, a farmer who moved it to his farm
where it was used to store grain bought it. In 1868, the roof was used to make
a pigsty and in 1875, the last pieces of timber shored up a barn. However, a
replica has now been built and can be viewed, by Route 126, on the original
site by Walden Pond.
ABOUT THE READER
Though American by birth, William Hope trained at RADA and
has appeared in theater on both sides of the Atlantic. His television and film
work have been similarly extensive and have included leading roles for James
Cameron in Aliens, Clive Barker in Hellraiser
II and for Channel 4, Dropping
the Baby. A former member of the BBC Radio
Drama Company, he is regularly heard on radio in both plays and books.
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THOREAU, H.D.: Walden (Abridged)