"When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."
Aug. 5, 2002
-- So begins Henry David Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods
. Still known as Thoreau's crowning achievement, almost a century and a half has passed since its first publication.
Yet this book, in which Thoreau describes his retreat from the encroaching mess of civilization and outlines his philosophy of self-reliance, still exerts a palpable influence on today's American minds. From racks of greeting cards to classrooms full of befuddled high school students to bookshelves stocked with environmentalist treatises, Walden continues to earn its keep.
But if it seems that his opening statement is altogether too straightforward an introduction for a work that's held up as one of the denser and more challenging in the American literary canon, remember: it's precisely that simplicity at which Thoreau had originally aimed his gaze.
As part of Present at the Creation
, NPR's ongoing series looking at the origins of American cultural icons, Jill Kaufman of member station WGBH in Boston explores the woods, the pond and the philosophy that led to Thoreau's masterpiece.
Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., on July 12, 1817. He graduated from Harvard near the top of his class in 1837, and after a brief stint teaching in the Concord Public Schools, he quit to open his own private school with his older brother John. During these years he began writing extensively, publishing his first poetry and his first essay in The Dial
, a journal edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson, a leading thinker in the transcendentalist movement -- followers reject many of the concepts of organized religion in favor of a more direct experience of the divine -- also served as Thoreau's mentor, at one point writing, "I am very familiar with all his thoughts, they are my own quite originally drest." The young Thoreau was quite impressionable. When John died of a tetanus infection in 1842, Henry became so distressed that he began showing psychosomatic symptoms of his brother's fatal illness.
After his brother's death, Thoreau left Concord to serve as a tutor on Staten Island, but returned in 1844 and began working on what would become his most enduring achievement. As Kaufman reports, Thoreau was less than taken with the emphasis on commercialism in Concord. Dismayed that so many of his neighbors had stopped growing crops or making their own clothes in favor of buying less expensive products from out of town, he built himself a cabin in the woods, next to Walden Pond. He moved in on July 4, 1845 -- his own personal Independence Day.
Thoreau called the move an experiment, to test the transcendentalist idea that divinity was present in nature and the human soul. In order to get closer to nature, he stripped his life down to the barest of essentials. He grew his own beans, wore only the simplest of clothes and generally tried to seclude himself from the rapidly industrialized world growing up around him.
Thomas Blanding, who has studied and restored Thoreau's journals, says that the effort to remove himself from civilization was essential to his larger question. "He wanted to find out just what was life -- what is absolutely necessary in life and what is superfluous," Blanding says.
To reveal these necessities, Thoreau kept a careful eye on his new home, cataloguing the surroundings with great attention to detail. "In the book we find the pond described quite literally, the size, the depth, the flora and fauna. That's all one factual and actual level of the book," says Blanding. But there's another level to the writing. "He employs Walden -- the pond -- as an archetypal symbol, a universal symbol... "
Thoreau left the pond after those 26 months, and it was only after many revisions that he finally published Walden
in August of 1854. Since that time, many others have bought into the symbolism of Walden. "You come out here at six in the morning," says biographer and historian Robert Richardson, "there's a little bit of fog rolling off the pond; it could be the first day of creation."
Learn more about Thoreau and his writings at the Thoreau Society
and Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods
Read online texts of Walden
and other works by the author at the Thoreau Reader
The American Transcendentalism
Web site provides information about the movement to which Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others of their day belonged.
Review a list of famous people
mentioned in Thoreau's Walden
Read a Concord, Mass., literary chronology
Read the story of the 1945 excavation of Thoreau's cabin
Walden Pond is part of the National Historic Landmarks
Get information about visiting Walden Pond