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WALDEN. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) published Walden in 1854. It is based on the two years (1845–1847) he spent living in a cabin beside Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, and describes his simple way of life, along with meditations on nature and society. It has become a classic for environmentalists, nature mystics, and advocates of the simple life, while embodying one aspect of the transcendentalist creed.

Thoreau was convinced that most of his countrymen worked too hard and gave themselves too little time for relaxation and meditation, that they let themselves be imprisoned by their property and their acquisitive desires. Accordingly, he aimed to live as simply as possible, doing only the work sufficient to feed and shelter himself, which he claimed amounted to just six weeks out of each year. He bought the planks for his cabin from a migratory Irish railroad worker, built it beside the pond for $28 (as he tells the reader in a chapter titled "Economy"), made a table and a few simple chairs, planted and hoed beans, and spent his days fishing, searching for berries and chestnuts, or studying the plants and forest creatures. In winter he went out on the ice and, lying face-down, stared through it to the mysterious waters below. In summer he lay on his back and watched the sky.

Thoreau in Walden relishes paradox. He argues the superiority of shabby clothes, cold, hunger, and loneliness in a light-hearted and teasing tone (perfected after seven years of careful editing of his original journals). Conversely, he denigrates what many of his contemporaries regarded as the great achievements of their age: the railroad, the division of labor, capitalist efficiency, and philanthropy. By living at one remove from society (Walden was close to town, within easy reach of neighbors, and not in a "wilderness" setting), he said he was able to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life."


Harding, Walter Roy. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965.

McGregor, Robert Kuhn. A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau's Study of Nature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. See chapter 3.

Patrick N.Allitt

See alsoTranscendentalism .

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