Today is the anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Two thousand copies were printed and put on sale for $1 each on August 9, 1854.
It took five years to sell those first thousand copies, but today Walden is one of the all-time best sellers in American literary history. It has also sold well overseas and has been translated into over 20 languages.
In his essay “Five Ways of Looking at Walden,” Professor Walter Harding (1917-1996) talks about the different reasons that Walden has appealed to readers through the years. Below Harding’s five points are summarized.
Walden’s first appeal was as a nature book. In an age of American progress and expansion, Thoreau left the city to live in the woods for two years and commune with nature. In today’s modern age Thoreau reminds us that nature provides us with infinite metaphors for understanding our own existence. He reminds us to watch for signs of the changing of the seasons. In his own famous words from Walden, he explains why returning to nature is so important:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
The second appeal of Walden is its lessons on how to live life more simply. This aspect of Thoreau’s work is especially relevant to the modern reader who is mired in possessions and the fast pace of the consumer culture.
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and refuse other things in proportion.
The third appeal of Walden is its satire. Thoreau doesn’t just observe life in the woods; he reflects on the life he has left in the city, and his biting commentary pokes fun at progress. Here are samples of his views on the transatlantic telegraph cable and French fashion:
We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.
The fourth appeal of Walden is simply the pleasure of reading great writing. Thoreau is a master of the abstract and the particular. Think of how many times you have seen Thoreau quoted. The clarity of his sentences and the exactness of his word choice make Thoreau’s prose eminently quotable.
Here is one example from Walden. It’s a 337-word sentence from the “House-Warming” section. It would be considered long even by 19th century standards. With Thoreau at the pen though, even an average reader can follow the sentence’s path from beginning to end:
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head, — useful to keep off rain and snow, where the king and queen posts stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof; where some may live in the fireplace, some in the recess of a window, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; a house which you have got into when you have opened the outside door, and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveler may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for housekeeping; where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg that man should use; at once kitchen, pantry, parlor, chamber, storehouse, and garret; where you can see so necessary a thing as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornament where the washing is not put out. nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trapdoor, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath without stamping.
Certainly not every sentence in Walden is this long, but whether writing a 2-word sentence or a 330-word sentence, Thoreau’s syntax is precise and clear. Thoreau is a master of every tool of the writer’s trade, including sentence variety.
The fifth appeal of Walden, as Professor Harding explains below, is its spiritual content:
It is a major thesis of Walden that the time has come for a spiritual rebirth — a renewal and rededication of our lives to higher things. It is true that we have progressed a long way from the status of the caveman. But our progress has been for the most part material rather than spiritual. We have improved our means, but not our ends. We can unquestionably travel faster than our ancestors, but we continue to waste our time in trivial pursuits when we get there. We have cut down the number hours of labor required to keep ourselves alive, but we have not learned what to do with the time thus saved. We devote the major part of our national energy to devising new ways of blowing up the rest of the world and ignore attempts to make better men of ourselves.
Thoreau is sometimes mislabeled as a misanthrope. Although he does at times lament man’s state, he nevertheless sees man’s potential for better things. At the conclusion of Walden, for example, his words sound like a sermon from a pastor who is full of hope for his congregation:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them (1).
Walden rewards the reader in many ways. One of these rewards is Thoreau’s word choice. Professor Harding says the following about Thoreau’s diction:
Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Thoreau’s word choice is the size of his vocabulary. Walden is guaranteed to send the conscientious student to the dictionary. In a random sampling, we find such words as integument, umbrageous, deliquium, aliment, fluviatile, and periplus. Yet Thoreau cannot be termed ostentatious in his word-usage. He simply searches for and uses the best possible word for each situation (1).
Today’s Challenge: Why Henry’s Words Are Worth It
What is it that makes Walden, published in 1854, still relevant today. What did Thoreau say in the 19th century that has meaning to people living in the 21st century? Read some excerpts from Walden. Then, write a brief promo for Walden that provides both a little bit of background on the book and some details on why it is still relevant today.
Quotation of the Day: I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. -Henry David Thoreau.
1- Harding, Walter. Five Ways of Looking at Walden. Massachusetts Review (Autumn 1962) ca. 1986.