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Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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First published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau's Walden is probably the most famous treatise on simple living. Thoreau reflects on his experiences living in the cabin he built by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, Thoreau hoped to gain a better understanding of society and himself through extended reflection and meditation in a natural environment. Although he stayed in the cabin for two years and two months, Thoreau compressed his time in the woods down to a single calendar year in Walden.

Though it enjoyed only modest success at first—it sold just 2,000 copies in its first five years—Walden is now regarded as an American classic. Author John Updike said of the book, "Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset."

1. Thoreau wanted to build a house by a pond for years before he did so.

The idea to build a cabin by a pond probably first occurred to Thoreau in 1835, when he spent the summer living with his Harvard classmate Charles Stearns Wheeler in a cabin that his friend had built near Flint's Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A few years later, he tried to buy land near Flint's Pond himself, but the deal fell through. In 1841 he wrote, "I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds."

2. Thoreau was partly inspired to write Walden because of a letter from a friend.

Four months before he built his cabin by Walden Pond, Thoreau received a letter from poet William Ellery Channing that stated:

I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened 'Briars'; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you. [...] Concord is just as good a place as any other."

Channing was Thoreau's most frequent visitor at Walden, even staying with him for two weeks at one point.

3. Thoreau built his cabin on land belonging to philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1844 Ralph Waldo Emerson bought 14 acres on the shores of Walden Pond. He invited Thoreau to build a house and live there rent free, as long as he cleared some land for Emerson and replanted trees. Oddly, Thoreau does not mention Emerson by name at any point in Walden. In fact, in his only reference to Emerson, Thoreau calls him "one other with whom I had solid seasons ... who looked in upon me from time to time."

4. Thoreau went to Walden Pond to write a book—but that book was not Walden.

Though many people assume that Thoreau went to Walden Pond to write Walden, he actually went there with the intention of working on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a narrative of a boat trip Thoreau took with his brother. His time there was fruitful: he produced two drafts of his first book while at Walden. However, several passages from these early drafts of A Week... ended up being deleted and later used in Walden.

5. It took Thoreau seven drafts to get Walden ready for publication.

After leaving Walden Pond in 1847, Thoreau spent years slowly editing what were originally 18 essays describing his time in the woods. Seven years—and seven drafts—later, Thoreau finally published Walden in 1854.

6. Thoreau started a 300-acre forest fire.

In an example of situational irony, Thoreau, the great lover of nature, set the Concord woods ablaze, causing over $2,000 in damages. Thoughtlessly making a fire in dry grass, Thoreau lost control of his camp fire, but he felt no remorse. He compared his act to a lightning strike and enjoyed the show:

It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it. The fire now reached the base of the cliff, and then rushed up its sides.

7. Some reviewers insulted Thoreau by calling him "unmanly."

Although the majority of reviews of Walden were positive, some were decidedly less so. The author Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, considered Thoreau's experiment in simple living to be "unmanly" and tended with "womanish solicitude." The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Thoreau's Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish. ... After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs."

8. The psychologist B.F. Skinner was so inspired by Walden that he wrote Walden Two.

Skinner reportedly carried a copy of Walden around with him in his youth and in 1948 published a utopian novel titled Walden Two. In contrast to Thoreau's single-person utopia at Walden Pond, Skinner explores the inner workings of a larger utopian community—called Walden Two—in his Thoreau-inspired novel. The characters of Walden Two try to follow the principles of self-sufficiency and simple living practiced by Thoreau at Walden Pond.

9. Readers can now easily compare all seven drafts of Walden online.

A team at the State University of New York at Geneseo has put together an electronic version of Walden that is probably unlike any other e-book you've seen. At digitalthoreau.org, readers can compare, line by line, any two manuscript versions of Walden. They also can consult critical notes from Thoreau scholars and add their own comments.

10. There is a video game adaptation of Walden.

"Walden, a Game," which took eight years for a team at the University of Southern California to produce, showcases "a first-person point-of-view where you can wander through the lush New England foliage, stop to examine a bush and pick some fruit, cast a fishing rod, return to a spartan cabin modeled after Thoreau's and just roam around the woods, grappling with life's unknowable questions."

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