Review of Walden (1854)


Henry David Thoreau (writer).

Read in 2021.

The author recounts his life as a “hermit” in a populated cultural landscape near Walden Pond, which itself is near Concord, Massachusetts, between 1845 and 1847. He visits the nearby town a few times each week and builds a little cabin in woods owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, using a likewise borrowed axe.

Instead of reviewing Walden I’ll just repeat some of the criticisms made by other writers of yet other writers reviewing Walden. Thoreau, rather than the work itself, has been polarizing. In an excellent essay on the subject (“Everybody Hates Henry”, The New Republic, 2015-10-21), Donovan Hohn put his finger on it:

Saint or fraud, idol or arrogant prick: why do we seem to need him to be one or the other?

Hohn’s answer, that Thoreau is polarizing because of his moral example, is correct. It is not because of his work. As Hohn noted, “few people actually bother to read Thoreau anymore”. In a 2004 essay introducing an edition of Walden, John Updike said “the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible”, which is also true. This is partly because reading Walden is as dull as reading The Bible (ca. 110 CE).

Thoreau was neither a saint nor a fraud. He knew that Walden was “partially cultivated country”, not a wilderness. He called it so in The Maine Woods. His attitudes on race were stuffy, but he was nonetheless a fervent abolitionist, ahead of his time. His LARPing “a very agricola” was more self-conscious and awkward than it was narcissistic. Hepped up on masculinity, he foolishly read Sun Tzu instead of Dao De Jing (ca. 400 BCE), extracting little wisdom from his exoticized Chinese and Indian classics, but he did study them.

After the question of why Thoreau is polarizing comes the question why he was ever read in the first place. Updike implies the answer to that one. Thoreau happened to be writing at a time that was formative of US cultural identity. Because he was an outsider, he became incorrectly associated with something new and quientessentially “American” (US). Accordingly, he was casually contemptuous of European history:

I am not aware that any man has ever built on the spot which I occupy. Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries. The soil is blanched and accursed there, and before that becomes necessary the earth itself will be destroyed.

His flavour of self-sufficiency is Christian and contemptuous also of circumstances beyond the individual’s control:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.

This view derives from colonial British puritanism and remains infected by Emerson’s non-viable transcendentalism, but is nonetheless compatible with the capitalist morality that would soon triumph and dominate the USA at the end of the century.

Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. [---] it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.

This by-your-own-bootstraps attitude to charity is most clearly expressed in the fictionalized account of meeting the Irish immigrant “John Field”, who spends his money on luxuries like coffee.

But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.

In more modern words, the American Dream is not a dream of general prosperity but some nebulous German-style personal liberty compatible with the slavery and war that existed in 1850s USA. I am not saying that Thoreau was a jingoist or a major capitalist himself, but his sentiments were easy enough to misunderstand as patriotic and pro-capitalist that Thoreau could be mythologized and made a saint of American exceptionalism without being widely read. Anti-establishmentarianism and civil disobedience were not a hindrance to this process. Everybody loves an underdog and prefers it on their side.

The reality, again, is prosaic. Thoreau lived at Walden in his late 20s and wrote about it through his early-to-mid 30s. Most of what he believes to be words of wisdom are cobbled together like Proverbs (ca. 500–200 BCE) and similarly void. His opposition to the division of labour, in a rapidly industrializing economy, was backward, hopeless, and in no way original. There is no reason to expect he would write well.

I read Walden mainly because his canonization in the USA has made him a fixed star of ecocriticism, and reading Walden is worthwhile just to understand that academic field. A lot of his observations of nature in the latter half of the book are also quite enjoyable, and would have been more so a decade later, after Darwin’s greatest work, which Thoreau read and enjoyed. If nothing else, Thoreau is at least a bigger fan of bitterns than were the men who wrote Isaiah (ca. 600-400 BCE).

References here: “The Bat Is Dun, With Wrinkled Wings” (1876), Silent Spring (1962).

text non-fiction cultural landscape