By Ashton Nichols,PhD, Dickinson College

Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau, is the foundational text of American nature writing; the suggest from i beg your pardon American nature writing begins.

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Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts (Image: Alizada Studios/Shutterstock)

When we think of thoreau in his small rustic cabin, by Walden Pond, we might often develop a mistaken impression. Walden Pond was no in the center of nowhere. Thoreau can walk right into Concord to have actually supper withRalph Waldo Emerson. Nor was Thoreau in ~ Walden because that a long time, at least when we think about his entire life. He composed over 200 pages around his first year in residence there and then he taped his 2nd year in ~ Walden in a solitary sentence: “Thus was my very first year’s life in the woods completed; and the 2nd year was similar to it.”


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Henry David Thoreau, the American Transcendentalist author and also philosopher. (Image: B. D. Maxham – nationwide Portrait Gallery/Public domain)

When he left Walden, he said that he had countless other stays to lead. Indeed, amongst serious reader of his work, thoreau is also known because that his time spent on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in the deep Maine woods, on mount Katahdin, and Cape Cod. Even today, his affect continues; that is quoted through politicians and songwriters, and his wisdom appears on tee-shirts come bumper stickers.

This is a transcript from the video collection Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement. Watch it now, on The great Courses.

Blending Genres and also Styles

According come Thoreau, “I visited the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” What can that mean? He plainly was thinking around simplicity in the challenge of the increasing intricacy of modern life. We recognize that from one more of his well known quotations: “Simplify. Simplify.” the was Thoreau’s credo. Alternatively, “The mass of men lead resides of quiet desperation.” The resource of this desperation for Thoreau was materialism and also the lack of a thank you very much or an really spirituality.


Is Walden nature writing? no really—or probably not only—the publication is, in fact, remarkably complex.


IsWaldennature writing? not really—or perhaps not only—the publication is, in fact, remarkably complex. Component of the genius is the method it combines numerous preexisting genres or formats of writing in between a single set of covers. Take into consideration the first chapter, i beg your pardon Thoreau interestingly and suggestively referred to as “Economy.” That first chapter, in a book of nature writing, created by a man alone in a small cabin in the woods, describes the Sandwich Islanders; to the legend of Deucalion and also Pyrrha; to the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh; to the very first doctor in history, Hippocrates; to the philosopher and also sage, Confucius; come Charles Darwin on Tierra del Fuego in south America; come Salem, Massachusetts; Hanno and also the Phoenicians; and also St. Petersburg in Russia. This long list is not just to show how many principles are in the chapter, however to imply that package is pointing out far more than the herbal world.

Another example of this is the the rail is clearly shows from Walden Pond. It to be the an initial railroad to come with that ar of Massachusetts, and also it is photo that regularly recurs in ours thinking around Thoreau. The amazing thing about the rail is that it appears to represent not only a risk for Thoreau, but additionally a type of energy that that doesn’t want to dismiss entirely.

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Walden’s Masterful Prose

Thoreau’s Walden is a main fixture in the American literature canon. (Image: The Walden Woods Project/Public domain)

The worth ofWaldenis significantly around how well written the book is. Parcel is a masterful prose stylist who helps to change our language, as numerous writers have done over history, as revealed through the adhering to examples: “If a guy does not save pace with his companions, probably it is since he hears a different drummer. Allow him action to the music which the hears, but measured or much away.”

This is a renowned passage through Thoreau. However, pause and consider just how powerfully the image records our attention. The rest of Thoreau’s companions—or in this situation a masculine companions—are maintaining pace. One person amongst them stops maintaining pace because the sound in the distance records his ear. At that moment Thoreau beginning in through his strongest active verb and also says, “Let him action to the music which that hears.” He tree the ethical message of the passage straight in the center of the metaphor, suggesting that this is no just around describing a possibility; this is around encouraging human being to act in a particular way:

I visited the woods due to the fact that I wished to live deliberately, come front just the essential facts that life and also see if I can not discover what it had to teach, and not, once I pertained to die, to discover that I had actually not lived. I did no wish come live what was no life, living is for this reason dear; no one did i wish to exercise resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

That might be a textbook i for teaching the method a great writer manipulates the English language. The repetitions the Thoreau uses and also the means those repetitions have an alliterative poetic quality: i went, i wished, i wanted. The method Thoreau uses active verbs to draw our attention away native the abstract idea towards the yes, really physical picture he is trying to create: i went, i wished, learn, teach, die, lived; and then the wonderful, memorable, easy-to-memorize i at the end, “I wanted to live deep and also suck out all the marrow of life.” below is an individual that is often referred to together a vegetarian that imagines cracking open the bone of a chicken and also literally suck the marrow, the resource of those red blood cells together we currently know, whereby life chin originates. That is what Thoreau claims he wants: The purest experience of life he deserve to possibly have.

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“The sunlight is however a Morning Star”

Consider also the last lines ofWalden: “The light which puts out our eye is darkness come us. Only that job dawns come which we are awake. Over there is much more day come dawn. The sun is yet a morning star.”


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Photograph the the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, v a cairn noting the original location. (Image: Detroit publishing Co. – Library of Congress/Public domain)

To really know this passage, the audience demands a basis in astronomy. Venus is the evening star and also suddenly, because of Thoreau’s clinical knowledge, the reminds united state that ours sun, which we don’t ordinarily think the in this way, is, in fact, a star; he does this by calling it a “morning star.” He additionally reminds united state that every day will certainly dawn come us, however he says only if we room awake. In ~ another point inWalden, thoreau says, “to be wake up is to be alive,” that notion that most of united state are resting through life and also only waking increase at details moments. Because that Thoreau, there is a feeling in i m sorry what he seeks is a state of mental in i m sorry he deserve to be awake all the time. The connects the state very plainly with his life at Walden and he gift it to us with powerful language in a passage favor this.

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Defining a Transcendentalist

However, package didn’t arise spontaneously; he arised out that a collection of influences, and one of the the strongest of those to be Emerson. In his essay referred to as “The Transcendentalist,” which, importantly, was written in 1842, three years prior to Thoreau sets the end for Walden, Emerson had actually said,

We have actually yet no male who has leaned totally on his character, and also eaten angels’ food; who, trusting come his sentiments, discovered life do of miracles; who, working for universal aims, discovered himself fed, that knew no how; clothed, sheltered, and also weaponed, that knew not how, and yet it was done by his very own hands. <…> The squirrel hoards nuts, and the punishment gathers honey, without understanding what castle do, and also they are thus noted for there is no selfishness or disgrace.

This is another remarkable passage, here, where Emerson defines what he way by a Transcendentalist. The talks around someone who demands to uncover a life do of miracles, however he additionally talks around someone who gives for himself. It is clear that in one sense, and a an extremely important sense, thoreau sets the end to to fill this bill. The sets out in his trip to Walden to placed these words right into practice and to shot to end up being that person.

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Common Questions about Thoreau and also Nature Writing


Q: What go Thoreau think the nature?

Thoreau essentially worshiped nature. His writings have actually influenced ecological activists for generations.


Q: What is Thoreau’s Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism is an confident view the humans and their capacity to reform themselves into a creature in harmony through nature, which is make of plenty of moving parts, after getting away from society and institutions.


Q: What is at the core of transcendentalism?

There are five tenets of transcendentalism: 1) Contemplation that nature allows one to transcend the average world; 2) God’s signature is in everything large and small; 3) that is an important to be an individual and self-reliant; 4) book knowledge is fine but an individual intuition is vastly more far-ranging and true; 5) instincts room a straight path to expertise God.

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Q: walk Thoreau believe in anything?

Thoreau was not spiritual per se, however he believed completely in self-reliance, individualism, and an over-soul, i beg your pardon was essentially God in all things, including person beings.


This write-up was updated on July 2, 2020

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