By Ashton Nichols,PhD, Dickinson College

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

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

When we think of parcel in his tiny rustic cabin, by Walden Pond, we might often develop a mistaken impression. Walden Pond was no in the center of nowhere. Thoreau might walk into Concord to have supper withRalph Waldo Emerson. Nor to be Thoreau at Walden for a lengthy time, at the very least when we consider his entire life. He wrote over 200 pages about his very first year in residence there and also then he tape-recorded his second year at Walden in a single sentence: “Thus to be my very first year’s life in the woods completed; and also the second year was comparable to it.”


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

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

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

Blending Genres and Styles

According to Thoreau, “I saw the woods because I wished come live deliberately.” What might that mean? He clearly was thinking around simplicity in the challenge of the increasing intricacy of contemporary life. We know that from one more of his well known quotations: “Simplify. Simplify.” the was Thoreau’s credo. Alternatively, “The massive of men lead resides of quiet desperation.” The resource of this desperation because that Thoreau to be materialism and likewise the lack of a thank you or an authentic spirituality.


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


IsWaldennature writing? not really—or possibly not only—the publication is, in fact, remarkably complex. Part of its genius is the way it combines several preexisting genres or layouts of writing between a single set of covers. Think about the very first chapter, i m sorry Thoreau interestingly and also suggestively called “Economy.” That very first chapter, in a publication of nature writing, composed by a guy alone in a small cabin in the woods, refers to the Sandwich Islanders; to the legend of Deucalion and also Pyrrha; to the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh; to the an initial doctor in history, Hippocrates; to the philosopher and sage, Confucius; come Charles Darwin top top Tierra del Fuego in southern America; come Salem, Massachusetts; Hanno and the Phoenicians; and also St. Petersburg in Russia. This long list is not simply to demonstrate how many concepts are in the chapter, yet to indicate that thoreau is discussing far much more than the organic world.

Another instance of this is the the rail is clearly shows from Walden Pond. It was the first railroad come come with that section of Massachusetts, and also it is an image that regularly recurs in ours thinking about Thoreau. The amazing thing about the railroad is that it appears to represent not just a threat for Thoreau, but likewise a kind of energy that that doesn’t desire to i have dissolved entirely.

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Walden’s Masterful Prose

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

The value ofWaldenis significantly around how well written the publication is. Parcel is a masterful prose stylist that helps to change our language, as many writers have actually done over history, as revealed by the adhering to examples: “If a male does not keep pace with his companions, possibly it is because he hears a various drummer. Allow him step to the music which he hears, however measured or much away.”

This is a famous passage by Thoreau. However, pause and also consider how powerfully the image records our attention. The rest of Thoreau’s companions—or in this case a man’s companions—are maintaining pace. One person among them stops keeping pace due to the fact that the sound in the distance catches his ear. In ~ that moment Thoreau start in with his strongest active verb and says, “Let him step to the music which the hears.” He plants the moral message the the passage straight in the center of the metaphor, saying that this is no just about describing a possibility; this is about encouraging world to action in a details way:

I checked out the woods due to the fact that I wished to live deliberately, to front just the important facts of life and see if I might not discover what it had actually to teach, and not, when I involved die, to find that I had not lived. I did no wish come live what was not life, living is therefore dear; no one did ns wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

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

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“The sun is yet a Morning Star”

Consider additionally the last lines ofWalden: “The light which puts the end our eyes is darkness to us. Just that work dawns come which we are awake. There is much more day to dawn. The sun is yet a morning star.”


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

To really know this passage, the audience demands a basis in astronomy. Venus is the night star and suddenly, due to the fact that of Thoreau’s clinical knowledge, he reminds us that our sun, which us don’t ordinarily think that in this way, is, in fact, a star; that does this by calling that a “morning star.” He also reminds us that every day will certainly dawn come us, however he says only if we are awake. At another allude inWalden, package says, “to be awake is to it is in alive,” that notion that many of us are sleeping through life and only waking increase at certain moments. For Thoreau, over there is a sense in i m sorry what he seeks is a state of psychic in i beg your pardon he can be awake all the time. That connects that state very clearly with his life in ~ Walden and also 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 emerged out the a collection of influences, and also 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 said,

We have yet no guy who has actually leaned completely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, uncovered himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, the knew not how, and yet it was done by his very own hands. <…> The squirrel hoards nuts, and the bee gathers honey, without understanding what lock do, and also they are thus detailed for there is no selfishness or disgrace.

This is one more remarkable passage, here, wherein Emerson describes what he means by a Transcendentalist. He talks about someone who needs to uncover a life made of miracles, however he likewise talks around someone who offers for himself. That is clear that in one sense, and a really important sense, parcel sets out to fill this bill. He sets out in his trip to Walden to placed these words into practice and to try to become that person.

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Common Questions about Thoreau and Nature Writing


Q: What go Thoreau think the nature?

Thoreau essentially worshiped nature. His writings have influenced eco-friendly activists for generations.


Q: What is Thoreau’s Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism is an optimistic view of humans and their capacity to reform themselves into a creature in harmony through nature, i m sorry is do of numerous moving parts, after obtaining away from society and institutions.


Q: What is in ~ the core of transcendentalism?

There are 5 tenets of transcendentalism: 1) Contemplation of nature enables one to transcend the median world; 2) God’s signature is in everything huge and small; 3) the is vital to be an individual and also self-reliant; 4) publication knowledge is fine but an individual intuition is vastly more significant and true; 5) instincts are a direct path to knowledge God.

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Q: did Thoreau think in anything?

Thoreau was not spiritual per se, but he believed totally in self-reliance, individualism, and an over-soul, i m sorry was basically God in every things, including human being beings.


This article was update on July 2, 2020

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