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Thoreau’s Walden Essay, Research Paper

Henry David Thoreau was a rebel. Walden can be seen as an account of his

rebellion. By the 1840’s, life had changed throughout New England, even in the

heart of America’s rebellion, Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau wrote that “I have

traveled a good deal in Concord” (Krutch 108). He knew what he saw there, and

what he saw, he began to despise. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet

desperation” (111). In 1775, ordinary men had dared to take up arms of rebellion

and strike a blow for independence and freedom (Bowes 123-124). Yet, in the

space of few decades, the combined forces of materialism and technology had

subdued the children and grandchildren of these freedom fighters and reduced

them “to slave-drivers of themselves” (Krutch 110). Henry rebelled and

deliberately sought a new life in which he could be free and independent. He

decided to leave Concord and seek answers to the mysteries of life in the solitude

of the woods and the beauty of the pond. On July 4, 1845, the anniversary of the

proclamation of the United States’ independence, Thoreau went to Walden pond to

proclaim his own independence (Literary 397). If the people of Concord had been

swept up by the speed of technology and the lure of money and property, Henry

would separate himself from these attractive deceptions and seek out the reality of

nature’s truths, 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” (Krutch 172).

The quality of life throughout America was rapidly changing when Henry

cast his critical eye on Concord. Where others saw progress and prosperity, he

saw wastefulness and poverty. “We live meanly, like ants” (173).

The transcendentalists were deeply concerned about the quality of life

in America. A great tide of material prosperity, checked only

temporarily by the crises of 1837 and 1839 and the ensuing

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depression, had overtaken the country. Everything was expanding by

leaps and bounds. Virgin territories were being opened to settlement

from Illinois to Oregon. Turnpikes, canals, steamboats, railroads were

rushed into being. The fur trade, overseas commerce, whaling, the

cotton culture of the South, the factories of the North were bringing

wealth to a happy nation. It was an era of good feeling, a time when

the common man seemed to be getting his share of creature comforts.

Yet sensitive observers feared that all was not well. It appeared not

likely that care for man’s intellectual and spiritual nature might be

submerged into the rush for easy riches. What would be the profit in

all this material advance if it were not matched by an equal progress in

humanity? So the transcendentalists pondered (Damrush et al. 6-7).

Thoreau’s response was to awaken from the deadly sleep brought on by the

hum of the machine and the pillow of the dollar bills.

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, if he would not founder and go to the

bottom and 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 reduce other things in proportion. (Krutch 173)

Thoreau believed life to be too complicated and such things as internal

improvements to be nothing but furniture cluttering up a room. Americans were

being confused and believed the illusions of luxuries of life to be beneficiary to

their happiness, but the people of New England could not tell what an illusion

looked like. They hadn’t the time to notice nature or to distinguish illusions from

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the real thing (173). Unlike Thoreau, New Englanders lacked “a passion for

observation” (Literary 394) for focusing in on nature. Life in New England moved

too fast to notice anything. Thoreau’s answer to these problems was always to slow

down and separate what one needed from what one merely desired (Krutch 173).

Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export

ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a

doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons

or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get our sleepers, and forge

rails, and devote days or nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon

our lives to improve them, who will want railroads? And if railroads are

not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home

and mind our own business, who will want railroads? We do not ride

on the railroad; it rides upon us. …

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of time? We are

determined to be starved for we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in

time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine

to-morrow. As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence. We have

the Saint Vitus’ dance and cannot possibly keep our heads still. …

Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he

holds up his head and asks, “What’s the News?” as if the rest of mankind

had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be walked every half

hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell

what they have dreamed. After a night’s sleep the news is as

indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has

happened to a man any where on this globe,” – and he reads it over his

coffee and rolls, that a man has had this eyes gouged out this morning

on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark

unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has put the rudiment of

an eye himself (174-175).

The tone of these words conveys a feeling of anger and passion. Thoreau

felt that Americans had deceived themselves about what is valuable in life and

were wasting the precious time they had. His answer to wasting time is nothing

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more than simplifying your life and it becomes more valuable. He said, “We are

as rich as the number of things we can do without” (160). By liberating

themselves from the shackles of material things, people can find the time to see

what is important and worthwhile about reality (178).

If you stand right fronting and face to face of a fact, you will see the

sun glimmer on both sides its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel

its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you

will happily conclude you mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave

only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats

and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our

business (178).

True independence is achieved by finding the time to trust the instincts

people are born with, in conducting their business, which is to throw off their

sleepy condition and awaken themselves to the possibility of elevating their own

existence to a higher level.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by

mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which

does not forake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more

encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his

life by a conscious endeavor (172).

Thoreau saw the need of man’s awaking to an awareness of three possible

levels – Animal, Intellectual, and Spiritual – each with rewards. The book opens

with spring and ends with spring , the awakening of nature, of renewal, and of

purification. By getting rid of the frantic pace dictated by technology and the

enslaving grasp of material luxuries, man has the chance to purify himself through

communion with nature (13). The renewal of the day, signaled by the dawn, also

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becomes a signal to renew the dawn in us, and rise with the sun to an intellectual

level, by reading the best works of the best writers (184). Finally, by studying

nature closely, Thoreau discovered the divine pattern of all creation, a simple leaf.

“Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all operations of

Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf” (332).

Henry discovered that his experiment in independent living had proven that

an individual could live his life on his own terms, and still pursue happiness by

being free and living “deliberately” (172).

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advance

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

around and within him; or the old laws will 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


Once upon a time, a voice came to the town of Concord and whispered the

answer to the problems of materialism and technology that were speeding up and

complicating life for all the townspeople to hear. The voice said, “Simplify,

simplify” (173). But they all told the voice that it was impossible and that it was

crazy. Then years later, as they were on their death beds, these same townspeople

looked back upon their lives and they all realized they truly “had not lived” (172).

Finally they all died, not knowing true happiness.

The words in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden form this voice that can save

modern man from the illusions of life. Critic Joseph Wood Krutch comments,

Sweeney 6

Yet most of those who read that account, even those who read it with

sympathy and admiration, do not follow his advice-either because,

they say, they cannot or because the conclude that only for that very

special sort of person Thoreau happened to be, would it work (1).

Thoreau lived in an age of rapid change and increased complexity. Today it


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