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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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