Thoreau and Walden: American Nature Writing

From the lecture series: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

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 point from which American nature writing begins.

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

When we think of Thoreau in his tiny rustic cabin, by Walden Pond, we may often create a mistaken impression. Walden Pond was not in the middle of nowhere. Thoreau could walk into Concord to have supper with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nor was Thoreau at Walden for a long time, at least when we consider his entire life. He wrote over 200 pages about his first year in residence there and then he recorded his second year at Walden in a single sentence: “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.”

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

When he left Walden, he said that he had many other lives to lead. Indeed, among serious readers of his work, Thoreau is as well known for his time spent on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in the deep Maine woods, on Mount Katahdin, and Cape Cod. Even today, his influence continues; he is quoted by politicians and songwriters, and his wisdom appears on tee-shirts to bumper stickers.

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

Blending Genres and Styles

According to Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” What might that mean? He clearly was thinking about simplicity in the face of the increasing complexity of modern life. We know that from another of his famous quotations: “Simplify. Simplify.” That was Thoreau’s credo. Alternatively, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The source of this desperation for Thoreau was materialism and also the lack of a sincere or an authentic spirituality.

Is Walden nature writing? Not really—or perhaps not only—the book is, in fact, remarkably complex.

Is Walden nature writing? Not really—or perhaps not only—the book is, in fact, remarkably complex. Part of its genius is the way it combines several preexisting genres or styles of writing between a single set of covers. Consider the first chapter, which Thoreau interestingly and suggestively called “Economy.” That first chapter, in a book of nature writing, composed by a man alone in a small cabin in the woods, refers to the Sandwich Islanders; to the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha; to the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh; to the first doctor in history, Hippocrates; to the philosopher and sage, Confucius; to Charles Darwin on Tierra del Fuego in South America; to Salem, Massachusetts; Hanno and the Phoenicians; and St. Petersburg in Russia. This long list is not simply to demonstrate how many ideas are in the chapter, but to suggest that Thoreau is discussing far more than the natural world.

Another example of this is that the railroad is visible from Walden Pond. It was the first railroad to come through that section of Massachusetts, and it is an image that often recurs in our thinking about Thoreau. The interesting thing about the railroad is that it seems to represent not only a threat for Thoreau, but also a type of energy that he doesn’t want to dismiss entirely.

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Walden’s Masterful Prose

image of the title page of Walden by Thoreau with an illustration from a drawing by Thoreau's sister Sophia
Thoreau’s Walden is a central fixture in the American literary canon. (Image: The Walden Woods Project/Public domain)

The value of Walden is significantly about how well written the book is. Thoreau is a masterful prose stylist who helps to change our language, as many writers have done over history, as revealed by the following examples: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

This is a well-known passage by Thoreau. However, pause and consider how powerfully the image catches our attention. The rest of Thoreau’s companions—or in this case a man’s companions—are keeping pace. One person among them stops keeping pace because the sound in the distance catches his ear. At that moment Thoreau enters in with his strongest active verb and says, “Let him step to the music which he hears.” He plants the moral message of the passage directly in the center of the metaphor, suggesting that this is not just about describing a possibility; this is about encouraging people to act in a certain way:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to 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. I wanted 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 the way those repetitions have an alliterative poetic quality: I went, I wished, I wanted. The way Thoreau uses active verbs to draw our attention away from the abstract idea toward the actual physical image he is trying to create: I went, I wished, learn, teach, die, lived; and then that wonderful, memorable, easy-to-memorize passage at the end, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Here is an individual who is often referred to as a vegetarian who imagines cracking open the bone of a chicken and literally sucking the marrow, the source of those red blood cells as we now know, where life itself originates. That is what Thoreau says he wants: The purest experience of life he can possibly have.

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“The Sun is but a Morning Star”

Consider also the final lines of Walden: “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

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

To really understand this passage, the audience needs a basis in astronomy. Venus is the evening star and suddenly, because of Thoreau’s scientific knowledge, he reminds us that our sun, which we don’t ordinarily think of in this way, is, in fact, a star; he does this by calling it a “morning star.” He also reminds us that each day will dawn to us, but he says only if we are awake. At another point in Walden, Thoreau says, “to be awake is to be alive,” that notion that most of us are sleeping through life and only waking up at certain moments. For Thoreau, there is a sense in which what he seeks is a state of mind in which he can be awake all the time. He connects that state very clearly with his life at Walden and he presents it to us with powerful language in a passage like this.

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Defining a Transcendentalist

However, Thoreau didn’t emerge spontaneously; he emerged out of a series of influences, and one of the strongest of those was Emerson. In his essay called “The Transcendentalist,” which, importantly, was written in 1842, three years before Thoreau sets out for Walden, Emerson had said,

We have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. […] The squirrel hoards nuts, and the bee gathers honey, without knowing what they do, and they are thus provided for without selfishness or disgrace.

This is another remarkable passage, here, where Emerson describes what he means by a Transcendentalist. He talks about someone who needs to find a life made of miracles, but he also talks about someone who provides for himself. It is clear that in one sense, and a very important sense, Thoreau sets out to fill this bill. He sets out in his journey to Walden to put these words into practice and to try to become that person.

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Common Questions About Thoreau and Nature Writing

Q: What does Thoreau think of nature?

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

Q: What is Thoreau’s Transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism is an optimistic view of humans and their ability to reform themselves into a creature in harmony with nature, which is made of many 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 of nature allows one to transcend the average world; 2) God’s signature is in everything big and small; 3) it is crucial to be an individual and self-reliant; 4) book knowledge is fine but personal intuition is vastly more significant and true; 5) instincts are a direct path to understanding God.

Q: Did Thoreau believe in anything?

Thoreau was not religious per se, but he believed completely in self-reliance, individualism, and an over-soul, which was essentially God in all things, including human beings.

This article was updated on July 2, 2020

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