Thoreau's essay "Walking" grew out of journal entries developed in 1851 into two lectures, "Walking" and "The Wild," which were delivered in 1851 and 1852, and again in 1856 and 1857. Thoreau combined the lectures, separated them in 1854, and worked them together again for publication in 1862, as he was dying. "Walking" was first published just after the author's death, in the June 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly. (The manuscript that Thoreau prepared for the publisher has been held by the Concord Free Public Library since 1873.) "Walking" was included in the collection Excursions, first issued in Boston by Ticknor and Fields in 1863 and reprinted a number of times from the Ticknor and Fields plates until the publication of the Riverside Edition of Thoreau's writings in 1894. It appeared in the version of Excursions reorganized for and printed as the ninth volume of the Riverside Edition, and in the fifth volume (Excursions and Poems) of the 1906 Walden and Manuscript Editions. It has been printed in a number of selected editions, among them: Essays and Other Writings of Henry Thoreau, edited by Will H. Dircks (London, 1891); Selections from Thoreau, edited by Henry S. Salt (London, 1895); the Modern Library Edition of Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Brooks Atkinson (first published in New York in 1937); The Portable Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (New York, 1957); Thoreau: The Major Essays, edited by Jeffrey L. Duncan (New York, 1972); and The Natural History Essays, edited by Robert Sattelmeyer (Salt Lake City, 1980). "Walking" has also been printed separately, both in its entirety and in excerpted form.
Thoreau declares in the first sentence of "Walking":
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
The entire essay is an expansion upon the ideas expressed in this opening sentence. Thoreau explores the etymology of the word "saunter," which he believes may come from the French "Sainte-Terre" (Holy Land) or from the French "sans terre" (without land). Either derivation applies to walking as he knows it, but he prefers the former. True walking is not directionless wandering about the countryside, nor is it physical exercise. It is a crusade "to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels." Although he admits that his own walks bring him back to home and hearth at the end of the day, the walking to which he aspires demands that the walker leave his life behind in the "spirit of undying adventure, never to return." The "Walker, Errant" is in a category by himself, "a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People." But many of Thoreau's townsmen are too tied to society and daily life to walk in the proper spirit. Walking leads naturally to the fields and woods, and away from the village — scene of much busy coming and going, accessed by established roads, which Thoreau avoids. He suggests the degeneracy of the village by exploring the etymology of the word "village," connecting it to the Latin words for "road" and for "vile."
Thoreau's neighborhood offers the possibility of good walks, which he has not yet exhausted. He refers to the new perspective that even a familiar walk can provide. He deplores man's attempts to bound the landscape with fences and stakes, placed by the "Prince of Darkness" as surveyor. He contrasts the hurried walking undertaken in conducting the business of life with that made "out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in" — a kind of exploration very different from that of Vespucci or Columbus. Thoreau's walking explores a territory better expressed by mythology than history. He conveys some urgency to walk by stating that, although the landscape is not owned at present, he foresees a time when property ownership may prevail over it.
Thoreau refers to the difficulty of choosing the direction of a walk, asserting that there is a "right way" but that we often choose the wrong. The walk we should take "is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world" — a path difficult to determine because it does not yet "exist distinctly in our idea." Thoreau's own natural tendency is to head west, where the earth is "more unexhausted and richer," toward wildness and freedom. The east leads to the past — the history, art, and literature of the Old World; the west to the forest and to the future, to enterprise and the adventure of the New World. As a nation, we tend toward the west, and the particular (in the form of the individual) reflects the general tendency. Thoreau believes that physical environment inspires man and that the vast, untamed grandeur of the American wilderness is "symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of [America's] inhabitants may one day soar." He expands upon the evidence of history in Europe as reflective of the past. America, whose landscape has not yet been completely civilized, suggests "more of the future than of the past or present." The author sees in the promise of wild America "the heroic age itself."
Thoreau takes up the subject of the wild (synonymous with the west), in which he finds "the preservation of the World." The legend of Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome, who as infants were suckled by a wolf) demonstrates that civilization has drawn strength from the wild. He writes of the wildness of primitive people, of his own yearning for "wild lands where no settler has squatted," and of his hope that each man may be "a part and parcel of Nature" (the phrase repeated from the beginning of the essay), exuding sensory evidence of his connection with her. He equates wildness with life and strength. He himself prefers the wild vigor of the swamp, a place where one can "recreate" oneself, to the cultivated garden. The wild confers health on both the individual and society. "A township where one primitive forest waves above while another . . . rots below" nurtures poets and philosophers. Thoreau perceives agriculture as an occupation that makes the farmer stronger and more natural, and the wild and free in literature as that which most appeals to the reader. Genius is an uncivilized force, like lightning, not a "taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race." Thoreau calls for a literature that truly expresses nature. Although no literature has yet adequately done so, mythology is more satisfactory. The west — the American continent — "is preparing to add its fables to those of the East," and there will be an American mythology to inspire poets everywhere.
Thoreau finds truth in "the wildest dreams of wild men," even though these truths defy common sense. He is drawn to "wild fancies, which transcend the order of time and development." All good things, he declares, are wild and free. He rejoices that civilized men, like domestic animals, retain some measure of their innate wildness. Some men possess it to a greater degree than others. All men can fulfill low purposes. Only some — those who are not as suited to civilization as others — can fulfill higher purposes and should not be tamed. Whether or not we acknowledge it, there is a savage in all of us, even the most civilized, and that primal nature will show itself in impassioned or inspired moments. Civilization pulls us from nature — "this vast, savage, howling mother of ours" — and allows only social relations, "interaction man on man." Civilized life produces a hasty, rushed maturation of the individual, but does not allow the latent development that comes in periods of dormancy.
Not every man should be cultivated, nor every part of one man. Thoreau writes that "the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports." Man needs "wild and dusky knowledge" more than lettered learning. Thoreau undercuts the notion of "Useful Knowledge," which may preclude higher understanding, preferring instead "Useful Ignorance" or "Beautiful Knowledge." His own desire for knowledge is intermittent, but his "desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant." He encourages not the seeking of knowledge per se but rather of "Sympathy with Intellect." Our understanding cannot encompass the magnitude of nature and the universal. Thoreau writes that in his own relationship with nature he lives "a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only." Even Thoreau — a man who has devoted his life to higher pursuit — cannot grasp the full meaning of nature. When we are successful in beginning to approach the universal through our experience of nature, our glimpses of understanding are fleeting and evanescent. Imperfect though our comprehension is, however, we must elevate, must seek those places that offer broader perspective. Thoreau employs the image of the rooster — crowing confidently to inspire others to alertness and awareness, expressing the "health and soundness of Nature" — used in Walden. "Walking" ends with Thoreau rhapsodically recalling a moving sunset he had earlier seen, conveying a powerful and optimistic longing for inspired understanding. In the last paragraph of the essay, Thoreau refers again to sauntering toward the Holy Land, until "one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."