About Walden


In some editions of Walden, there is included an inscription page which precedes the first chapter. On this page, the narrator of Walden declares:


The reader attempting to approach an understanding and appreciation of Walden should immediately note that here, in this inscription, the germ of the book may be found. The tone is one of great confidence and joy; the pages to follow will be the narrator's optimistic proclamation of the richness and fullness of his life at Walden Pond. He will brag lustily, with a full-throated voice, that he, like the rooster that greets the dawn, has successfully created a way of living that has enabled him to find a "new day" in his life. It is a new world and a new self that he has discovered through his thought and activity at his woodland retreat. He feels as though he has been reborn into a fresh and new, more satisfying life; he celebrates the feeling of having left behind his old self, the spiritually asleep creature made lifeless by "the dead dry life of society," for the sake of a new and ecstatic spiritual life.

In light of what has been said about Thoreau's transcendentalism, one might rightly expect Walden to begin on just such a note of buoyancy and high-spiritedness. This is a fitting way to begin the artistic depiction of how one man moved away from the state of being a "god in ruins" and moved toward a god-like state of fulfillment. Thus commences one of the most sophisticated and artistic "brags" in the history of American literature. And before the student decides to term the book the work of a rabid egomaniac, a further word about the nature of this "brag" should be offered.

In "The American Scholar," Emerson described the three basic stages of a transcendentalist's life: first, he learns all that is of merit in the wisdom of the past; second, he establishes a harmonious relationship with nature through which he is able to discover ethical truths and communicate with the divine. With these two stages, the transcendentalist has developed his higher faculties; he has cultivated his life and "spiritualized" it. (We see the narrator of Walden go through these two stages in his progress toward spiritual rebirth.) After thus cultivating his own spirit, the transcendentalist does not selfishly remain content with himself. The third stage he must attempt, after self-renewal, is the renewal of society-at-large. After being nurtured by books and nature, he must attempt to share his spiritual gains with other men who have not yet achieved their perfect spiritual states.

Walden may be viewed as Thoreau's attempt at this third stage in the transcendental life. In it, we hear the "bragging" narrator reiterating the firm conviction that all men may achieve the exhilaration that he feels. He vividly shows us his life; he "brags" of his achievement; and he tries by his example to renew "the dead dry life of society." Thus, when the narrator "brags," it is not only for himself but for all humanity's potential for greatness. Like the other transcendentalists, Thoreau was a strong moralist, and one of the most distinctive characteristics of Walden is that the narrator consistently tries to alert his readers to their potential for spiritual growth. So, while the narrator may crow loudly, sometimes proudly strutting about, and may boast of his "clear flame" with a degree of pride approaching hubris, it should not be forgotten that his self-pride is to be shared by his readers. If the narrator sometimes seems smug and self-righteous, it must be recalled that he is crowing "to wake his neighbors up" to their own greatness, not just his own.

The narrator's celebration of life and his call for all men to recognize the potential magnificence of life form the core idea, or unifying theme, of Walden. This point cannot be stressed too strongly because, for over a century, many individuals — sometimes very intelligent ones — have tended to ignore this centrally significant fact and have chosen to view Walden in other ways. While one considers the different aspects of Walden, these aspects should not obscure the essential core of the book: the process by which the narrator moves toward spiritual fulfillment.

The way in which the reader can keep this core foremost in his mind is to approach Walden as what it primarily is: a carefully contrived, closely-knit work of art with a poetic structure designed to support and restate the core idea. This may easily be done if the reader predisposes himself to two facts. The first is that, before anything else, Thoreau was an artist — an artist above and beyond being a devotee of nature, a naturalist, an economist, an anarchist, an abolitionist, or a philosopher. Since the 1930s, this is the key fact about Thoreau that has been established by scholars, and it has been the key factor in Thoreau's rise to prominence in American letters. Walden is the product of a man possessed with the idea of creating a great book. The second fact is that Walden was Thoreau's most successful attempt at creating art, to the degree that Walden exhibits the qualities of a great poem. If one traces the process by which Thoreau transformed his first version of Walden into the final version (this may be done by consulting J. Lyndon Shanley's The Making of Walden), he can see the work being changed from a rough report on pond-side living to a highly compressed, complex, and symbolic work of art.

Of course, one can grasp the central theme of Walden without taking too much note of the poetic structure of the work. If one takes the attitude that one critic has — that "Walden is a collection of eighteen essays recounting Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, from July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847" — it would still be possible to come to the theme of Walden. But to view the work as merely a collection of essays is to miss the rich texture that Thoreau gave the work as a whole. The organic, poetic unity, and the rich symbolic structure which Thoreau created in Walden is what makes it a work far superior to his other works which present almost identical themes. And it is only by being aware of the symbolic structure that one can discover how the fiction of Thoreau's Walden is ultimately autobiographical. It is through the symbolism that one comes to see that Walden is Thoreau's artistic projection of his most deeply felt shortcomings and needs — psychological needs that are fulfilled in the fiction that Thoreau's narrator lives.

The term "fiction" is used here to describe the narrator's record of what happened to him at Walden Pond. Both the "I" voice of the narrator and the world he describes must be distinguished from the real Thoreau and the world that he inhabited while writing Walden. Walden is a fiction, an imaginative creation; it is not a strict "autobiography" in the sense that we usually assign to that word. The "I" voice we hear bragging "as lustily as chanticleer in the morning" is Thoreau's representation of himself in 1854, as he would like to be, as he hopes to be someday. Or, it is an older Thoreau's representation of the ecstasy that he felt when he was younger. In writing Walden, he is seeking to assert and perhaps recapture his former happiness.

It should never be forgotten that seven years separated the actual experience at Walden Pond and the publication of Walden. As many critics have contended, those seven years witnessed Thoreau's loss of the intense inspiration and the ecstasy in nature that characterized his youth. In 1854, Thoreau was looking backward to his years of spiritual fulfillment before his highly subjective idealism had begun to wane. And he is hopefully looking forward to regaining it.

In short, Walden is a kind of wish book. With the "I" voice of Walden, Thoreau fabricates an ideal alter-ego, a wish-fulfillment figure, a character who is able to say the things about himself that Thoreau would like to be able to claim. In his youth, Thoreau felt a terrific sense of inspiration and wholeness whenever he was in the presence of nature. He believed that he had empirically proven the tenet of Emersonian idealism that the divine may be experienced through the medium of nature. In fact, Thoreau was so excited, so exhilarated by his sensual and spiritual experience of nature that he seriously entertained the idea that nature is actually God. He went past Emerson, who declared that nature is the symbol of the spiritual, and proposed that it is more than a mere symbol. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau's idealism surpassed Emerson's when he wrote:

May we not see God? Are we to be put off and amused in this life, as it were with mere allegory? Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?

Statements such as this caused Reverend George Ripley to denounce Thoreau's "pantheism." Nature fulfilled him to such a degree that he had to celebrate it as divine; so great was the physical and spiritual harmony between him and nature that he felt he was experiencing divinity. And it was to this state that he wanted to return in 1854. Hence, at the climax of the narrator's quest for harmony with nature in the "Spring" chapter, we find the "I" voice experiencing nature's expression of the divine. The ecstasy that the "I" voice brags of in this chapter is the ecstasy that Thoreau longs for. The spiritual rebirth that the narrator achieves in Walden is the goal toward which Thoreau was attempting to design his life in 1854.