Yet lately I have noted a new wave of loathing. When witnesses to his life still abounded, the prime criticism of Thoreau was Not Genteel. Now, the tag is Massive Hypocrite. Reader comments on Goodreads and Amazon alone are a deluge of angry, misspelled assertions that Thoreau was a rich-boy slacker, a humorless, arrogant, lying elitist. In the trolling of Thoreau by the digital hive mind, the most durable myth is Cookies-and-Laundry: that Thoreau, claiming independence at Walden, brought his washing home to his mother, and enjoyed her cooking besides. Claims by Concord neighbors that he was a pie-stealing layabout appear as early as the 1880s; Emerson’s youngest son felt compelled to rebut them, calling his childhood friend wise, gentle, and lovable.
First, he is becoming an unperson. From the 1920s to the early 2000s, Walden was required reading in hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school and college survey courses. Today, Thoreau is taught far less widely. The intricate prose of Walden is a tough read in the age of tweets, so much so that several “plain English” translations are now marketed. “Civil Disobedience” was a major target of McCarthyite suppression in the 1950s, and may be again.
In the section Thoreau uses to conclude the book, he stresses the importance of knowing yourself. He stated that "truth means more than love, than money, than fame. He also advised that if you want to travel, you should explore yourself. He stated that "the world of nature is but a means of inspiration for us to know ourselves." He also believed that "it is the interpretation of nature by man, and what it symbolizes in the higher spiritual world that is important to the transcendentalists." Thoreau used his writing to show people what is possible, and to inspire them to find their own paths; to walk to a different drummer, rather than all being alike. The path that Thoreau took in Walden is just one way to reach that end.
The book is largely structured around the seasonal changes that Thoreau observes during his two years at Walden Pond. His days are filled with things most of us would never take the time (or have the opportunity) to do, like farming and observing different flora and fauna – that basically means plants and animals – that inhabit the area. Sometimes he puts his party hat on and goes into the village. On one such occasion, he's actually arrested – oops – and spends the night in jail for not paying a poll tax. (Please hold while Shmoop checks what a poll tax is and then makes sure we've paid ours...)
Thoreau's Walden is full of many beautiful descriptions of nature—a big theme in American Romantic writing. Dive into Thoreau's description of a lake .
Some listed here may now be out of print or unavailable. (Sacks)
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is often the first or only exposure students get to Emerson's thought. Here are some resources to help understand this essay:
An essay introducing the background and context of Transcendentalism, for help in understanding where Emerson's ideas came from.
From Emerson himself, with some dictionary and other simple definitions listed as well.
Basic information on Transcendentalism - links to the two items above plus more.
- HTML searchable copy of the text at
Ann Woodlief's excellent introduction to the Emerson essay, Self-Reliance.
An article by Alfred I.
Looks at the problem of selfhood in Emerson's essay and relates that to relevance today, especially in religious belief in our increasingly-secular age.
A short essay, some selections from the essay, and some excellent questions for thinking about Emerson's ideas.
A short introduction to American culture about 1841, looking at Emerson's essay and its relationship to ideas of democracy, culture and the masses.
A Unitarian Universalist minister muses about the position of Emerson in that faith today, where he's often considered a "prophet of religious liberalism." - about the book and its author
- by Bryan Caplan - Kristen Rosenfeld - Piper S.
In Thoreau’s book, Walden , written at the pond, he theorized that education could come through an intimacy with nature and the end of education would come with death....
Thoreau, like Emerson, wrote essays, poetry, and journalism. He was an abolitionist who often wrote about the evils of slavery. He believed we should all stand up to our governments if they're not doing the right thing. Um, yeah: he's a cool guy.
Thoreau's book is a reflection on his two years living in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. The guy just took off to live in the middle of nowhere, in a cabin that he'd built.
Thoreau's essay is so famous because it was one of the earliest American writings to elaborate the idea of "civil disobedience." This idea, of course, became huge during the in the U.S., more than a hundred years later.
Thoreau's essay (1849) is a classic statement of the principles, later employed by and , of passive resistance against governmental authority on the basis of individual conscience.
But back to nature, where his loyalties lie: Thoreau takes the time to explore numerous ponds in the area, including Flint's Pond and White Pond. He also checks out the local farms, like Baker Farm, where he briefly takes shelter with an Irish laborer and his family. By the fall, he notes how the colors of the trees have changed, and he prepares for the winter by finishing the chimney on his cabin. During the winter, he observes Walden Pond in its frozen state, and is careful to notice the changes occurring around him. When spring finally arrives, Thoreau writes about how the frozen earth melts right before his eyes. There are also a ton of other changes that come with spring. For example, more varieties of birds and animals are present, and pine trees begin to pollinate.