In the spring of 1845, a 27-year old New Englander embarked on an experiment in simple living. Henry David Thoreau built a one-room cabin on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, and on July 4 of that year declared his own state of independence. He lived in this cabin for two years, immersing himself in the natural world around him, aiming ‘to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life’. The product of this experiment is now considered one of the greatest works of prose in the English language. Published in 1854, Waldenis at once a profound examination of the power of the human spirit, and a work that has helped define America’s very idea of itself as a nation.
Thoreau was born in 1817, the son of a minor industrialist, and enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He studied at Harvard, but his early attempts at a writing career were unsuccessful. Thoreau had met local Concord resident Ralph Waldo Emerson when he was aged around 18 and he spent two years, from 1841‒3, living with the family, working as a tutor for their children, as Emerson’s editorial assistant and as a handyman and gardener.
Emerson was the leading light in the growing transcendentalist movement of the period, which exhorted mankind to seek harmony with the world through spiritual rather than physical experiences. Thoreau sought his own salvation by returning to a simpler, agrarian way of life. Yet Waldenis no ‘wilderness experience’ – Thoreau built his cabin on Emerson’s property, just a mile or so from his own family home, and throughout his self-imposed exile he would frequently visit and even dine with his mentor.
In his brilliant introduction, published by Princeton University Press in 2004 and reproduced in this edition, John Updike explains that Thoreau’s aim was a practical one: ‘he wanted to be a writer and, like many another of like ambition, needed privacy, quiet, and a “broad margin” where his mind could roam’. Thoreau’s experiment certainly paid off. In this one book, through his extraordinary mastery of language, he achieved a work of unequalled power and depth, a meditation on the natural world and man’s true place in it.
For Walden, Thoreau distilled his twenty-six-month experiment into a single year, following the seasons from summer to spring. He begins the book with ‘Economy’, a discursive chapter where he lays out his philosophical preoccupations – ‘all change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant’ – whilst proudly showcasing his pragmatism (the total cost of building his cabin was a mere $28.12½). Over the course of the following 17 chapters, Thoreau explains how to make unleavened bread and cultivate a bean field; describes the trickles of spring thaw along the railroad cut: ‘resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens’; and, with almost messianic fervour, insists upon the importance of books: a ‘treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations’. However lofty or simple the subject, Thoreau’s consummate aim is to find a way to live a better life.
The natural world is ever-present, often in conflict, sometimes in concord, with the human world: the birds and animals of summer – circling hawks, wild pigeons, mink and bees; the sound of approaching industry in the form of the new Fitchburg Railroad; the 100 workmen who come to Walden to cut great blocks of ice from the frozen pond to ship to southern climes. In all his observations he found meaning; through his majestic prose he transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary:
'We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us and deriving health and strength from the repast.'
The ‘cracking’ and ‘thundering’ of the pond as it melts heralds the arrival of spring and the cycle starts again. After two years, two months and two days, Thoreau leaves Walden Pond refreshed and renewed. In his concluding chapter, he issues a passionate appeal to the reader not to follow the path of conformity and in this way voices the true spirit of American individualism:
'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.'
Over a century and a half after it was first published,Waldenis revered for its back-to-nature creed, its emphasis on self-improvement and its rejection of the consumer society. Thoreau, however, is no mere polemicist. He was one of the great masters of prose – the potent tool he used to inspire his readers. As John Updike says, ‘with its high spirits and keen appeal to the senses, Walden fortifies’.
Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist and in 1846, during his stay at Walden Pond, he famously refused to pay his town poll tax in protest at the government’s protection of slavery. Thoreau’s celebrated essay, Civil Disobedience, is cited by Martin Luther King as one of the profound influences on his life: ‘Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.’ Among the countless others – writers, thinkers, activists, leaders – inspired by Thoreau are Proust, Tolstoy, W. B. Yeats, Hemingway, John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi.
Conservationist, naturalist and photographer Herbert W. Gleason was also inspired by Thoreau’s writings. In 1899 he undertook to retrace the author’s footsteps and photograph precisely what Thoreau had written about. Our edition includes photographs taken by Gleason in and around Walden Pond and Concord, presented alongside extracts from Thoreau’s text.
Review by falanke on 21st Nov 2012
"Numerous compact editions of Walden exist, but this is most likely the largest format ever published. While smaller volumes make suitable companions in the outdoors, this sumptuous Folio version is on..." [read more]