David Henry Thoreau (1817- 1862) was born and died in Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Thoreau's main influence was Emerson at whose house he lived for several years in Concord. Emerson was the nominal leader of the Transcendentalist movement, which was based on the idealism of European Romanticism, Hindu and Buddhist thought and the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. It held that personal feelings and thinking were at the centre of the universe and that facts were secondary to individual truth and above social norms and traditions. It considered self-reliance as an economic virtue and the philosophical basis for existence. In 1845 Thoreau built a small cabin on Emerson's land in which to live closer to Nature. This is where he composed Walden (1854).
The author was jailed in 1846 for refusing to pay his polltax because he said the money contributed to a nation which endorsed slavery. He published his reasoning in “Civil Disobedience", a work which inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Civil Rights protesters and anti Vietnam War activists.
Walden criticised consumerism and capitalism, ideas taken up by the hippy movement and those seeking a more personal meaning to life. The book portrayed Nature, not as something dead and passive to be exploited, but as a spectacle which inspired spirituality. The homely style of Thoreau's writing which included intellectual references offered later U.S. writers a genre to emulate.
Thoreau opens the 18 chapters of Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) by announcing where the book was written: Walden Pond. He defends himself against critics of his project to retire to a shack and live self-reliantly. He claims individualism as a value against living in society but couches his writing in the intellectual references of a Harvard graduate.
He gives details of the building materials and the costs of his cabin in the woods. To make some money he grew beans and to reflect he read and walked in the evenings. He insists on the minimalism of his lifestyle and that this makes him happy, unlike others who are driven by desire for material prosperity.
Despite seeking isolation, society crowds him and a trainline runs past Walden Pond disturbing his daydreams and making him consider the role of technology. However, he also converses with the local population and friends.
Thoreau observes the seasons and the surrounding Nature, noting down a list of the animals in the woods. Some he turns into spiritual symbols like the hooting loon which represents Nature at play and its laughter at human struggles or the warring ants which prompt him to reflect on warfare. His reflections on Nature tend to be moral lessons, rather than biological analyses.
At the approach of winter Thoreau prepares for the cold. He observes the animals gathering the autumn food, birds migrating and even pests which infest his cabin in their escape from the weather. He notices the mystical changes in colour of the ice on the pond and liistens to the night winds blowing. He sometimes has a visitor like Channing or Alcott but is mostly alone. He thinks that he prefers to live with ghosts from the past rather than with the rich, cultured classes.
The author takes an interest in all the surrounding ponds and measures them. He ponders on the pond as a symbol of infinity that humans need in their lives. When Spring arrives the melting ice inspires Thoreau with imagery of Judgement Day and a huge transformation of the world, when all sins will be forgiven.
He finally announces the end of his project and a return to civilisation in 1847. His renewed vitality leads him to considerations about the potential of humanity and he encourages the reader to live life to the full.
Thoreau's project was influenced by Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance. This is based on the principle that in interpersonal relationships independence is to be valued over needs. He emphasises simple pleasures like the laugh of the loon but also finds comfort in the companionship of friends. He rejects the norms of human society, to the extent that he aims to live without economic recourse to others.
However his self-reliance is not only economic but also spiritual. In Transcendentalist thinking self is the centre of reality and the outside world depends on individual interpretation. His economic calculations form part of his poetic outlook since both are based on his self-reliant life in Walden Pond.
The philosopher considers that there are two ways to counter the feeling of satisfaction: get more or reduce desires. He chooses the latter path, limiting his consumption to a minimum by patching his clothes and acquiring only what is useful. He notes with irony that he owns his cabin, whereas those who have richer dwellings only have mortgages.
Another irony is Thoreau's literary style which aims at simplicity through concision. However, it is not simple since it includes wit, double entendre, and puns. It has a minimalist message, but conveyed through sophistication.
Progress as illusion
The author is sceptical of progress through technology, a vision which was dear to his contemporaries. He desired inner peace and found that the era of capitalist consumerism expansion in which we lived, coupled with the pioneer mythology did not bring him contentment. Nineteenth century U.S. felt self-satisfied with its progress, but Thoreau noted the poor labour conditions and conventional conservatism which made that possible.
One example of his critical view of technological progress was the railroad which he portrayed as a "roaring beast" and a false idol of social progress. He prefers to stay put rather than commute thoughtlessly. He believes that technical improvements are illusory since people are forced to adapt to timetables and routes. Trains run on a predetermined path and make us think our lives should run the same way.
The Spiritual Journey
Thoreau's spiritual quest centres round his personal demonstration of how to overcome the traps of the materialistic society. It is an up and down journey.
He first makes a distinction between the outer and inner self, insisting that materialism and overwork subjugate the spirit and advises cultivation of intellectual and spiritual needs.
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake . . . by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor."
His aim at Walden is not economic, but to promote self-understanding and of the universe.
His interior voyage is mainly moral:
". . . all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us."
He recognises that human existence lasts one moment in Time:
"Time is but the stream I go fishing in."
You can access the universal from any point during existence. By leading a self-reliant lifestyle we can transcend time. His time at Walden Pond provides him with a moment to travel inwards, but he realises that his experiment is only one approach and others may follow different paths. He offers Walden as an example, not the only remedy for spiritual ills.