Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Even before the age of consumerism, overspending, and credit card debt, an American writer of the nineteenth century identified an economic problem that has proliferated and reached a point of crisis in the twenty-first century. Thoreau observes that the typical New England farmers of his day perform burdensome toil more onerous than the labors of Hercules. He refers to them as “serfs of the soil,” as men “digging their graves as soon as they are born,” and as fools “laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal.” The man of the Industrial Age, in Thoreau’s judgment, lives to work and never enjoy leisure, the free time that makes possible prayer, thought, friendship, recreation, and the enjoyment of beauty: “he has no time to be anything but a machine.” The ambitious, worldly farmer is always the businessman and hardly a human being, always preoccupied with getting and spending: “always promising to pay, promising to pay, to-morrow, and dying to-day, insolvent.” The divine image has faded and the human joys have dwindled as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” in a regimen of slavish toil and joyless monotony. Men have lost all sense of the art of living and failed to distinguish between a human life and a dehumanized existence.

Industrialized man thinks there is no other way to live except struggling to work, to salvage a meager livelihood, to purchase large farms, to pay enormous debts, and to buy “more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing.” Thoreau, however, argues that man has a choice and does not have to reduce himself to serfdom: “This is the only way we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre.” One of those ways is the art of simplicity which Thoreau cultivates in his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, proving that “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live it simply and wisely.” To live simply and wisely requires man to live by faith in Mother Nature’s abundance and God’s Providence and not by a compulsion for financial security. Also man needs to distinguish between luxuries and necessities, remembering that luxuries are not only dispensable things but also burdensome possessions—“dross.” Furthermore, man needs to live in tune with the laws and rhythms of nature—“a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”—rather than by conformity to convention or fashion. It is possible and practical to live simply and wisely rather than in a perpetual state of financial anxiety.

Walden_ThoreauThus Thoreau ventures into Walden Pond where he practices the art of human living by simplification and emancipating himself from the conventional life of accumulated debt, useless belongings, and a dreary existence without the freedom of pursuing a higher life with time for enjoyment, reflection, and contemplation to enrich the mind and soul. Simplicity frees Thoreau from the dictates of trendy “Fashion” in order to worship the heavenly Graces and live according to what he calls “higher laws.” He learns to be self-sufficient by building a modest dwelling that involves no great expense, no exorbitant interest, and no labor of fifteen years like the typical farmer of his day “so that he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam is earned.” Thoreau escapes from the poverty of homes he calls “unwieldy property” and farms he calls “one great encumbrance” because the owner buys more than he needs and pays more than he possesses. The rich and refined worldly life, Thoreau explains, builds mansions for this life but forgets heaven and never ascends “to a higher and more ethereal life.” Building a home for a lifetime by spending a mere $28 compared to the $30 a student pays for lodgings at Harvard for one year, Thoreau exercises “the poetic faculty,” the joy of honest work creating and producing with one’s mind, hands, and body that reflects thought, art, and love rather than servile drudgery and ennui for wages.

Growing his own crops, baking his own bread, building his own furniture, living frugally, and enjoying independence, Thoreau experiences a self-reliance and freedom that makes him feel wealthier than the farmers with the spacious homes and the big farms: “I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm,” and he was not “tied to an ox, or horse, or cow, or pig.” Noticing travelers burdened with “ a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn,” Thoreau pities the man for the great weight of cares that oppress him—the multitude of possessions that often sell at auctions instead of burn in a bonfire. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” This excessive preoccupation with work and busyness Thoreau compares to the perfunctory life of ants that stifles man’s higher nature.

The art of simplification dictates a slow pace, not frantic activity or restless movement: “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” At Walden Thoreau enjoys the leisure to hear the song of the wood thrush, the trill of the sparrow, the dirge of the owl, and the laughter of the loon. He gazes at the reflections on the pond and compares the mists stealthily disappearing to ghosts. Walden’s unrushed activity affords time for rejuvenation and recollection vital for man’s physical and mental health. Bathing in the pond each day, Thoreau finds renewal of mind and body that stirs the wakefulness of intelligence to do its clearest thinking with its most energetic activity. Invigorated, Thoreau is not merely rested for physical work but also intensely awake for intellectual effort. He quotes the Vedas: “All intelligences awake with the morning,” and he marvels that “To be awake is to be alive,” not just conscious or surviving. The simplified life that allows leisure permits Thoreau “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … to live deep and to suck out all the marrow of life.” Without this deliberate pace a person cannot read, think, or contemplate. Explaining that reading the classics like the Iliad and sacred spiritual works is “a noble exercise” that demands the discipline of athletes, Thoreau recommends a slow pace: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

The simplified life at Walden provides a wide margin to life that resists the overspecialized work and narrow range of toil on the farm or on the construction of railroads. Thoreau’s work at Walden compares to play. He combines his vocation and avocation so that doing the useful and the pleasurable are one activity. The simplified life provides a valuable education derived from Mother Nature’s wisdom and God’s design. In the chapter “The Bean-Field” Thoreau discovers husbandry as a sacred art in which the farmer in the classical world made sacrifices to the goddess Ceres (“according to Varro the old Romans ‘called the same earth Mother and Ceres’ ”), whereas the acquisitive farmer worships Mammon and sacrifices “to the infernal Plutus.” Losing sight that farming is a cooperative art that respects Mother Nature’s wisdom and depends on divine blessings, the industrial man regards land as mere property and “knows Nature but as a robber,” never living in peace or in tune with the world.

As Walden testifies in every chapter, man can live simply or extravagantly, in freedom or in bondage, at frantic speed or deliberate leisureliness, according to fashion and convention or in tune with higher laws, in the midst of beauty or drabness, a poetic life or mechanical existence, and either a human or dehumanized life: “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”

(Photo credit: Michael Dwyer / AP)


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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