Walden Study Guide

Thoreau's Walden was written for a very specific audience. At its smallest, its intended audience is comprised of those Concord residents who had attended his lectures at the village lyceum and who had questions about the two years he had lived alone at Walden Pond. At its largest, this intended audience is a New England audience ­ an audience defined in some ways by a particular history, culture, and set of ideas. This is a New England in which a Puritan heritage, with a strong worth ethic, focus on property, and belief in a strict set of religious rules, continues to play a part. But this is also the New England ­ particularly in Concord ­ of intellectual rebellion and radical thought.

Thoreau's paternal grandfather, Jean Thoreau was a French immigrant who came to America in 1773, where he worked for Paul Revere and fought in the Revolutionary War. His maternal grandfather, Reverend Asa Dunbar, attended Harvard, where he was nearly expelled for leading a student protest about the quality of food. This was a New England of tradition, indeed. Thoreau himself would gain disapproval ­ though not official censure ­ while he himself was an undergraduate at Harvard, when he wore a green overcoat when all students were required to wear black. The administration, understanding that young Thoreau's limited financial resources prevented his purchase of another coat, refrained from admonishing him.

Thoreau himself was not so resigned when it came to expressing his opinions at Harvard, a school where most young Massachusetts men from respectable families studied. He was forced to take a leave of absence from the school in 1836 because he was ill, probably with tuberculosis. Unlike his literary contemporaries in England, members of the Romantic movement, Thoreau was not to take the view of this illness, commonly known as consumption, from which he would eventually die as a metaphor for the creative fires that burned in and consumed young the life of an artist. Thoreau returned to graduate with from Harvard with the Class of 1837. When offered a master's degree for only five dollars, with no requirement of study and the only condition being that he was alive three years later, Thoreau rejected and criticized the university's offer.

Another graduate of Harvard ­ both Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School ­ was Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's Concord neighbor and one of his strongest literary influences. Emerson, while studying theology in the 1820s, became dissatisfied with the Unitarian religion, which had taken hold in Massachusetts. Gradually, he came to see Unitarianism as conservative and rationalist, a way for businessmen to engage in a religion that had become more of a social gathering than a connection with the divine. Founded in the United States in eighteenth-century within the Puritan Congregationalist Church, the Unitarian Church emphasized the oneness of God and preached that the divine could be perceived wholly through the five senses ­ through observation of the world and reading of others' observations in the Scriptures. In the early eighteenth century, the Unitarian and Congregationalist churches broke apart over doctrinal differences, including the Congregationalist emphasis on human sin and belief in the trinity. William Ellery Channing, a Boston minister, preached an address about Unitarian Christianity in 1819, crystallizing the Unitarian philosophy.

In his Divinity School address and in his book Nature, published in 1836, Emerson expressed what would become the tenets of the Transcendentalist movement. He and the movement's other followers, the majority of whom were Unitarian ministers, formed the Transcendentalist Club. They believed that Unitarianism did not provide for every human being's need and ability to experience the divine. According to the Transcendentalists, God dwelt in the soul of every person ­ a concept called immanence ­ and the world was divided into the soul and nature. Believing that human beings should find truth within themselves, Emerson emphasizes self-reliance, in an essay of the same name, and understand God through reason.

Emerson's presence in Concord led to the development of the town as an intellectual center. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife lived for a time at the Old Manse, beginning on July 8, 1842, and Thoreau was known to dine with the couple as well as to plow and plant the Hawthornes' garden. The two remained close even after Hawthorne left Concord. Ellery Channing, son of William Ellery Channing, was another friend of Thoreau's. Channing suggested to Thoreau that he build a hut by Walden Pond, and after Thoreau's death, wrote the first biography of him, published in 1873. Other notable Concord residents of the time included Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Franklin Sanborn.

Thoreau's adoption of Transcendentalist beliefs was reflected in both his writing about nature as well as his political views. The Transcendentalists believed that though the world of the soul was paramount, it was necessary to recognize the truth and beauty of God's creation in the natural world. Thoreau took that one step farther, arguing in Walden that the divine exists not just in all people but can be perceived in all of nature. Furthermore, the idea of immanence served to strengthen Thoreau's belief in the equality of all people and support his abolitionist arguments. In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau urged people to look into themselves, rather than to society, to provide them with values by which to live and to take it upon themselves to oppose injustice in society.

Published in 1854, Walden enjoyed a moderately succesful first-run and continued its popularity into the 1870s. At that time, a series of unflattering biographies and harsh critical responses threatened to do away with Walden. Only in the 1890, when a favorable biography of Thoreau by Englishman Henry Salt sparked a resurgence in Thoreau's popularity, did Walden begin its ascent to the literary fame it now enjoys. New editions of Thoreau's work were published in 1893 and 1906. In the 1930s an increase of interest culminated in Henry Seidel Canby's 1939 biography of Thoreau. New editions of Walden and of Thoreau's other works have been published continually since then.

In 1941, the Thoreau Society was founded in Concord. Their mission is to honor Thoreau, stimulate interest in his writing, life, and times, and collect articles of memorabilia. The Thoreau Society, now located in Lincoln, Massachusetts, joined forces with Senators Ted Kennedy and Paul Tsongas, singer Don Henley, and a number of celebrities in the Walden Woods Project, formed in opposition to plans to develop the area around Walden Woods. The beach at Walden Pond and surrounding woods have long been at the center of an ongoing debate concerning use.

Thoreau's house, removed from its site in 1849, was excavated in the 1940s. Bronson Alcott, in his old age, had been marked the spot at which he remembered the house stood with a stone. Over the years, visitors have added stones of their own to the spot. A replica of the cabin, based upon a sketch by Thoreau's sister Sophia and his description in Walden and his journals, stands near the park.