In a speech from the early 1940s, the poet Ezra Pound dismissed Thoreau’s project in less than twenty-five words. Pound viewed it as Thoreau’s:First intellectual reaction to mere approach of industrialization: Thoreau tried to see how little he need bother about other humanity. Would you agree with Pound that the experiment Thoreau takes up at Walden Pond demonstrates his indifference to other humans? Why or why not?
While Thoreau clearly voices some sharp criticism of civilized life and industrialization, Pound is wrong in claiming that Thoreau does not care about “other humanity” at all. Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond is never framed as an attempt to flee humans, and he explicitly points out that he visits Concord several times a week, that he enjoys entertaining visitors in his shack, and that he has had more guests at the pond than ever before. His friendly chats with the Canadian woodcutter Alex Therien show his sociability, and his domestic management lectures to John Field and Field’s family, though they may be undiplomatic, come from Thoreau’s very committed desire to pull him out of poverty. He never shows any signs of indifference to humanity. On the contrary, his prophetic tone at the end of the work displays a huge moral investment in the fate of his fellow men.
Does Thoreau show socialist tendencies, though he is writing before socialism is a recognized idea?
Certainly Thoreau’s call to “simplify, simplify, simplify” our lives contradicts the spirit of American conspicuous consumption and modern capitalism. Thoreau would prefer us to patch our old clothes instead of buying new ones, disdaining the latest fashions dictated to us by advertisers and department stores. He would have us eat rice on our front porch instead of going to fine restaurants, and he would prefer to see us quit our well-paid jobs in order to pursue our more rewarding development as humans. This rejection of economic success, high social rank, and consumerism is typical of the broad current of socialist thought that emerged later in the nineteenth century. But in other respects, Thoreau is no true socialist. He shows little solidarity with the poor and underprivileged: though he sometimes stops to chat with them, he never lets us forget that he is better educated and more advanced than they, as when he refers to Therien’s “animal nature.” A socialist must identify with the masses of workers, but Thoreau is a stubborn individualist. Moreover, he underestimates the power of social circumstances (such as discrimination against immigrants) in creating poverty, as we clearly see when he blames John Field’s poverty on his being Irish. He is not really an analyst of the wealth of nations, but more of a prophet who uses economics as an allegory for self-reliance and spiritual well being.
Thoreau makes it very clear at the opening of Walden that his stay in the wilderness was not a lifestyle choice but rather a temporary experiment, and that “At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” Does the short duration of Thoreau’s stay at Walden undercut the importance of his project?
One widespread misunderstanding of Thoreau is that he was a critic of modernity who failed in his plan to live a more authentic life on his own. But, in fact, Thoreau insists on telling us that his Walden project is not a life decision or a commitment to a set of ideals, but an experiment in alternative living that is unambiguously amateurish. It is more like casual play than like solemn ideology. This informality explains why, when he leaves Walden Pond in 1847, Thoreau does not admit failure; rather, he says simply that he has other lives to live. Thoreau was more of an Emersonian transcendentalist than he was a socialist: the soul mattered more to him than sociology. He was not as interested in being a model farmer as in showing how the soul could benefit from a change of scenery and occupation. Having learned the lessons that Walden Pond had to offer him, he turned to other scenes and other occupations, thus proving rather than undercutting his philosophy of life.
1. Thoreau occasionally forces a long series of tedious details upon us, as for example when in “House-Warming” he tells us a precise history of the freezing of Walden Pond over the past several years. Similarly detailed passages refer to his farming endeavors, his home construction, and other topics. Why does Thoreau repeatedly display these irrelevant details? How do they fit in to his overall plan for Walden?
2. Thoreau has inspired twentieth-century leaders such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, but it is not certain that he had any leadership potential himself, though he often posed as a kind of prophet for his fellowman. Is Thoreau a leader? Why or why not?3. At times Thoreau seems like a diarist narrating the flow of everyday events, as humdrum as they may be. At other times he is almost a mystic writer, as when he compares the topography of ponds to the shape of the human soul. And at still other times he is a social critic and moral prophet. Does the hodgepodge of genres in Walden contribute something positive to its overall meaning for us?
4. Thoreau is a practical man and a close observer of nature, but he is also a fantasist who makes a lot of references to mythology. In “Economy” he mentions the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha who created men by throwing stones over their shoulders; in “The Pond in Winter” he compares a pile of ice to Valhalla, palace of the Scandinavian gods. In “Sounds” he describes the Fitchburg Railway train as a great mythical beast invading the calm of Walden. What is the effect of all these mythological references? Do they change the overall message of the work in any important way?
5. Thoreau repeatedly praises the simplicity and industriousness of the working poor, and comes very close to joining their ranks when he lives at subsistence level in the woods for two years. Yet in his chapter on reading he disdains popular tastes in books, implying that everyone should be able to read the Greek tragedian Aeschylus in the original, as he does. His allusions to world literature are quite lofty, including Chinese philosophers and Persian poets. Is Thoreau a snob? If so, is his democratic populism undermined by his disdain for popular culture?
6. What would Thoreau make of the fact that Walden is one of the most commonly assigned texts in high school and college literature courses across the country? Would he welcome the fact that he has become part of the mainstream culture that he was criticizing?