Henry David Thoreau
Amateur naturalist, essayist, lover of solitude, and poet. Thoreau was a student and protégé of the great American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his construction of a hut on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond is a fitting symbol of the intellectual debt that Thoreau owed to Emerson. Strongly influenced by Transcendentalism, Thoreau believed in the perfectibility of mankind through education, self-exploration, and spiritual awareness. This view dominates almost all of Thoreau’s writing, even the most mundane and trivial, so that even woodchucks and ants take on allegorical meaning. A former teacher, Thoreau’s didactic impulse transforms a work that begins as economic reflection and nature writing to something that ends far more like a sermon. Although he values poverty theoretically, he seems a bit of a snob when talking with actual poor people. His style underscores this point, since his writing is full of classical references and snippets of poetry that the educated would grasp but the underprivileged would not.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Essayist, poet, and the leading figure of Transcendentalism. Emerson became a mentor to Thoreau after they met in 1837. Emerson played a significant role in the creation of Walden by allowing Thoreau to live and build on his property near Walden Pond. There is an appropriate symbolism in this construction site, since philosophically Thoreau was building on the Transcendentalist foundation already prepared by Emerson. The influence of Emerson’s ideas, especially the doctrine of self-reliance that sees the human soul and mind as the origin of the reality it inhabits, pervades Thoreau’s work. However, whereas Thoreau retreated to his own private world, Emerson assumed a prominent role in public life, making extended overseas lecture tours to promote the view expressed in his renowned Essays. The two often disagreed on the necessity of adhering to some public conventions, and the heated tensions between the two may perhaps be felt in the minimal attention Emerson receives in Walden. Thoreau utterly fails to mention that Emerson owns the land, despite his tedious detailing of less significant facts, and when Emerson visits, in the guise of the unnamed “Old Immortal,” Thoreau treats him rather indifferently.
A laborer in his late twenties who often works in the vicinity of Thoreau’s abode. Thoreau describes Therien as “a Canadian, a wood-chopper and post-maker,” asserting that it would be difficult to find a more simple or natural human being. Although he is not a reader, Therien is nevertheless conversant and intelligent, and thus he holds great appeal for Thoreau as a sort of untutored backwoods sage. Thoreau compares the woodcutter to Walden Pond itself, saying both possess hidden depths.
A poor Irish-American laborer who lives with his wife and children on the Baker Farm just outside of Concord. Thoreau uses Field as an example of an “honest, hard-working, but shiftless man,” someone who is forced to struggle at a great disadvantage in life because he lacks unusual natural abilities or social position. The conversation that Thoreau and Field have when Thoreau runs to the Field home for shelter in a rainstorm is an uncomfortable reminder that Thoreau’s ideas and convictions may set him apart from those same poor people that he elsewhere idealizes. Rather than converse casually with Field, Thoreau gives him a heated lecture on the merits of cutting down on coffee and meat consumption. Overall, his treatment of Field seems condescending. His parting regret that Field suffers from an “inherited” Irish proclivity to laziness casts a strangely ungenerous, even slightly racist light over all of Thoreau’s ideas.
Amos Bronson Alcott
A friend whom Thoreau refers to as “the philosopher.” Alcott was a noted educator and social reformer, as well as the father of beloved children’s author Louisa May Alcott. In 1834 he founded the Temple School in Boston, a noted progressive school that spawned many imitators. Affiliated with the Transcendentalists, he was known for a set of aphorisms titled “Orphic Sayings” that appeared in The Dial. Alcott also had a hand in the utopian communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands, and went on to become the superintendent of the Concord public schools.
William Ellery Channing
Thoreau’s closest friend, an amateur poet and an affiliate of the Transcendentalists. Channing was named after his uncle, a noted Unitarian clergyman. His son, Edward Channing, went on to become a noted professor of history at Harvard University.
A prominent Whig senator from Kentucky. Clay ran unsuccessfully for president on three occasions. He was a supporter of internal improvements as a part of his American System, and is well known as “the Great Compromiser” for his role in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. Thoreau was a staunch critic of Clay and of the expansionism that Clay advocated.
Emerson’s second wife. Lidian Emerson was somewhat distressed by her husband’s frequent absences from home. During her husband’s tours of Europe, Thoreau stayed with her, and the two developed a close friendship.
A Chinese sage of the sixth century B.C., known for his sayings and parables collected under the title Analects. His teachings gave rise to a sort of secular religion known as Confucianism, which served as a model for the Chinese government in subsequent centuries. Confucius also had a significant effect on the Transcendentalist movement, and was one of Thoreau’s favorite authors.
James Russell Lowell
A Harvard-trained lawyer. Lowell eventually abandoned his first vocation for a career in letters. His poetic satire The Bigelow Papers was well received, and he went on to become a professor of modern languages at Harvard and the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
A Chinese sage of the fourth century B.C. and a disciple of Confucius. Mencius was best known for his anthology of sayings and stories collected under the title The Book of Mencius, and did much to promote the reputation of Confucius, although he himself was not widely venerated until more than a thousand years later. Like his master’s work, Mencius’s combination of respect for social harmony and the inward reconciliation with the universe exerted a powerful influence on Thoreau.
Elder brother to Henry David Thoreau. The two brothers oversaw and taught at the Concord Academy, a progressive independent school, from 1838 to 1841. John Thoreau’s failing health was a contributing factor in the demise of the school, and he died in 1842 from complications related to lockjaw.
There are no major characters in Walden other than Thoreau, who is both the narrator and the main human subject of his narrative. The following list identifies figures who appear in the work, as well as historical figures to whom Thoreau refers.