HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Author: Henry David Thoreau
Publisher: Beacon, reprinted in 2004
Language level: 1 (nothing objectionable)
Reading level: 13 and up
Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (published in 1854 by Ticknor and Fields, Boston, MA). Henry David Thoreau (18171862) was an American author, poet, abolitionist, and philosopher. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. Born in Concord, MS, he studied at Harvard University between 1833 and 1837. The traditional professions open to college graduateslaw, the church, business, medicinefailed to interest Thoreau, so he took a leave of absence and taught school in Canton, MA. After he graduated in 1837, he joined the faculty of the Concord public school, but resigned after a few weeks. He and his brother John then opened a grammar school in Concord in 1838 called Concord Academy, but the school ended in 1842. Thoreau had met Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced him to a circle of local writers and thinkers, including Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson urged Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to a quarterly periodical, The Dial. Thoreau soon moved into the Emerson house where he served as the children’s tutor. Returning to Concord, Thoreau he worked in his family’s pencil factory, which he continued to do for most of his adult life.
However, once back in Concord, Thoreau went through a restless period. In April 1844 he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods. He spoke often of finding a farm to buy or lease, which he felt would give him a means to support himself while also providing enough solitude to write his first book. So he embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845, when he moved to a small, self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, 1.5 miles from his family home. Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years, he worked to pay off his debts and also continuously revised his manuscript for what, in 1854, he would publish as Walden, or Life in the Woods, recounting the two years, two months, and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses that time into a single calendar year, using the passage of four seasons to symbolize human development. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, and manual for self reliance.
In the first and longest chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year and two-month stay at a cozy, “tightly shingled and plastered,” English-style 10′ x 15′ cottage in the woods near Walden Pond. Subsequent chapters describe his house’s location, discuss the benefits of classical literature, warn against relying too much on literature as a means of transcendence, rhapsodize about the beneficial effects of living solitary and close to nature, talk about the visitors to his house, relate Thoreau’s efforts to cultivate two and a half acres of beans, detail his visits the small town of Concord every day or two to hear the news, ramble about the countryside with observations about the geography of Walden Pond and its neighbors; and other such subjects. The conclusion criticizes conformity: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” If you like books with fast action and easy to follow plots, this one has neither. It is basically a book of essays and nature notes. There is practically no plot and the action is very, very slow. I read it in high school, possibly for my junior American Literature class, because the idea of living alone in the woods has always appealed to me. In fact, if there were some way of making an adequate income to support my family, we would probably be doing it now. You may not agree with all of Thoreau’s observations, but this might be an interesting book to read if this type of thing appeals to you.