Summer Classic Reread: Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Why I wanted to reread it: Walden is one of the great American classics because it speaks about nature, individualism, and creating a life philosophy. I think a lot about nature (actually, I obsess over global climate change and my culpability in it), worry about whether I have given up my individualism, and have been reading some works of philosophy. So—Walden seemed perfect.
The basics: Henry David Thoreau, one of the Transcendentalists of the mid-1800s, decided that he would explore his inner life by exploring nature. On July 4, 1845 he set
out to live in very simple, stripped-down circumstances near Walden Pond. He stayed there for two years, two months, and two days. Walden is a record of that adventure. It consists largely of the details of Thoreau’s daily life at Walden and of the nature that he observes. He connects his observations to deeper thoughts and thus discusses philosophical questions—and even answers many of those questions.
Thoreau isn’t alone the entire time he lives near Walden Pond. Lots of visitors come by and chat with him, including farmers and hunters. He goes into town periodically and during one of those ventures, he is arrested for not paying his poll tax. (This not paying the tax was an act of civil disobedience—he objected to the Mexican War because of its connection to slavery in the United States. He discusses the issue in an essay entitled “Civil Disobedience.”) Still, Thoreau has plenty of time by himself and his observations of nature are keen and obsessively detailed.
High school housekeeping: While Walden is a very important work of American literature—it deals with so many American themes—the individual, time, technology, nature, conscience—I have to be honest and say that it isn’t for every high school student. In fact, I’m betting that reading it from cover to cover would drive lots of teens nuts—Thoreau describes all the materials he buys to build his cabin, exactly what he pays for each item, how he plants his beans and exactly what it costs him compared to what he sells them for, etc. (Honestly, I hate to say this because it seems sacrilegious, but if I’m not honest, I’m going to lose your trust in my recommendations.)
If you are a star student, you might enjoy reading Walden because there is so much to think about. If you just want to get the flavor of Thoreau’s adventure, you could read just a section of it. The best thing to do is to read about why Thoreau went to the woods and why he left the woods. Then pick out some events at the cabin. Lots of high school anthologies include “The Battle of the Ants”—the red versus the black ant armies that are gruesomely tearing each other apart. But there are other sections that have some beautiful descriptions of the nature around Thoreau—particularly the lakes—that you might like.