Walden: Book of the Month July 2023

Photograph of a replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden pond
A replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond in Massachussets, US.

Back in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau was finding modern life a bit too much. He wanted a simple life, and to be in touch with nature. So, he decided to cut himself off from society and live in the woods. He set up home by Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachussets, the town in which he lived.

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in the woods. Walden is his account of this time. The book is a condensed version of events, retold over the span of one year, going through each of the seasons.

When I first read Walden, I thought it was this obscure, anarchy-for-one book of ideas. Thoreau refuses to pay taxes for instance, as he’s going it alone so doesn’t think he should pay towards society. I later found out it’s a classic in the US, where you’re basically not allowed to get through school or college without reading it. I still find it odd that such an anti-establishment book is endorsed in the same country where at the start of each school day you have to pledge allegiance to the flag.

In Walden, Thoreau is clearly in search of a better way of being. But whether or not the book is utopian is up for debate, because it’s so individualistic. Plus it’s impractical: we can’t all go and find a pond to live by. And Thoreau didn’t even want people to copy him. The utopian scholar Owen Holland notes:

Thoreau […] cautioned against the suggestion that Walden might be read as a prescription for how to live, asserting, ‘I would have each one be very careful to find and pursue his own way.‘”

Spectatorship and Entanglement in Thoreau, Hawthorne, Morris and Wells

Is it utopian to disappear off into the woods?

Re-visiting it now, it’s striking that Thoreau was extemporising on ‘getting back’ to nature and a simpler time while, at the same time, his countrymen were exterminating indigenous people living presumably not too far away. If he wanted to look for a nature-attuned way of life, he hardly had to look back in time. Especially when his misty-eyed, pastoral version of the past probably never even existed.

I’m aware that Thoreau opposed the enslavement of Africans, and this was part of why he distanced himself from society. He argued that if he was to participate in society (and pay his taxes) he would be endorsing the slave trade. I don’t know if he took a similar view on the treatment of indigenous people. But I think that, ultimately, going it alone in the woods instead is a self-indulgent response.

So that’s something to consider if we, in the twenty-first century, are tempted to run away and live off-grid.

Walden – what do you think?

Who wants to live by Walden Pond? Share your thoughts in the comments or, if you’re in Bristol, come along to the next meeting of the Utopian Book Collective to discuss.

P.S. This text is out of copyright and freely available online.

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