Walden and Civil Disobedience

“Walden and Civil Disobedience” is a collection that includes two of the works of the famous American writer Henry David Thoreau. “Walden”, perhaps Thoreau’s most famous work, was published in 1854. Originally published under the title, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”, the novel experienced some success after it’s release but went out of print after five short years only having sold around 2,000 copies. However, after Thoreau’s death in 1862, the book was re-printed and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Many scholars now praise it as an American classic.

The book is a memoir of Thoreau’s time living in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau lived for two years and two months by himself in the woods and set out to live simply and meagerly off of the land and Walden Pond, the body of water that was near his cabin. The novel details his journey of self-discovery, his thoughts on carefully managing finances and his musings on society as a whole.

“Civil Disobedience” is a short essay that was originally published in 1849 under the title, “Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience)”. The essay details Thoreau’s views on the individual’s obligation to his conscience over the laws of the government. The essay deals particularly with Thoreau’s dislike of slavery and the Mexican-American war.

Book Summary

Thoreau opens the novel by outlining, in very simple terms, his plan for conducting a two-year experiment where he will live in a cabin away from society near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. At the time of the novel, the experiment is already completed. Thoreau has lived for two years and two months in the wilderness and then moved back to “civilized society”. He mentions that many of his friends and acquaintances were worried about his safety in the wilderness, keeping warm in the winter, the surprise that he would want to live alone without any human companionship and occasionally the envious responses of those who wish that they had a reason to join him.

Thoreau says that his aim in this experiment would be to explore the benefits of a more simple lifestyle. He says that he intends, in this novel to retell the plain existence that he lived for those two years so that readers might see the benefits of it and perhaps choose it for themselves. He says that an excess of possessions only serve to weigh us down spiritually and with the time and hard labor it takes to earn money to buy them. Thoreau thinks that farmers are, in some way like prisoners to their farms and that earning more than one needs for simple subsistence enslaves people to their work. He identifies only four things that people absolutely need to survive that nature cannot provide: shelter, food, clothing, and fuel. Beyond these four things, a person who is willing to accept everything else from nature can live off the land entirely.

Thoreau describes the small house that he lived in for these two years and the construction of it. Starting with a completely clean slate, he borrowed the ax that he needed to cut down trees. He notes that, in order to never be in debt to anyone, he later returned the ax sharper than when he received it. Thoreau begins working on the house through the spring months, sometimes buying supplies and sometimes receiving them as gifts. On July 4th, 1845, he completes the house and considers it the day of his own independence from societal customs and conventions.

Throughout the process, Thoreau keeps painstakingly detailed records of his finances and credits that he uses to write the book. He tells of a diet of beans, peas, corn and potatoes that sustained him while living at Walden. Through eating so simply, Thoreau managed to spend only sixty-two dollars in his first eight months in the wilderness and turned a profit of thirty-two. Thus, the cost of the house and the lifestyle for those first eight months is only around twenty-seven dollars total. Thoreau considers this a bargain. Thoreau also notes that he desired to live far from any post office and the suffocating social relationships that it represents.

Moving into the house on Independence Day, Thoreau is very proud of his achievement and paraphrasing a famous poet, says, “I am monarch of all I survey”. Indeed, he feels like an Olympic god although the house still lacks a chimney and insulation. He says that a paradise that is fit for the gods is available anywhere one earth if you look for it. Thoreau looks on the bright side of his technically unfinished house, saying that the lack of insulation will give him the breeze on hot summer nights and that the lack of carvings and ornamentation are best so that he may carve “the very atmosphere” of his soul.

He prefers to be in his house, sitting on a humble wooden chair than anywhere else in the universe. He considers himself free from time as well as social constraints as he no longer has to worry what time it is. Saying, “Time is a river in which I go fishing”. He encourages the readers of this book to continue to struggle through life until we hit rock bottom and can measure out truth on what he refers to as out “Realometer” the means we have of gauging the reality of things. Thoreau begins to tells us that we should not be content with taking our knowledge entirely from books and should look around and see things with our eyes. He praises a sharp-alertness to nature and the sounds around us, saying that he would often listen to the sparrow chirp outside his home.

The only thing interrupting this reverie was the “scream” of modern society, being represented in this case by the Fitchburg Railroad which unfortunately passes very near his home. Thoreau hears the church bells on Sunday and although he also praises the business like zeal of industry he worries that it will eventually completely turn out the wit and thoughtfulness of the nature-loving man.

Thoreau notes that although he does not keep any animals, his home is still full of the sounds of nature outside as though it were creeping up to his windowsill. He describes an evening which he notes was “delicious” when he took a walk in the cool weather and listening to the bullfrogs and night animals. When he returned to his home he found that visitors had left him small gifts on his doorstep. He says that even though his closest neighbor is only about a mile away, he feels as if he were in some distant foreign land. He is alone and finds joy in his solitude with nature.

Because Thoreau does enjoy occasional companionship, he keeps three chairs in his house for guests. But he knows well how small of a house it is. “Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries”, he says in the novel. Often when people visit, he will meet with them outside in the forest. He admits that he is not a conventional host and often forgets to offer his guests food or drink as he cares more about providing them with spiritual sustenance. And many visitors do come to see him. Because of his location, no one comes to him on a trivial errand and the more important visitors are separated from the crowd. Despite this, he says that he has more visitors than ever and the quality of conversation has improved immensely.

Thoreau also tends to meet quite a few vagabonds and wayfarers whom he sees as often being quite interesting. Although he notes that he hates beggars as they live solely on charity. Additionally, Thoreau often helps runaway slaves on the Underground Railway (as he calls it) as he is an abolitionist.

A particular friend of Thoreau’s at this time was a French-Canadian woodsman named Alex Therien. Therien was not an educated man but Thoreau respected him for his unpretentious and happy ways and his ability to amuse himself. Thoreau says that Therien’s mind is as deep and bottomless as Walden pond itself although from the outside it may appear dark and muddy. Thoreau also notes his belief that women and children enjoy nature best as they are not plagued with the idea of “getting a living” that men who work suffer from.

While planting a garden, Thoreau discovers many Native American artifacts in the deep soil such as arrowheads and pottery shards. He takes this as evidence that “an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land, and so, to some extent, had exhausted the soil for this very crop”. Across the field where he plants his vegetables, Thoreau can hear military exercises from a town ways off and he thinks about how distant and removed he feels from any war. Thoreau’s main object in farming these crops is not so much to produce food but to exercise self-discipline in caring for them. The says that the cultivation of himself and not the crop is the object.

Every day after his morning chores are finished, Thoreau bathes in the pond and spends the rest of his day relaxing. A few times a week he hikes into Concord where he meets with the townspeople and gathers the latest news. Thoreau refrains from shopping during these excursions. Often he must find his way back home in the dark and though at first, this makes him worry, he begins to understand the path back to Walden pond so well that he stops fearing it at night. He remarks that many people lose their way in the dark but Thoreau does not consider this to necessarily be a bad thing. He thinks that a person can only truly understand themselves when they are lost.

One one such journey into Concord, Thoreau is found and arrested for non-payment of a poll tax. Thoreau explains that he intentionally did not pay the tax because he did not want to support a state that still engages in slavery. Thoreau spends one night in jail before being released and returning to his home.

One night while Thoreau is on a fishing expedition in the deep forest, he gets caught in a rainstorm and must take shelter in a hut that he assumes is deserted. However, the hut is actually the residence of a poor Irish immigrant named John Field and his family. Thoreau relates that he has a “conversation” with Field about financial management and how he can pull himself free from poverty although many scholars agree that it reads more like a lecture. Thoreau also does not note any shared moment of happiness with the family, as he often does when speaking of his social interactions within the novel and is obviously angered when he leaves. He unfairly concludes that Field is not fond of taking risks and lacks the sense and the mathematical know how to understand what Thoreau was explaining to him. He also assumes that Field is the recipient of “inherited Irish poverty”.

While walking home, Thoreau sees a woodchuck and is oddly seized with the desire to catch and devour it. He thinks about his dual nature, the difference between his noble, spiritual self and the dark, savage self and finds that he values both sides of himself. Thoreau believes that hunting is an important part of ones early learning but that those who are destined for greater intellectual pursuits move on to higher callings after a time. Thoreau is a skilled fisherman but is reluctant to practice this skill as he has a tendency toward vegetarianism, feeling that the consumption of animal meat is strangely debasing. He also does not consume coffee, tea or alcohol for this reason, preferring to keep his body clean of all stimulants.

Thoreau begins befriending the animals that live in his cabin. He regularly plays with the mice that live in his house and even successfully gets one to eat cheese from his fingers. He often encounters a robin that he names Phoebe and a partridge with her chicks. Thoreau digs his own makeshift well where he often goes after his lunch to sit and read for a while. Unfortunately when he goes to pick wild apples and chestnuts in the woods he finds that many of them have already been picked for the town’s use. This discourages him briefly but he manages to find enough to tide him over for a while and the beautiful leaves of the changing autumn keep him joyful.

Toward the end of summer, Thoreau builds a chimney onto his cabin with the help of a friend. By the time winter comes he is grateful for it as the cabin becomes very cold. Walden Pond begins to freeze over in places which allow Thoreau to walk on the surface and look down into the pond. Thoreau begins to fully settle into a winter routine of chopping firewood daily and staying in while the snow blows outside the house. When the snow becomes deep, Thoreau digs a path up to his house but few visitors come through the cold to see him. He thinks about the people that he knew to formerly inhabit the road into Concord and how they have all gone now.

Alone in the wilderness, Thoreau has few friends who come to visit him save for his friend William Ellery Channing and the famous philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott as well as Thoreau’s friend and fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson although none of these men are ever directly identified in the novel.

Getting water for his day begins to become more difficult for Thoreau as he now has to chop through the ice of Walden Pond in order to get to the water beneath. One day while doing this Thoreau spots fisherman pulling in larger catches than he expected could be found in the pond. He decides to chart the depth of Walden Pond in order to prove that it is not bottomless as many in Concord assume. Using a fishing line and a stone, he manages to measure the depth of the pond to about one hundred feet.

During Thoreau’s second winter at the cabin, a large group of men comes from the town to cut and harvest ice. Thoreau notes that although much of the ice will be traveling to far off places much of it will melt and return to the pond through the water cycle.

When April comes the ice begins to melt on the pond with thunderous cracks of sound. Thoreau begins fishing in the pond again and admires the beauty and tranquility of his life as he watches a hawk spin overhead. He thinks that dying in such a place would be an excellent death. However, with his experiment complete, Thoreau leaves his cabin for the last time on September 6th, 1847.

In the conclusion of the novel, Thoreau meditates on his reasons for going to live on Walden Pond and his reasons for leaving which he feels are both valid. He thinks that as much as he loved his cabin, he wants to have other experiences and see more things before he settles down. One last time he laments the consumerism of the average American. “Money is not required to buy on necessary of the soul”, he says in reference to the peace and love that he found in the woods. Thoreau admits that the average person reading this novel may not understand it but that it does not matter as a new day is dawning and the sun is heralding a new life to come.

Civil Disobedience

This short essay contains Thoreau’s thoughts on the American government and his ideas about the individual’s place in it. In this essay, Thoreau talks about the need to put one’s own conscience above their obedience to the law. He heavily criticizes many institutions that Americans of the mid-1800’s took for granted including the horrors of slavery and the Mexican-American War.

In the beginning of the essay, Thoreau argues that the government rarely earns it’s keep or proves it’s usefulness and that the majority viewpoint that controls it is not necessarily the smartest group of people in the country, but that they are merely the strongest. He argues that an individual’s first obligation should be to their conscience and not to follow a law just for the sake of it. When a government is corrupt, the individuals should always refuse to follow it’s laws and attempt to distance themselves from it. A person, he says is not necessarily under oath to eliminate all evils from the world but he does have an obligation to not participate in evils that he sees. This includes refraining from being a member of a corrupt institution like the government itself.

Thoreau then admits that the United States government at that time met his criteria for a corrupt government, partially because of it’s laws supporting slavery and aggressive war. Despite this, Thoreau does not encourage voting and petitioning for change as he feels that it will do very little good as the government is too far gone for it. He doubts that it can be changed at all. In his life, Thoreau protested slavery in many ways, including refusing to pay his taxes and spending a night in jail. He also washed his hands of the government, in general, disassociating himself from it in a time when this was not a common practice among people in polite society. Thoreau says that his protest was preferable to advocating for change within the government by joining it because one cannot see the corruption if one is embroiled in it.

The essay covers this topic in a short amount of time and Thoreau also added some of his poetry and social commentary interspersed within to blend the harshness with something more poetic.

Characters Analysis

Henry David Thoreau – Thoreau is the only significant character that appears in the novel and the entire story is told as a recollection of events through his eyes. Thoreau espouses a doctrine of simple living and money management throughout the novel and he remains one of the most well-known proponents of such thinking. Generations of freethinkers take inspiration from his philosophies to this day. But Thoreau’s political importance sometimes supersedes his importance as a nature-lover. Thoreau always spouted the belief in the individual, the idea that the average person could (and should) think for himself and question the laws and edicts that the government sets down before mindlessly obeying them. His tradition of standing up for his own conscience and saying no to orders that he could not countenance obeying affirmed the American idea of conscientious objection an example that has re-introduced itself many times over America’s history, most notably during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s. Although American consumer culture and industrialization was only in it’s infancy in Thoreau’s time, his distrust of it was years ahead of his fellow 19th century men, as were many of his ideals.

Thoreau’s willingness to give up his creature comforts and move out into the wilderness in search of what he believes in has created a standard for independent young Americans for more than a hundred years. There is even room for the argument that he has an influence on such concepts as American liberalism and counterculture.

However, Thoreau had many leanings that would, by today’s standard, be considered more conservative. His hatred of the innovation of the railroad near his cabin by Walden Pond and his consistent critiquing of his poorer neighbors for their uncouthness or simpleness leads the reader to be confused as to whether Thoreau intended only the wealthy or learned of the community to find peace within themselves. His condescending lecture to the members of the Field family and his internal criticisms of his friend, Alex Therien, clearly show that Thoreau had no desire to put himself on equal footing with the poor or unschooled but rather that he wished to be their teacher.

Perhaps most diminishing is Thoreau’s racist remark that the Field’s poverty is the result of an inherited Irish poverty. Although Thoreau was a renowned abolitionist, this type of remark could be construed as implying that only Anglo-Saxon immigrants are genetically capable of managing their money correctly and being resourceful. Overall, Thoreau’s writing style is poetic and lyrical, ruminating on the beauty of the woods and the pond and creating a noticeable lack of dialogue. It becomes easy to see that despite his claim of a desire for solitude, Thoreau wanted his works to be widely read and absorbed for years to come.

Henry David Thoreau Biography

Henry David Thoreau was an American writer, philosopher, and naturalist. Born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12th, 1817, Thoreau was the son of a pencil maker and business man. He attended the prestigious Harvard University as a young man and taught school in Concord and Staten Island, New York. From 1841 to 1843, he lived with the American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson where he met another American transcendentalist such as the educator and philosopher Amos Broson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, the literary critic.

Two years later he moved to a crude cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, a small pond on the outskirts of Concord. He lived there until 1847 when he again moved in with Emerson. During his time at Walden Pond and elsewhere in Concord, Thoreau made his living by doing odd jobs such as gardening, carpentry, and land surveying. Most of his time was given over to the study of nature, meditating on philosophical problems, reading Greek, Latin, French and English literature and especially to long talks with his neighbors.

Of the many volumes that make up the entire works of Thoreau, only two were published in his lifetime. “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” in 1849 and “Walden; or Life in the Woods” in 1854. The works for the other volumes were edited posthumously by the Thoreau’s friends from his journals, manuscripts, and letters.

During his time in the woods, Thoreau was arrested while on a supply trip in Concord and chose to go to jail for one day rather than pay his poll tax which he felt supported slavery and the Mexican-American war. He clarified his position on the subject in perhaps his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” (1849). In the essay, he talked about passive resistance, a new method of protest which later was taken up by the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi as a tactic against the British and by civil rights activists fighting racial segregation in 1960’s America.

Thoreau also wrote many non-fiction works about the natural beauty of the United States and Canada. In 1835, Thoreau contracted tuberculosis and suffered from it for several years. In 1860, he became ill with bronchitis and his health began to decline even further. Eventually, he became bedridden and spent his last years revising and editing all of his unpublished works. On May 6th, 1862, Thoreau died at the age of 44. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts where he still has a grave today.