Read an Excerpt
From Jonathan Levin's Introduction to Walden and Civil Disobedience
In the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cabin he'd built near the shore of Walden Pond, about a mile and a half south of his native village of Concord, Massachusetts. Although Thoreau's experience over the next two years, two months, and two days could hardly be considered a wilderness adventure, it did nevertheless constitute a significant departure from the norm. Most of his neighbors, at least, thought he was a little bit crazy. As Thoreau suggests in the early chapters of Walden, he set out to conduct an experiment: Could he survive, possibly even thrive, by stripping away all superfluous luxuries, living a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions? Besides building his own shelter and providing the fuel to heat it (that is, chopping his own firewood), he would grow and catch his own food, even provide his own entertainment. It was, as he delighted to point out, an experiment in basic home economics; but in truth, his aim was to investigate the larger moral and spiritual economy of such a life. If, as he notes in the book's first chapter, the "mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," perhaps by leaving it all behind and starting over on the relatively isolated shores of Walden Pond he could restore some of life's seemingly diminished vigor.
Indeed, there is plenty of undiminished vigor on display in these pages. Nathaniel Hawthorne in his journal described Henry as "a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him" (Hawthorne, The Heart of Hawthorne's Journals, p. 105; see "For Further Reading"), and readers have often since regarded him—along with Walt Whitman—as something like the wild man of nineteenth-century American literature. Few readers ever forget the start of Walden's "Higher Laws" chapter: "As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented". In many respects, Thoreau went to Walden in search of the raw, hoping that an infusion of "savage delight" would cure him and (by the example he would provide) his neighbors of what he regarded as over-civilization, which he linked to timidity and uncritical faith in the authority of others. Throughout Walden, and indeed throughout the greater part of his writing, the impulse to simplify conditions and cast off the debilitating and dispiriting obligations of a respectable life is bound up with this pursuit of uninhibited, unadulterated wildness. His admiration for wildness in nature was unbounded. "Life consists with wildness," he comments in the popular talk now known to readers as "Walking." "The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him" (Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems, p. 240). "Hope and the future for me," he adds, "are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps" (p. 241).
Of course, Thoreau was hardly an actual wild man, a point he acknowledges in another talk, "Wild Apples," when he notes that "our wild apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock" (Thoreau, p. 452). As this comment suggests, Thoreau recognized that he came to the woods as a highly developed product of civilized society. So too his approach to the Walden environs should be regarded not as a kind of wilderness adventure—Walden was hardly a wilderness, then as now—but rather as an effort to locate and give voice to the wildness that subsists with and within the cultivated and domesticated. Late in Walden, offering an analogy from nature for the kind of extravagance he emulates in his writing, he notes that the migrating buffalo seeking "new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cow-yard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time". It is telling, in ways that few readers have fully understood, that Thoreau should actually prefer this cow to the seemingly wilder buffalo. What appeals to him about the cow is that its wild instinct has survived domestication: The wildness Thoreau pursues is not found in complete isolation from civilized and domesticating influences but rather survives in a deep, if sometimes unacknowledged, layer of being underlying those influences. The experiment at Walden Pond was an attempt to recover such wildness, as it survived on the margins of Concord village life and beneath the smooth and refined surface of even the most modern, educated, and enlightened men and women.