Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar T

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar T


Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. The freethinking Thoreaus were relatively cultured, but they were also poor, making their living by the modest production of homemade pencils. Despite financial constraints, Henry received a top-notch education, first at Concord Academy and then at Harvard College in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. His education there included ancient and modern European languages and literatures, philosophy, theology, and history. Graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord to teach in the local grammar school, but resigned abruptly in only his second week on the job, declaring himself unable to inflict corporal punishment on misbehaving pupils. In the ensuing months, Thoreau sought another teaching job unsuccessfully. It was around this time that Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent American philosopher, essayist, and poet who had recently moved to Concord. The friendship between the two would eventually prove the most influential of Thoreau’s life. The following June, Thoreau founded a small progressive school emphasizing intellectual curiosity over rote memorization, and after a period of success for the school, his brother John joined the venture. After several years, John’s failing health and Henry’s impatience for larger projects made it impossible to continue running the school.

During this period, Thoreau assisted his family in pencil manufacturing, and worked for a time as a town surveyor. He also began to keep an extensive journal, to which he would devote considerable energy over the next twenty-five years. His writing activities deepened as his friendship with Emerson developed and as he was exposed to the Transcendentalist movement, of which Emerson was the figurehead. Transcendentalism drew heavily on the idealist and otherworldly aspects of English and German Romanticism, Hindu and Buddhist thought, and the tenets of Confucius and Mencius. It emphasized the individual heart, mind, and soul as the center of the universe and made objective facts secondary to personal truth. It construed self-reliance, as expounded in Emerson’s famous 1841 essay by that same title, not just as an economic virtue but also as a whole philosophical and spiritual basis for existence. And, importantly for Thoreau, it sanctioned a disavowal or rejection of any social norms, traditions, or values that contradict one’s own -personal vision.

With his unorthodox manners and irreverent views, Thoreau quickly made a name for himself among Emerson’s followers, who encouraged him to publish essays in The Dial, an emerging Transcendentalist magazine established by Margaret Fuller. Among these early works were the first of Thoreau’s nature writings, along with a number of poems and a handful of book reviews. Thoreau began to enjoy modest success as a writer. His personal life was marred by his rejected marriage proposal to Ellen Sewall in 1840, who was forced to turn down Thoreau (as she had turned down his brother, John, before him) because of pressure from her family, who considered the Thoreaus to be financially unstable and suspiciously radical. Disappointed in love, devastated by the 1842 death of his brother, and unable to secure literary work in New York, Thoreau was soon back in Concord, once again pressed into service in the family pencil business.

During the early 1840s, Thoreau lived as a pensioner at the Emerson address, where he helped maintain the house and garden, and provided companionship to Emerson’s second wife, Lidian. Thoreau and Lidian developed an intimate, but wholly platonic friendship. It was on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond that Thoreau, inspired by the experiment of his Harvard classmate, Charles Stearns Wheeler, erected a small dwelling in which to live closer to nature. On July 4, 1845, his cabin complete, Thoreau moved to the woods by Walden Pond. He spent the next two years there composing the initial drafts to the two works on which his later reputation would largely rest: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, first published in 1849, and Walden; or, Life in the Woods, first published in 1854. Thoreau’s isolation during this period is sometimes exaggerated. He lived within easy walking distance of Concord, and received frequent visitors in his shack, most often his close friend and traveling companion William Ellery Channing.

During a journey Thoreau made to Concord in July of 1846, the constable apprehended and imprisoned him for nonpayment of a poll tax that he refused to pay because it supported a nation endorsing slavery. In the mild scandal aroused by this gesture against authority, Thoreau defended his actions in a lecture to the Concord Lyceum, in which he publicly expounded his reasons for resisting state authority. Later he revised and published this lecture under the title “Civil Disobedience,” which is the most internationally known of Thoreau’s works, inspiring such prominent social thinkers as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.

When Emerson went to Europe for an extended stay in the autumn of 1847, Thoreau left Walden to keep house with Lidian again for nearly two years. After Emerson’s return, tensions between the two men caused a rift in their friendship. Thoreau left the Emerson residence and returned to his family home, where he would remain for the rest of his life, and resumed work in the pencil business. As the slavery debate came to a head in the 1850s, Thoreau took on a vocal role in the burgeoning abolitionist movement. He assisted fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, and later took an unpopular stand by announcing his support for the martyred John Brown, who in 1859 had sought to incite a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. But during a protracted bout of tuberculosis in the late 1850s, Thoreau largely retreated from public concerns. He began a study of growth rings in forest trees, and visited Minnesota on a walking tour in the spring of 1861. But his illness finally overcame him, and he died at home in Concord on May 6, 1862, at the age of forty-four.

Although Thoreau is held today in great esteem, his work received far less attention during his lifetime, and a considerable number of his neighbors viewed him with contempt. As a result, Thoreau had to self-finance the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Published in an edition of 1,000, over 700 of these copies remained unsold, and he eventually stored them on his home bookshelves; Thoreau liked to joke that he had written an entire library. Even Walden was met with scant interest. He revised the work eight times before a publisher accepted it, and the book found only marginal success during Thoreau’s lifetime. It was not until the twentieth century that Thoreau’s extraordinary impact on American culture would be felt. In the upsurge in counterculture sentiment during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” inspired many young Americans to express their disavowal of official U.S. policies and declare ideological independence, even at the risk of arrest. Walden also expressed a critique of consumerism and capitalism that was congenial to the hippies and others who preferred to drop out of the bustle of consumer society and pursue what they saw as greater and more personally meaningful aims. Moreover, Thoreau politicized the American landscape and nature itself, giving us a liberal view on the wilderness whose legacy can be felt in the Sierra Club and the Green Party. He did not perceive nature as a dead and passive object of conquest and exploitation, as it was for many of the early pioneers for whom land meant survival. Rather, he saw in it a lively and vibrant world unto itself, a spectacle of change, growth, and constancy that could infuse us all with spiritual meaning if we pursued it. Finally, Thoreau gave generations of American writers a distinctive style to emulate: a combination of homey, folksy talk with erudite allusions, creating a tone that is both casual and majestic.

Walden opens with a simple announcement that Thoreau spent two years in Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, living a simple life supported by no one. He says that he now resides among the civilized again; the episode was clearly both experimental and temporary. The first chapter, “Economy,” is a manifesto of social thought and meditations on domestic management, and in it Thoreau sketches out his ideals as he describes his pond project. He devotes attention to the skepticism and wonderment with which townspeople had greeted news of his project, and he defends himself from their views that society is the only place to live. He recounts the circumstances of his move to Walden Pond, along with a detailed account of the steps he took to construct his rustic habitation and the methods by which he supported himself in the course of his wilderness experiment. It is a chapter full of facts, figures, and practical advice, but also offers big ideas about the claims of individualism versus social existence, all interspersed with evidence of scholarship and a propensity for humor.

Thoreau tells us that he completed his cabin in the spring of 1845 and moved in on July 4 of that year. Most of the materials and tools he used to build his home he borrowed or scrounged from previous sites. The land he squats on belongs to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson; he details a cost-analysis of the entire construction project. In order to make a little money, Thoreau cultivates a modest bean-field, a job that tends to occupy his mornings. He reserves his afternoons and evenings for contemplation, reading, and walking about the countryside. Endorsing the values of austerity, simplicity, and solitude, Thoreau consistently emphasizes the minimalism of his lifestyle and the contentment to be derived from it. He repeatedly contrasts his own freedom with the imprisonment of others who devote their lives to material prosperity.

Despite his isolation, Thoreau feels the presence of society surrounding him. The Fitchburg Railroad rushes past Walden Pond, interrupting his reveries and forcing him to contemplate the power of technology. Thoreau also finds occasion to converse with a wide range of other people, such as the occasional peasant farmer, railroad worker, or the odd visitor to Walden. He describes in some detail his association with a Canadian-born woodcutter, Alex Therien, who is grand and sincere in his character, though modest in intellectual attainments. Thoreau makes frequent trips into Concord to seek the society of his longtime friends and to conduct what scattered business the season demands. On one such trip, Thoreau spends a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax because, he says, the government supports slavery. Released the next day, Thoreau returns to Walden.

Thoreau devotes great attention to nature, the passing of the seasons, and the creatures with which he shares the woods. He recounts the habits of a panoply of animals, from woodchucks to partridges. Some he endows with a larger meaning, often spiritual or psychological. The hooting loon that plays hide and seek with Thoreau, for instance, becomes a symbol of the playfulness of nature and its divine laughter at human endeavors. Another example of animal symbolism is the full-fledged ant war that Thoreau stumbles upon, prompting him to meditate on human warfare. Thoreau’s interest in animals is not exactly like the naturalist’s or zoologist’s. He does not observe and describe them neutrally and scientifically, but gives them a moral and philosophical significance, as if each has a distinctive lesson to teach him.

As autumn turns to winter, Thoreau begins preparations for the arrival of the cold. He listens to the squirrel, the rabbit, and the fox as they scuttle about gathering food. He watches the migrating birds, and welcomes the pests that infest his cabin as they escape the coming frosts. He prepares his walls with plaster to shut out the wind. By day he makes a study of the snow and ice, giving special attention to the mystic blue ice of Walden Pond, and by night he sits and listens to the wind as it whips and whistles outside his door. Thoreau occasionally sees ice-fishermen come to cut out huge blocks that are shipped off to cities, and contemplates how most of the ice will melt and flow back to Walden Pond. Occasionally Thoreau receives a visit from a friend like William Ellery Channing or Amos Bronson Alcott, but for the most part he is alone. In one chapter, he conjures up visions of earlier residents of Walden Pond long dead and largely forgotten, including poor tradesmen and former slaves. Thoreau prefers to see himself in their company, rather than amid the cultivated and wealthy classes.

As he becomes acquainted with Walden Pond and neighboring ponds, Thoreau wants to map their layout and measure their depths. Thoreau finds that Walden Pond is no more than a hundred feet deep, thereby refuting common folk wisdom that it is bottomless. He meditates on the pond as a symbol of infinity that people need in their lives. Eventually winter gives way to spring, and with a huge crash and roar the ice of Walden Pond begins to melt and hit the shore. In lyric imagery echoing the onset of Judgment Day, Thoreau describes the coming of spring as a vast transformation of the face of the world, a time when all sins are forgiven.

Thoreau announces that his project at the pond is over, and that he returned to civilized life on September 6, 1847. The revitalization of the landscape suggests the restoration of the full powers of the human soul, and Thoreau’s narrative observations give way, in the last chapter of Walden, to a more direct sermonizing about the untapped potential within humanity. In visionary language, Thoreau exhorts us to “meet” our lives and live fully.

There are no major characters in Walden other than Thoreau, who is both the narrator and the main human subject of his narrative. The following list identifies figures who appear in the work, as well as historical figures to whom Thoreau refers.

Amateur naturalist, essayist, lover of solitude, and poet. Thoreau was a student and protégé of the great American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his construction of a hut on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond is a fitting symbol of the intellectual debt that Thoreau owed to Emerson. Strongly influenced by Transcendentalism, Thoreau believed in the perfectibility of mankind through education, self-exploration, and spiritual awareness. This view dominates almost all of Thoreau’s writing, even the most mundane and trivial, so that even woodchucks and ants take on allegorical meaning. A former teacher, Thoreau’s didactic impulse transforms a work that begins as economic reflection and nature writing to something that ends far more like a sermon. Although he values poverty theoretically, he seems a bit of a snob when talking with actual poor people. His style underscores this point, since his writing is full of classical references and snippets of poetry that the educated would grasp but the underprivileged would not.

Henry David Thoreau (In-Depth Analysis)

Essayist, poet, and the leading figure of Transcendentalism. Emerson became a mentor to Thoreau after they met in 1837. Emerson played a significant role in the creation of Walden by allowing Thoreau to live and build on his property near Walden Pond. There is an appropriate symbolism in this construction site, since philosophically Thoreau was building on the Transcendentalist foundation already prepared by Emerson. The influence of Emerson’s ideas, especially the doctrine of self-reliance that sees the human soul and mind as the origin of the reality it inhabits, pervades Thoreau’s work. However, whereas Thoreau retreated to his own private world, Emerson assumed a prominent role in public life, making extended overseas lecture tours to promote the view expressed in his renowned Essays. The two often disagreed on the necessity of adhering to some public conventions, and the heated tensions between the two may perhaps be felt in the minimal attention Emerson receives in Walden. Thoreau utterly fails to mention that Emerson owns the land, despite his tedious detailing of less significant facts, and when Emerson visits, in the guise of the unnamed “Old Immortal,” Thoreau treats him rather indifferently.

A laborer in his late twenties who often works in the vicinity of Thoreau’s abode. Thoreau describes Therien as “a Canadian, a wood-chopper and post-maker,” asserting that it would be difficult to find a more simple or natural human being. Although he is not a reader, Therien is nevertheless conversant and intelligent, and thus he holds great appeal for Thoreau as a sort of untutored backwoods sage. Thoreau compares the woodcutter to Walden Pond itself, saying both possess hidden depths.

A poor Irish-American laborer who lives with his wife and children on the Baker Farm just outside of Concord. Thoreau uses Field as an example of an “honest, hard-working, but shiftless man,” someone who is forced to struggle at a great disadvantage in life because he lacks unusual natural abilities or social position. The conversation that Thoreau and Field have when Thoreau runs to the Field home for shelter in a rainstorm is an uncomfortable reminder that Thoreau’s ideas and convictions may set him apart from those same poor people that he elsewhere idealizes. Rather than converse casually with Field, Thoreau gives him a heated lecture on the merits of cutting down on coffee and meat consumption. Overall, his treatment of Field seems condescending. His parting regret that Field suffers from an “inherited” Irish proclivity to laziness casts a strangely ungenerous, even slightly racist light over all of Thoreau’s ideas.

A friend whom Thoreau refers to as “the philosopher.” Alcott was a noted educator and social reformer, as well as the father of beloved children’s author Louisa May Alcott. In 1834 he founded the Temple School in Boston, a noted progressive school that spawned many imitators. Affiliated with the Transcendentalists, he was known for a set of aphorisms titled “Orphic Sayings” that appeared in The Dial. Alcott also had a hand in the utopian communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands, and went on to become the superintendent of the Concord public schools.

Thoreau’s closest friend, an amateur poet and an affiliate of the Transcendentalists. Channing was named after his uncle, a noted Unitarian clergyman. His son, Edward Channing, went on to become a noted professor of history at Harvard University.

A prominent Whig senator from Kentucky. Clay ran unsuccessfully for president on three occasions. He was a supporter of internal improvements as a part of his American System, and is well known as “the Great Compromiser” for his role in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. Thoreau was a staunch critic of Clay and of the expansionism that Clay advocated.

Emerson’s second wife. Lidian Emerson was somewhat distressed by her husband’s frequent absences from home. During her husband’s tours of Europe, Thoreau stayed with her, and the two developed a close friendship.

A Chinese sage of the sixth century B.C., known for his sayings and parables collected under the title Analects. His teachings gave rise to a sort of secular religion known as Confucianism, which served as a model for the Chinese government in subsequent centuries. Confucius also had a significant effect on the Transcendentalist movement, and was one of Thoreau’s favorite authors.

A Harvard-trained lawyer. Lowell eventually abandoned his first vocation for a career in letters. His poetic satire The Bigelow Papers was well received, and he went on to become a professor of modern languages at Harvard and the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

A Chinese sage of the fourth century B.C. and a disciple of Confucius. Mencius was best known for his anthology of sayings and stories collected under the title The Book of Mencius, and did much to promote the reputation of Confucius, although he himself was not widely venerated until more than a thousand years later. Like his master’s work, Mencius’s combination of respect for social harmony and the inward reconciliation with the universe exerted a powerful influence on Thoreau.

Elder brother to Henry David Thoreau. The two brothers oversaw and taught at the Concord Academy, a progressive independent school, from 1838 to 1841. John Thoreau’s failing health was a contributing factor in the demise of the school, and he died in 1842 from complications related to lockjaw.

As the foremost American proponent of simple living, Thoreau remains a powerful influence on generation after generation of young freethinkers, but his political importance is more complex than is often thought. It is the liberal side of Thoreau that is most widely remembered today. He sought an absolutely individual stance toward everything, looking for the truth not in social conventions or inherited traditions but only in himself. His casual determination to say “no” to anything he did not care for, or stand for, affirmed and solidified the American model of conscientious objection, a model that resurfaced most notably during the Vietnam War era. His skepticism toward American consumer culture, still in its infancy in the mid-nineteenth century, is even more applicable today than it was in 1847. His willingness to downgrade his lifestyle in return for the satisfactions of self-reliance has set a standard for independent young people for more than a century and a half. It could be argued that Thoreau had significant influence on the profile of American liberalism and of American counterculture.

But Thoreau has a half-hidden conservative side. This schism has led him, paradoxically, to be viewed as godfather of both the hippie movement and anti-technology, rural conservatives. His harsh view of the Fitchburg Railway (as he expresses it in the chapter “Sounds”) makes modern transportation innovations seem not a boon to his society, but rather a demonic force that threatens natural harmony. His eulogy of a humble lifestyle does not lead him to solidarity with the working poor or to any sort of community-based feeling; rather, it makes him a bit isolated, strangely distant from his neighbors. Thoreau consistently criticizes neighbors he considers bestial, although he theoretically endorses their simplicity. He praises the grand woodchopper Alex Therien, for example, only to abruptly dismiss Therien as being too uncouth, too immersed in “animal nature.” The unfairness of this dismissal leaves a bitter taste in our mouths, making us wonder whether Thoreau would quietly reject other poor workers as excessively animal-like. Similarly, his preachy and rather condescending lecture toward the humble Field family, in whose house he seeks shelter from a rainstorm, shows no signs of any desire to make contact with the poor on an equal footing with himself. He may want to be their instructor and guide, but not really their friend or comrade. Most damning is Thoreau’s unpleasant, almost racist remark that the Fields’ poverty is an “inherited” Irish trait, as if implying that non-Anglo immigrants are genetically incapable of the noble frugality and resourcefulness that distinguishes Thoreau.

Thoreau’s literary style is often overshadowed by his political and ideological significance, but it is equally important, and just as innovative and free as his social thought. He is a subtle punster and ironist, as when he describes the sun as “too warm a friend,” or when he calls the ability to weave men’s trousers a “virtue” (a play on the Latin word vir, which means “man”). He uses poetic devices, such as personification, not in a grandiose poetic manner, but in a casual and easygoing one: when he drags his desk and chair out for housecleaning, he describes them as being happy outdoors and reluctant to go back inside. His richly allusive style is brilliantly combined with a down-home feel, so that Thoreau moves from quoting Confucius to talking about woodchucks without a jolt. This combination of the everyday and the erudite finds echoes in later writers such as E. B. White, who also used a rural setting for his witty meditations on life and human nature. Moreover, we feel that Thoreau is not an armchair reader of literary classics, but is rather attempting to use his erudition to enrich the life he lives in a practical spirit, as when he describes Alex Therien as “Homeric” right after quoting a passage from Homer’s work. Homer is not just an old dead poet to Thoreau, but rather a way of seeing the world around him. Thoreau’s style is lyrical in places, allegorical in others, and sometimes both at once, as when the poetic beauty of the “Ponds” chapter becomes a delicate allegory for the purity of the human soul. He is a private and ruminative writer rather than a social one, which explains the almost total absence of dialogue in his writing. Yet his writing has an imposing sense of social purpose, and we are aware that despite his claimed yearning for privacy, Thoreau hungers for a large audience to hear his words. The final chapters of Walden almost cease being nature writing, and become a straightforward sermon. A private thinker, Thoreau is also a public preacher, whether or not he admits it.

Thoreau’s occasional visitor, Therien is the individual in the work who comes closest to being considered a friend, although there is always a distance between the two that reveals much about Thoreau’s prejudices. The hermit and the woodsman are both contented with a humble backwoods life; both take a pleasure in physical exertion (Therien is a woodchopper and post-driver, Thoreau is a bean-cultivator); and both are of French Canadian descent, as their names indicate. Thoreau describes Therien as “Homeric” in Chapter 6, voicing a deep tribute to a naturally noble man who is as heroic in his sheer vitality as Odysseus or Achilles, the heroes of Homer’s two epic poems, despite the man’s lack of formal education and social polish. Therien seems remote from social customs, as when he happily dines on a woodchuck caught by his dog. Nevertheless, he strikes people as inwardly aristocratic (“a prince in disguise,” according to one townsman). He is sensitive to great art, as when Thoreau reads a passage from Homer’s Iliad to him, and Therien responds with the simple and resounding praise, “That’s good.” He may not fully grasp what he has heard, but he can appreciate the beauty of it nonetheless. He shows a powerful moral sense, as when he spends his Sunday morning gathering white oak bark for a sick man, not complaining about the task. Therien is an astonishing worker to an almost mythical degree, capable of driving fifty posts in a day, and claiming that he has never been tired in his life. Yet he is also artistic in his labor, and can think of nothing more pleasurable than tree chopping.

In all these qualities, Therien seems Thoreau’s ideal man. Therien does not “play any part” or perform any fake social role, but is always only himself, as true to himself as Thoreau elsewhere says he aims to be. Therien is absolutely “genuine and unsophisticated,” and is “simply and naturally humble.” Thoreau is not sure whether Therien is as wise as Shakespeare or as ignorant as a child, thus indirectly acknowledging that the man is both, displaying a kind of wise ignorance. Thoreau suspects that Therien is a man of genius, as profound as Walden Pond, despite his muddy surface. We feel how closely identified Therien is with Thoreau’s own self-image: a wisely ignorant, hard-working, independent genius of the backwoods.

Strikingly, Thoreau never describes Therien as his friend, but always merely as a man who visits him, leaving a gulf between the two men. This unbridgeable divide is basically rooted in their differing levels of education. Therien is not a reader, and is “so deeply immersed in his animal life” that he can never carry on the kind of higher conversation Thoreau values. Thoreau mentions this flaw in Therien at the end of the passage describing him, and it feels like a kind of mild damnation, since Therien never appears again in Walden. The label “animal” also feels a bit unfair, as we may wonder what exactly separates Thoreau from the animal-like Therien and other beasts. A taste for reading alone surely does not make all the difference. It may be that Thoreau simply cannot imagine any rival for his role as natural genius, and must downgrade Therien before dismissing him. The relationship with Therien may make us wonder whether Thoreau’s individualism is—at least sometimes—a bit ungenerous, self-centered, and proud.

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Four years before Thoreau embarked on his Walden project, his great teacher and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an enormously influential essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” It can be seen as a statement of the philosophical ideals that Thoreau’s experiment is meant to put into practice. Certainly self-reliance is economic and social in Walden Pond: it is the principle that in matters of financial and interpersonal relations, independence is more valuable than neediness. Thus Thoreau dwells on the contentment of his solitude, on his finding entertainment in the laugh of the loon and the march of the ants rather than in balls, marketplaces, or salons. He does not disdain human companionship; in fact he values it highly when it comes on his own terms, as when his philosopher or poet friends come to call. He simply refuses to need human society. Similarly, in economic affairs he is almost obsessed with the idea that he can support himself through his own labor, producing more than he consumes, and working to produce a profit. Thoreau does not simply report on the results of his accounting, but gives us a detailed list of expenditures and income. How much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847 may seem trivial, but for him it is not. Rather it is proof that, when everything is added up, he is a giver rather than a taker in the economic game of life.

As Emerson’s essay details, self-reliance can be spiritual as well as economic, and Thoreau follows Emerson in exploring the higher dimensions of individualism. In Transcendentalist thought the self is the absolute center of reality; everything external is an emanation of the self that takes its reality from our inner selves. Self-reliance thus refers not just to paying one’s own bills, but also more philosophically to the way the natural world and humankind rely on the self to exist. This duality explains the connection between Thoreau the accountant and Thoreau the poet, and shows why the man who is so interested in pinching pennies is the same man who exults lyrically over a partridge or a winter sky. They are both products of self-reliance, since the economizing that allows Thoreau to live on Walden Pond also allows him to feel one with nature, to feel as though it is part of his own soul.

Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau; it is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary. For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment a