One of the most important literary works of American environmentalism is Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden. In 1845, Thoreau builds a small cabin on a plot of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, located on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He spends nearly three years living primarily in this cabin, contemplating experiencing nature in a raw, unadulterated way.
Thoreau’s use of the wilderness as a refuge, and his criticism of capitalist, dogmatic society have served as rallying points for later environmental movements in the United States and elsewhere. But Thoreau has also been criticized, particularly by members of the same movements that so revere his work. While the ideas apparent behind the Walden experiment are reflective of the post-Enlightenment Romantic thought that guided early environmentalism, for many, the self-absorbed manner in which Thoreau relates his experiences undercuts his authority as a disciple of the wilderness. Furthermore, closer inspection reveals that he was not nearly so cut off from modern society as it first seems, prompting criticism that his attempt to live naturally and apart was only a feeble one.
The problem is that Thoreau’s work has been ideologically appropriated and ultimately misunderstood by environmentalists and casual readers alike. While Thoreau would almost certainly have agreed with the values of conservationists, nature was not the focus, nor the goal of his Walden project. Thoreau was at the forefront of the Transcendentalist movement, under the guidance of his patron, Emerson, and embraced nature more as a renunciation of modern society than as an entity unto itself.
In order to truly understand Thoreau’s work, we must contextualize him within the philosophical belief structure in which he operated. Transcendentalism is the philosophy of a spiritual, internal interpretation of the world, as opposed to an empirical, sensory interpretation. It is rooted in the philosophies of John Lock and Immanuel Kant. Locke believed that humans are born tabula rasa, and that all knowledge is a derivative of sensory experience. He is one of the primary figures in empiricism, as contrasted with rationalism, which operates largely in response to Cartesian skepticism, and holds that only reason can provide us with pure knowledge. Kant sought to bridge the gap between empiricism and rationalism by propounding that sensory information streams into us already structured by our intuition.
Frederic Henry Hedge, a German Transcendentalist, summarizes Kant by saying, “Since the supposition that our intuitions depend on the world without, will not answer, assume that the world without depends on the nature of our intuitions.” This allows for a priori knowledge, and validates a far more personal, inquisitive relationship to the external world. This notion that it is our essential humanness that forms our view of the world strongly influences the later Transcendentalist movement.
The transcendentalists were critical of the blind acceptance of any doctrine or institution, be it religious, political, or academic. This is what Thoreau spends most of Economy expressing. By buying into the conventional way of life, striving ever for more and better material things, people become trapped in their own lives: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Thoreau, then, goes to the woods not to escape humanity as a whole, but to escape human institution and to live individually and introspectively. He wants to act out the Transcendentalist ideals of isolation and personal interpretation of the world. He goes to Walden “to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
One of the sentences in Walden most indicative of Thoreau’s philosophy and motivation comes when he casually applaudes himself for “not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts.” This is important for Thoreau, because these are the kinds of thoughts that seem intelligent, but don’t require internal inspection on the part of the listener. The thoughts that he values having are those that are deeply personal and instinctual.
Through this kind of contextual analysis, we can understand where the ideas of contemporary environmentalism diverge from Thoreau’s own philosophy and intent. He is self-absorbed, but not out of a kind of weakness or inability to focus solely on the natural world. Instead, his self-absorption is essential to the inherent subjectivity of transcendentalist philosophy. He believes that we can only understand the world through our own, deeply personal interpretations of our sensory experience. To attempt to generalize or objectify his experiences would be to strip them of all meaning and value.
Similarly, our realization that Thoreau maintained frequent contact with the village of Concord and many of his friends and family shouldn’t significantly detract from his Transcendentalist project. Living alone for the time that he does gives Thoreau time to contemplate the world and form his own unique thoughts and opinions, and it gives him an outsider perspective on the social and societal conventions of Concord and the United States. In this way he is able to succeed in forming a more Transcendental world view, despite not severing contact with the outside world entirely.
I’d like to conclude by confessing that I was one of those people who have been snared and subsequently disillusioned by this common misreading of Thoreau. As a staunch environmental advocate and lover of wilderness, I was taken by the idea of renouncing the human environment in favor of a more primal, healthy, and pure, natural lifestyle. As I eagerly read through Walden, however, I began to feel as though Thoreau was too weak and too normal to really go into the woods.
However, this unfortunate analysis of a brilliant work is not any fault of Thoreau’s, but rather the fault of those who would claim Walden as an environmental work. If Walden can be considered such, it is only secondarily; it is first and foremost a work of Transcendentalist thought and experimentation.
Thoreau has great things to tell us about both ourselves and about the natural world, but we do him and future generations of readers a disservice by ascribing false motivations and ideologies to his work. To truly understand Walden, we must evaluate it as Thoreau meant it to be understood: as a work of introspective, personal experience.