Walden x 40: Essays on Thoreau

Walden x 40: Essays on Thoreau

Walden x 40: Essays on Thoreau

Walden x 40: Essays on Thoreau


In 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved from his parents' house in Concord, Massachusetts, to a one-room cabin on land owned by his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. After 26 months he transformed his stay in the woods into one of the most famous events in American history. In Walden x 40, adopting Thoreau's own compositional method, Robert B. Ray takes up several questions posed in Walden. Thoreau developed his books from his lectures, and his lectures from his almost-daily journal notations of the world around him, with its fluctuating weather and appointed seasons, both forever familiar and suddenly brand new. Ray derives his 40 brief essays from the details of Walden itself, reading the book in the way that Thoreau proposed to explore his own life--deliberately. Ray demonstrates that however accustomed we have grown to its lessons, Walden continues to be as surprising as the November snowfall that, Thoreau reports, "covered the ground... and surrounded me suddenly with the scenery of winter."


In a 1991 survey, American academics named Walden “the single most important work to teach in nineteenth-century literature courses.” Unlike most classics (including runners-up The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick), Thoreau’s book continues to find readers outside the classroom. Civil rights activists, environmentalists, stubborn misfits all have regularly turned to Walden for tactics or counsel, and as long as there are Wandervogeln, it will find a home. New editions—illustrated, annotated, excerpted for calendars or daybooks— appear annually. And yet almost everything that passes for common knowledge about Henry David Thoreau turns out to be wrong.

• First comes the matter of his name, which rhymes not with hello but with thorough, a homonym of which he would often take punning advantage. Christened David Henry Thoreau, he simply reversed the order of his first two names at some point after college, perhaps to acknowledge that his friends and parents had always called him Henry.

• Like Emerson, Thoreau went to Harvard, having grown up in Concord, a suburb of Boston; but his world was much smaller than those names now make it seem. Concord was a village of barely two thousand people, and Thoreau’s Harvard class had fewer than fifty students, and the college itself only thirty-five faculty members.

• Thoreau didn’t spend a few months in the woods, but over two years: twenty-six months, to be exact, from 4 July 1845 to 6 September 1847. He started work on his cabin (built on land . . .

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