Henry David Thoreau

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Walden Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was born into a family of humble means, his father a pencil-maker. A gifted student, he attended Harvard College, where his studies included rhetoric and philosophy. After graduation, he tried out teaching, founding a progressive school with his brother, who not long after fell ill and died. He befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became his mentor, introducing him into a circle of writers and inviting him to live in his house. Thoreau wandered for the rest of his life, working in his family's pencil factory in Concord for a while, spending two years in the woods near Walden Pond, returning to Emerson's house, and moving to Minnesota in an attempt to recover from tuberculosis, from which he eventually died.
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Historical Context of Walden

The Transcendentalist movement had its roots in Unitarianism, a major Christian denomination in New England in the late eighteenth century that broke with Calvinism by abandoning the notion of inherent human depravity and placing value on the intellect as the path to spiritual wisdom. In the 1820s and 1830s, some Unitarians, beginning to see the Unitarian doctrine as too coldly rational and dry, formed Transcendentalism, which placed emphasis on the spiritual quest of the individual and his striving to be one with the divine. Transcendentalism was influenced by English and German Romanticism, including the writing of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Goethe, and is considered by some to be an American incarnation of Romanticism.

Other Books Related to Walden

Thoreau and Emerson were the chief figures of Transcendentalism, a movement that promoted individualism and a belief in man's inherent spiritual goodness and was indebted to Eastern thought, notably the Bhagavad-Gita, which Thoreau cites in Walden. Other Transcendentalist books include Emerson's Nature, considered to be the movement's first text; Emerson's Self-Reliance, in which he sets out a belief at the very heart of Walden; and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, in which he argues that the individual has an obligation to resist government when it goes against his conscience.
Key Facts about Walden
  • Full Title: Walden; or, Life in the Woods
  • When Written: Between 1847 and 1854
  • Where Written: Concord, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1854
  • Literary Period: American Transcendentalism
  • Genre: Memoir; Philosophical text
  • Setting: The woods around Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.
  • Point of View: First person (Thoreau is the narrator)

Extra Credit for Walden

Writer's Lodge. Thoreau's original purpose in going to live in the woods was not to undergo an experiment in simple living but to concentrate on his writing—in particular his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Ellery Channing, Transcendentalist poet and friend of Thoreau, advised him, "Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you."