The oft-quoted transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is best known for two works: Walden and Civil Disobedience. Walden, first published in 1854, documents the time Thoreau spent living with nature in a hand-built cabin in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. A minor work in its own time, Walden burgeoned in popularity during the counter culture movement of the 1960s. Civil Disobedience is thought to have originated after Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government with whose policies he did not agree. Assigning greater importance to the conscience of the individual than the governing law, Civil Disobedience is an internationally admired work that is known to have influenced writer Leo Tolstoy and political activist Mahatma Gandhi, and many members of the American Civil Rights Movement. Now available together in one chic and affordable edition as part of the Word Cloud Classics series, Walden and Civil Disobedience makes an attractive addition to any library.
Thoreau described himself as a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. He is a writer of essays about nature---not of facts about it but of his ideals and emotions in its presence. His wish to understand nature led him to Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847 in a cabin that he built. Though he was an educated man with a Harvard degree, fluent in ancient and modern German, he preferred to study nature by living "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Knowing this, we should beware of misreading the book that best reflected this great experience in Thoreau's life: Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). It is not a handbook of the simple life. Though there are elements in the book of a "whole-earth catalogue" mentality, to focus on the radical "economic" aspects of Thoreau's work is to miss much in the book. Nor is it an autobiography. The right way to read Walden is as a "transcendental" narrative prose poem, whose hero is a man named Henry, a modern Odysseus in search of a "true America."