Transcendentalism in Thoreau’s Walden





Transcendentalism in Thoreau’s Walden

Henry Thoreau was born in an era when enlightenment was still thriving. Born into a poor family, he helped his family generate income from a pencil making business (Thoreau and Porcellino 6). After several attempts at being a scholar, he finally met Ralph Waldo, who let him live on his land, as they shared various philosophies about life. At the time, the world was coming to terms with the Transcendentalism ideologies that were largely supported by Thoreau. Transcendentalism was a literary movement in America, which greatly criticized the world’s nature to conform to the norms, and dependency. These ideologies preached for men to be independent, self reliant, embrace simplicity, and being objective. It borrowed heavily from Hindu religion. Thoreau is one of the greatest supporters of this philosophical movement, as he even wrote literature with such theme. One of his renown books is Walden, which he wrote while he was living on a structure he built for himself on Waldo’s land, which he called Walden. The book largely reflects his deep-rooted ideologies and the importance of transcendentalism as seen throughout the chapters.

Transcendentalism believes in the inherent goodness of man, and that society and its various institutions have corrupted the soul and the mind of man. When life for Thoreau does not go as planned, he begins to wallow in self-pity and seems to give up on his ambitions. However, he meets Waldo, who happens to share his ideas and philosophies in various subjects such as economics and politics. With time, they develop a strong friendship, to the extent that he lets him stay on his land. Sometime later, Waldo visit Europe for two years, and while he is away, Thoreau develops a very intimate relationship with his second wife, Lidian. On his return, their friendship begins to drift and they become estranged, due to tension. The tension builds up presumably due to Waldo disliking the idea that his wife has become close with his friend. Transcendentalism seeks to reach out to man’s nature, the selfless one, which has been corrupted by societal institution. Waldo’s attitude towards their friendship is a true manifestation of what a social institution such a marriage has changed his good nature and he has against his friend. Their friendship was sincere, and for it to break, it means that Waldo’s soul had become influenced by the society, a notion that transcendentalism tried to fight.

Ralph Waldo was Thoreau’s teacher, therefore, his ideologies borrowed heavily from his writings such as Self Reliance. Evidently, he seeks to follow the teachings to the letter when he sets out to Walden, and lives in solitude. Transcendentalism strongly supports the importance of self-reliance, an attribute that all human beings should adopt (Packer 47). From the story, it remains clear that self-reliance is not just about material wealth and property. It is also applicable in a social context. Just as Thoreau was able to find solace and contentment in his own solitude, man should do the same. There is great power and self-control that comes with self-reliance. It is a form of liberation for the soul and mind. For instance, he built the structure he lived in from his own finances, and some material that he gathered. Thoreau found the laugh of the loon entertaining, as was bent on supporting himself financially through all his endeavors. His thoughts were largely hinged on the aspect of individualism, which received many criticisms by the society and other scholars. From a transcendentalist lens, self-reliance also encompasses the aspect of spirituality. To compound this belief, he mentions in his story that the inner self is the true representation of reality, and that everything in the outside is a manifestation of the self. Therefore, human beings create for themselves their own reality. It is entirely up to man to create an environment that reflects his true self, just as he did when he lived at Walden, utterly depending on his efforts.

Transcendentalists place high value on simplicity, which largely involves living a minimalist life (Phillips, Ladd, and Anesko 35). Just as in his “economy” chapter, Thoreau observes two ways in dealing with the dissatisfaction that comes with excess wealth. The first is to acquire more, and the second is to reduce more. He further criticizes the people in Concord, who are obsessed with making mortgage payments and acquiring more wealth. His approach was to minimize his expenditure and avoid the dissatisfaction of material wealth. His story does reflect the true ideals of transcendentalism, which viewed excess property as extravagance and a disadvantage. His idea of simplicity, which was in line with his philosophies, was demonstrated by his way of life. He built a very simple structure to live in, which was something he was proud of, unlike the wealthier, who had mortgages to pay. This meant that the houses were essentially not theirs. To insist on his message, he showed the irony in the wealthy thinking that they have a house, yet they are in debt. It appears as though his life was an entire analogy aimed at preaching the ideals of transcendentalism.


Works Cited:

Packer, Barbara L. The Transcendentalists. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.

Phillips, Jerry, Andrew Ladd, and Michael Anesko. Romanticism and Transcendentalism. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2006. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David, and John Porcellino. Thoreau at Walden. New York: Hyperion, 2008. Print.


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