Transcendentalism in Henry David Thoreau's works, especially "Walden." In particular, it will discuss how Thoreau's "Walden" fits and does not fit the definition of Transcendentalism, and how he viewed the Brook Farm Experiment.
TRANSCENDENTALISM AND THOREAU
The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot," Henry David Thoreau.
Henry David Thoreau seemed destined to spend time on Walden Pond and write his most famous book, "Walden." A young college graduate of twenty-eight, he taught school for a while, worked with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and suffered mightily over the death of his brother. A friend suggested he spend some time at Walden to discover himself, and on Independence Day, 1845, he moved in to a small hut on the shores of the pond (Thoreau xiii). "Watching and listening, studying, thinking, dreaming, attending to the varying moods of the pond, writing in his journals, trying the virtue of the great world outside by the simple truths of his secluded existence -- all that brought his career to fruition" (Thoreau xiii).
Thoreau's fascination with Transcendentalism began during his college years, although he continued to practice his beliefs his entire life, and became an ardent abolitionist in his later years, even personally seceding from the Union in 1845 to show his displeasure about the issue of legal slavery.
As a whole, the Transcendentalists were not systematic philosophers, bent on arranging the pattern of life into a logical sequence. Quite the contrary: they believed in living by inspiration. Believing that man and the universe were God, they worshipped Him by trying to live in spiritual harmony with the great laws of nature -- trying humbly to be good men (Thoreau xvi)
American Transcendentalism began in the 1830s. Two of the most famous practitioners were Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. "Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual; but this divinity could be self-discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so" (Brulatour). It also centered on nature, and the natural world, which is how Thoreau combined it into his works, especially "Walden."
Brook Farm was a trial in putting together a Utopian society by a group of New Englanders.
Brook Farm came out of discussions by a group of New England intellectuals and clergymen. Troubled by the excesses of unbridled competition that fostered dog-eat-dog values and by the reluctance of established churches to act in behalf of the poor and oppressed, some of them talked about creating an alternative to a society they saw as evil (Kesten 19).
While these early Transcendentalists were creating their model farm, Thoreau was beginning his two-year stint at Walden, which was the basis for his book, and his own experiment on creating a utopian world. "Walden" is often called Thoreau's ode to his beliefs - he wrote in while he spent over two years in a cabin on Walden Pond, about a mile away from Concord, Massachusetts. "I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only" (Thoreau 3). He did see friends and go into town occasionally during his solitary life, but for the most part, he lived apart, wrote, and philosophized.
Walden" is a much a treatise on philosophy as it is on nature. The opening chapter, "Economy," reveals much about Thoreau, including his feelings about life, how people lived at the time, and even his opposition to slavery. They also reveal his belief in Transcendentalism, even if he does not name it, his writings show his strong belief and total life outlook. "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically" (Thoreau 13).
As Thoreau spent time at Walden, he also looked at his time as a business enterprise. He hoped to sell ice from the pond in the wintertime, while growing his own crops in the summer. Indeed, after his first summer growing season, he sold "nine bushels and twelve quarts of beans" in town, making a small profit on his investment in seed and tools (Thoreau 147). Of course, the main reason he retired to Walden was to live with nature, contemplate himself and the world around him, and learn more about himself. He managed to do all these things, while strengthening his wonder in the natural world, and its importance in our society. Even in 1845, people were moving farther away from nature, and Thoreau felt this was wrong - people needed to spend more time with nature, not less.
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been (Thoreau 101).
In one of the most enjoyable sections of the book, Thoreau talks about visitors to his cabin in the woods. He said he could always tell someone had come into his house in his absence, because they always left some type of natural "calling card," such as a bunch of flowers or a bit of birch bark. "They who come rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally or accidentally" (Thoreau 117).
When readers think about "Walden," they often believe Thoreau spent his entire time there in solitude, but he admits he was a social person, and enjoyed having friends visit. He mentions having at least thirty people under his roof at once, and the difficulty of entertaining with only three chairs (Thoreau 128). Therefore, his time was not always spent in solitude and deliberation, he often entertained, or walked into Concord for a meal and some company. He was not a hermit living isolated on his pond - he really had the best of both worlds, from utter solitude, to inspired intellectual conversations with his friends.
Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs (Thoreau 151).
However, there is no doubt his time living on the pond was serene, and as he contemplated the natural world, he grew closer to it. He found his own amusements, he noted. Rather than going to the theatre or socializing, he read, worked in his garden, and even enjoyed cleaning house. He said,
Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me. Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are won't to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe (Thoreau 79).
Thoreau was devoted to nature before he spent time at Walden, and he was extremely devoted to nature after his time on the pond. He learned even more about the natural world around him as he spent time in solitude. "Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tingeing the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin" (Thoreau 182).
Thoreau's experiment at Walden was in part the very foundation of Transcendentalism. He grew even more in tune with the natural world around him, and certainly looked deeply inside himself to discover his core beliefs and spirituality. He was certainly "living by inspiration." Every day inspired him to write about his experiences in his journal, which turned into "Walden" when the book was published in 1854. He also always strived to be a good man, and live in great harmony with his surroundings.