The Thoreau Effect

Throughout history no author has affected the genre of nature writing as much as Henry David Thoreau.  I came to Walden, myself, when I was a first year in college.  I had just fled the nest and was looking to spread my wings and go on some great adventure, but I was stuck in school without the means to do so.  Instead of some grand road trip (those would come later), I picked up an old leather-bound copy of Walden and began to read.  The things I learned in that existentialist-inspired book lead me to become the person I am today.  Road trips are plenty and often, materialism is sparse and only useful, and I often find myself driving the hour and a half to my parent’s cabin in the woods for quiet and self-reflection.  What Thoreau gave me, he gave to so many others, even including my hero, John Muir.

While researching the effects of reading Thoreau, and more specifically, Walden, I came across Smithsonian Magazine’s Walden’s Ripple Effect by Robert D. Richardson.  This article does a great job of pointing out Thoreau’s greatness by describing his philosophy for life:

“Thoreau forged a thought-out way of life, a philosophy that insists that the individual turn not to the state, not to the gods, not to society, or even to history for a guide to life, but to nature and the self. (Richardson, 2004)”

What Walden itself offers readers is a little more specific than Thoreau’s living philosophy.  In Walden, Thoreau juxtaposes his old life and traditional society to not simply getting away from it all, but to the idea of living off the land, for the land, and with some sort of community.  Readers are left with a sense of responsibility to not only themselves and the land, but to future generations.

“It offers readers an ethical view of life that begins in self-rule and ends in public and social commitment to the next generation. (Richardson, 2004)”

Although Walden is not exactly separate from Thoreau, and Thoreau is not exactly separate from Walden, what the book itself does is teach readers to try living with more intent.  Readers are encouraged to try and break away from traditional societal standards of living.  Thoreau is talking to each and every one of us.  He is speaking to the reader, and persuading the reader that there is more out there than how they grew up with their parents, in society, or even in civilization.

“Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans. Explore your own higher latitudes. (Thoreau, 1854)”

My advise to readers is to be aware when reading Walden, that Thoreau often visited his family, entertained guests, and was not that far from civilization.  A cabin in the woods would suffice for self-reflection and getting away from it all.  Do not be the Chris McCandless of the world, My Side of the Mountain is fiction, do not run away into the woods with nothing but your bootstraps.  Be inspired by Thoreau, but think for yourself and find some way that you can make a difference and see the world as an individual without repeating past mistakes.  In other words, be a responsible reader.


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