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Walden x 40

Essays on Thoreau

Robert B. Ray

Publication Year: 2011

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved from his parents' house in Concord, Massachusetts, to a one-room cabin on land owned by his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. After 26 months he transformed his stay in the woods into one of the most famous events in American history. In Walden x 40, adopting Thoreau's own compositional method, Robert B. Ray takes up several questions posed in Walden. Thoreau developed his books from his lectures, and his lectures from his almost-daily journal notations of the world around him, with its fluctuating weather and appointed seasons, both forever familiar and suddenly brand new. Ray derives his 40 brief essays from the details of Walden itself, reading the book in the way that Thoreau proposed to explore his own life—deliberately. Ray demonstrates that however accustomed we have grown to its lessons, Walden continues to be as surprising as the November snowfall that, Thoreau reports, "covered the ground... and surrounded me suddenly with the scenery of winter."

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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pp. ix

I want to thank Daniel Herwitz for his generous, insightful comments on the manuscript of this book. I am also grateful to Jane Behnken at Indiana University Press for her invaluable support and advice...

Bibliographical Note

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pp. xi

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pp. 1-8

In a 1991 survey, American academics named Walden “the single most important work to teach in nineteenth-century literature courses.” Unlike most classics (including runners-up The Scarlet Letter and...

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1. Adventure

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pp. 9-10

Is Walden the record of an adventure? If so, why does Thoreau avoid using that word to describe his twenty-six months in the woods? Although Walden now stands as one of the great adventures in nineteenth-century American...

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2. Ants

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pp. 11-12

In the celebrated, mock-heroic rendering of an ant war, from “Brute Neighbors,” appears the source of Walden’s difficulty, its alternation between inspiration and tedium. For like all virtuosic set pieces, in which rhetorical...

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3. Awake

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pp. 13-19

Walden’s rich mysteriousness often derives from Thoreau’s own ambivalence. “The fact is,” he reported to his journal, “I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot” (J, 5 March 1853). Emerson’s Neoplatonic...

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4. Baskets

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pp. 20-25

The basket that Thoreau could not sell, of course, was his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, whose publication he had been forced to underwrite and which, as one critic observes, was...

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5. Books

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pp. 26-30

For Thoreau, the book that marked “a new era in his life” was Emerson’s Nature, published in the fall of 1836 and checked out of the Harvard library by Thoreau the following spring. He was ready for it: having been examined...

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6. Colors

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pp. 31-32

“Colours spur us to philosophize,” Wittgenstein once observed, but what are to make of Thoreau’s prodigality with them? In “The Ponds,” he begins a description of Walden by casually remarking that “All our Concord...

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7. Death

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pp. 33-35

Walden lives up almost entirely to the purpose Thoreau announces in the epigraph: “I do not intend to write an ode to dejection.” (5) However varied his moods may have been during the book’s nine-year gestation...

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8. Distance

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pp. 36-38

Despite its reputation as a remote sanctuary, Thoreau’s cabin was only a mile and a half from Emerson’s door, less than a mile and three quarters from his own family’s house, and barely six hundred yards from the Fitchburg...

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9. Drummer

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pp. 39-42

Thoreau has always managed to provoke distinguished writers to criticism. Exasperated by Thoreau’s preachy austerity, Hawthorne complained that “one feels ashamed to have any money, or a house to live in, or so much...

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10. Experiment

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pp. 43-48

Thoreau’s preferred term for his twenty-six months at the pond is experiment, a word that appears throughout Walden. How would Walden’s meaning change if he had described his activities...

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11. Fashion

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pp. 49-52

“Economy”’s review of life’s necessities—food, clothing, shelter— quickly becomes Thoreau’s occasion for dismissing fashion: “As for Clothing . . . , we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men...

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12. Flute

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pp. 53-54

Although Thoreau’s intermittent moralizing could make him denounce music as “intoxicating,” grouping it with wine, liquor, coffee, and tea (“Ah, how low I feel when I am tempted by them! [147]), he, like his father...

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13. Full of Hope

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pp. 55-57

In “Spring,” Walden’s penultimate chapter, Thoreau describes his sudden awareness that winter was finally over: The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic...

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14. Genius

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pp. 58-60

Although Emerson famously said of Thoreau that “his biography is in his verses,” he described those verses as “rude and defective,” concluding that Thoreau’s “genius was better than his talent.” Without citing Emerson...

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15. Good and Evil

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pp. 61-62

If Thoreau is, in many ways, as radical a thinker as Nietzsche, why do we need comparisons of this sort to remind us? How can we account for the different effect produced by their writings? Nietzsche’s notoriety derives...

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16. Higher Laws

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pp. 63-65

“Higher Laws,” a late addition to Walden, often presents Thoreau in his least modern, least sympathetic light. After the famous opening confession of his desire “to seize and devour [a woodchuck] raw,” accompanied by the appropriate...

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17. Idleness

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pp. 66-74

Walden offers itself as a practical book, but anyone hoping to find a set of immediately operable instructions will be confronted by its contradictory advice. On the one hand, the book’s first two chapters and its...

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18. 4 July 1845

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pp. 75-78

At least since Stanley Cavell’s influential The Senses of Walden (1972), we have assumed that Thoreau’s choice to move to the woods on the Fourth of July was no “accident.” Calling his venture an...

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19. Kittlybenders

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pp. 79-83

In the third Norton critical edition of Walden, William Rossi’s footnote defines kittlybenders as “a game in which children attempt to run or skate on thin ice without breaking it” (222), but the word would probably...

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20. Leaving Walden

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pp. 84-87

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there”—what could that sentence mean? In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau had already spelled out his reason for going to the pond: “I went to the woods...

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21. Molting

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pp. 88-90

The molting process Thoreau describes strikingly resembles his own Walden experiment: he retires to the pond to protect himself from public scrutiny of his radical social opinions and vocational diffidence. The image...

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22. Name

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pp. 91-94

Although Walden has always been attributed to Henry David Thoreau, its author was actually christened David Henry Thoreau. At some point after college, Thoreau simply reversed the order of his first two...

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23. Numbers

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pp. 95

2,000: population of Concord during Thoreau’s stay at the pond...

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24. Obscurity

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pp. 96-99

“I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity” (218), Thoreau concludes, in a phrase so off-handed, so modest, so good natured that it conceals, in a manner absolutely characteristic of his writing, a startling...

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25. Opportunity

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pp. 100-103

Walden tells the story of a triumph: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment,” Thoreau declares in his “Conclusion,” “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which...

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26. Philosopher

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pp. 104-107

Following his fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud, Wittgenstein conceived of philosophy as a kind of therapy, one that would bring relief from certain torments brought on by language’s misuse. (Because language enables...

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27. Proving

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pp. 108-112

Perhaps because Walden is such an obviously ambitious book with a determinedly elevated tone, Thoreau quickly acquired a reputation as a ponderous, humorless writer. After accusing Thoreau of “gutting” his works...

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28. Question

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pp. 113-117

This lovely, mysterious passage, both as hushed and as brazen as a cold-bright winter day, suggests an alternative to the standard image of Thoreau the spiritual explorer who, after the Elysian Fields of Walden...

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29. Readers

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pp. 118-120

Because Walden’s growing popularity has often derived from Thoreau’s advocacy of certain issues, especially civil disobedience and environmentalism, we have tended to avoid a central problem: what is Thoreau’s...

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30. Rents

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pp. 121-122

This passage appears in “Sounds,” a chapter that begins by unfavorably comparing “written languages” to “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor” (78). For this seemingly unimaginable...

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31. Ruins

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pp. 123-124

In “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Thoreau observes, “I am not aware that any man has ever built on the spot which I occupy,” a statement that provokes a creed...

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32. Spider

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pp. 125-128

Walden’s “Conclusion” returns to the tone of exhortation with which Thoreau had begun his book seventeen chapters earlier. But while the opening salvos of “Economy” and “Where I Lived and What I Lived...

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33. Stripped

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pp. 129-131

Walden’s more didactic sections, especially its first two chapters, repeatedly erase the distinction between practical issues and philosophy. This move, of course, lies at the heart of Thoreau’s project, announced early...

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34. Tracks and Paths

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pp. 132-135

Thoreau’s attention to the Fitchburg train, roaring past five times a day barely six hundred yards from his cabin, moves characteristically from sounds—“the rattle of railroad cars,” “the whistle of the locomotive,” the earth-shaking...

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35. Unexplorable

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pp. 136-140

This stirring passage, an inspiration for the twentieth century’s deep ecology movement, suggests Thoreau’s ambivalence toward science. Although he corresponded regularly with Harvard zoologist Louis...

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36. Vocation

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pp. 141-143

At various stages in his life, Thoreau earned his living as a schoolteacher, lecturer, handyman (for Emerson), factory manager (for his family’s pencil business), industrial designer (of the family pencils), tutor, and...

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37. Without Bounds

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pp. 144-148

This mysterious remark, appearing in Walden’s great “Conclusion,” evokes Thoreau’s regular employment as the village surveyor. His book seems designed to enable our own staking out of things, coming complete...

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38. X Marks Walden's Depth

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pp. 149-151

During the winter of 1846, Thoreau mapped Walden Pond, partly to disprove the local myth of its “bottomlessness.” Lying on the ice and taking soundings with a small stone and cod line, Thoreau produced surprisingly accurate measurements...

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39. Years

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pp. 152-155

Although Thoreau offers Walden as a straightforward account of his twenty-six-month sojourn in the woods from 4 July 1845 until 6 September 1847, the book was, in fact, as Robert Sattelmeyer observes, “the product...

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40. Zanzibar

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pp. 156-157

Thoreau’s concept of worth is simultaneously intriguing and inconsistent. Although he rejects meaningless tasks like counting the cats in Zanzibar, he spent his own time carefully cataloguing every apple...


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pp. 159-177

Annotated Bibliography

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pp. 179-181


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pp. 183-189

Author Bio

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pp. 190

E-ISBN-13: 9780253005519
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253356864

Page Count: 204
Publication Year: 2011

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Subject Headings

  • Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862. Walden.
  • Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862 -- Homes and haunts -- Massachusetts -- Walden Woods.
  • Walden Woods (Mass.).
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