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  • Trails to Walden Pond: Pragmatic Aesthetics and Relational Aesthetics Approach the Examined Life
  • Anna Campbell and James Campbell


This paper explores two trails into Henry David Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond and the book Walden, considering his life both as an experiment in living and as a text that aspires to be a work of art. The first trail is based upon the pragmatic aesthetics of John Dewey, and it considers Thoreau’s presentation of the pursuit of the good life. The second is based upon relational aesthetics, and it emphasizes how creating a physical site of encounter for Thoreau, his visitors, and later his readers, was key to reaching and sharing transcendent moments and fresh understandings of living well. Both approaches rely on the potential for aesthetic engagement beyond traditional cultural institutions such as museums, concert halls, or universities. Central to both of these approaches is the notion of experience. For pragmatic aesthetics, the goal of a fulfilling life requires the transformation of experience by such means as society can muster to place individual happiness at the center of our shared practices. Relational aesthetics describes a method by which visual artists engage audiences directly through creating experiential contexts in which aspects of ordinary life are reframed to emphasize social relationships and the examined life.1 While these two trails into Thoreau’s work represent different traditions and have different emphases, they offer complementary means for understanding why and how he lived at Walden, and the perspectives on living with intention that he prepared for us in Walden. [End Page 1]

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Figure 1.

Title page to the original edition of Walden, published in 1853 by Ticknor and Fields (the book is in the public domain).

Pragmatic Aesthetics

In a pragmatic reading of Walden, Thoreau presents himself as troubled by the lives of his fellows in Concord and beyond. Farmers—the majority of the population—are overworked and still buried in debt; factory workers find themselves reduced to machines. Both groups are engaged in the crazed search for a prize that will prove to be hollow; both groups are engaged in complex (and futile) schemes of achieving wealth that will ultimately destroy their lives. This is the sense in which he writes in the chapter “Economy”: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”2 Similarly today, we recognize dumbly that we are unhappy, and we attempt to overcome our quiet desperation with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll; stuff and travel; fame and the respect of others; a better job and an earlier retirement. We think that, with a bit more of this, or a bit more of that, we finally will be happy. [End Page 2] We pursue this path because we believe, as did Thoreau’s contemporaries, that we are locked into this life, that we have no real choice. Too often, we see our students, our colleagues, and ourselves following this madness almost without questioning because we also think that this is how “the system” works.

As Thoreau understands the problem, the real nature of our troubles is, in normal parlance, that our priorities are out of order. We have forgotten that we work to live and not vice versa; we have forgotten that we need only necessities—in fact, we no longer even know the difference between necessities and superfluities. We feel ourselves on some unavoidable quest, and only after we have accumulated enough to be happy, can we take seriously the true goal of life and seek fulfillment. Sadly, we find too late that, in the pursuit of these false goals, we have postponed, and ultimately forgotten, what life is about. In the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau suggests that what we need to do is to wake up, to begin to live lives not of “physical labor” or even of “effective intellectual exertion.” We need to live “poetic or divine” lives. We need to prioritize, and we need to simplify, “to front only the essential facts of life,” to cut through “the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance” until we reach “reality...


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pp. 1-10
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