Henry David Thoreau
Why Walden and Mount Greylock
It is challenging to think of any book that is more closely associated with the spirit of a state than Walden is to Massachusetts. Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts were all part of one of the greatest accumulation of literary and philosophical ideas in one place at the same time in history. I could have chosen books by any of these authors, but Thoreau’s two year experiment of living alone on Walden pond to me most connects with the spirit of the journey that I am on with 52 Peaks. I’m embarrassed to say that I have yet to finish reading Walden end to end, but I am inspired to do it this year. I recently revisited Walden Pond and the site where Thoreau wrote both Walden and Civil Disobedience. On my second visit to this magical place I was even more moved by connection we all have to nature and the ideas that Thoreau and Emerson were teaching. There is also a personal connection between Mount Greylock and Thoreau. Thoreau summited and spent a night in July 1844. His account of this event in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers described his approach up what is today the Bellows Pipe Trail. Scholars contend that this Greylock experience transformed him, affirming his ability to do these excursions on his own, following his brother John’s death; and served as a prelude to his experiment of rugged individualism at Walden Pond the following year in 1845.
I would also recommend any of the writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a classic and has been an inspiration for young girls for over a century and a half. Nathanial Hawthorne wrote the classics A Scarlett Letter and The House of Seven Gables. It is also said that the shape of Mount Greylock is what inspired Herman Melville to write perhaps the greatest allegorical novel of all name, Moby Dick.
More About Walden
Walden (first published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods) is a book by noted transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The text is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and (to some degree) manual for self-reliance.
First published in 1854, Walden details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau used this time to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The experience later inspired Walden, in which Thoreau compresses the time into a single calendar year and uses passages of four seasons to symbolize human development.
By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection. Simple living and self-sufficiency were Thoreau’s other goals, and the whole project was inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, a central theme of the American Romantic Period.
Walden emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the “desperate” existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. The book is not a traditional autobiography, but combines autobiography with a social critique of contemporary Western culture’s consumerist and materialist attitudes and its distance from and destruction of nature. That the book is not simply a criticism of society, but also an attempt to engage creatively with the better aspects of contemporary culture, is suggested both by Thoreau’s proximity to Concord society and by his admiration for classical literature. There are signs of ambiguity, or an attempt to see an alternative side of something common.
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern United States. A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals were capable of generating completely original insights with as little attention and deference to past masters as possible.
Transcendentalism emerged from English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, the skepticism of Hume, and the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and of German Idealism. It was also influenced by Indian religions, especially the Upanishads.