Walden, Thoreau's most famous writing articulating the essence of Transcendentalism, was published in 1854. The book, often read in grades 11-12, reflects Thoreau's attempt to 'live life simply.' A popular quote from its second chapter:
Astute teachers and students should note, however, that the quotation cuts short the paragraph, and in doing so, clips out a key tenet and distinction of transcendentalism itself. The continuation of Thoreau's meditation in that particular paragraph continues into the religious realm and concludes,
Modern students should keep in mind that though freedom of religion was a founding principal of the United States, religion was pervasive and much more deeply intertwined with the culture than it is today. The point being that Transcendentalism was not simply a philosophical movement but a philosophical and religious movement. I think it is common to bump up against transcendentalism and conclude that the movement was promoting man of over God or man over religion but I think it is more correct to understand it as a movement that was trying to create a better way to live. The final sentence of that paragraph (the second quote) reflects back into the entire paragraph and inflects the early statements with more meaning.
There is another popular misconception to dispatch immediately. Thoreau was not buried deep in the wilderness, reflecting in solitude, capturing varmints, and skinning them with his teeth in order to survive. His cabin was not far from the edge of town, his nearest neighbor was about a mile away, and he was only a couple miles removed (that's ~3KM for you European readers) from his family's house. He also had frequent guests and visitors.
Thoreau stayed at Walden for two years, two months, and two days (a fun personal fact for me because I once worked for a congressman for one year, one month, one week, and one day; which was a journey into the wilderness in its own right). However the book is written to express that visit over a one year rather than two year period and Thoreau placed careful emphasis on the division of the four seasons.
Visit our Transcendentalism Study Guide for other works and background on the genre that was distinctly American.
Return to the Henry David Thoreau library.