When Walden was published during the nineteenth century, the reactions of people were exceedingly different than they are of modern society. These reactions were towards every aspect of Thoreau and altered with every change in time. The foremost reactions toward Henry David Thoreau occurred when he went to live on his own at Walden Pond. As strange as it may seem, some critics think that Thoreau’s choice to live at Walden Pond was simply because he was a hermit. However, his sheltered life was the result of his brother’s death, which promoted Henry to go to Walden Pond (Life 1). Henry explains in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Life 1). As anyone may obviously see, Thoreau did not choose a life on the pond simply because he was a hermit. He left his nearby town of Concord for the life at the pond on July 4, 1845, which was Independence Day (Life 1). By leaving for Walden on July 4th Independence Day, Henry would have spent his first full day at Walden Pond on the anniversary of his brother’s birthday (Life 1).
Although many believe Henry was a recluse, Henry was no stranger to society while he lived at the pond (Life 1). As he himself said, “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life; I mean that I had some” (Thoreau 119). These visitors Henry had at the pond included both his family and his friends, who he had, frequent dinners with (Life 1).
The reactions of the people during Thoreau’s time were very diverse, some were positive while others were negative. John Burroughs was one of the few people who wrote frequently on Thoreau. He points out quite rightly that Thoreau was more interested in natural philosophy than natural science (Harding 87). In later years he forgot that and devoted most of his criticism to pointing out Thoreau’s many errors in scientific identification of species, and thus lost the broader concept of Thoreau’s work (Hendrick 87). Meanwhile, the reactions of Thoreau’s neighbors weren’t all that bad. In Thoreau’s Journal, Thoreau states, “How I love the simple reserved countrymen my neighbors who mind their own business and let me alone who never waylaid nor shot at me to my knowledge when I crossed their fields though each one has a gun in his house” (Harding 47). It is written that the people who lived around Thoreau thought of him “as stoical and indifferent and unsympathetic as a veritable Indian; and how he hunted without trap or gun, and fished without hook or snare” (Hendrick 89). A young girl once complained that having taken her to the top of a mountain, he fixed his earnest gaze on a distant point in the landscape and remarked, “How fare is it in a bee-line to that spot (Hendrick 119).
In 1862, when Thoreau died, it would have been easy to predict that he and his works would soon be forgotten (Hendrick 154). After his death various friends, including both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, borrowed the manuscript volumes of the journal from Thoreau’s sister Sophia to read for their own personal pleasure (Torrey vi). Wentworth Higginson, inspired by such a reading, made an effort to have the journal published, but he ran into the determined opposition of Sophia Thoreau who thought it too personal to be opened to the gaze of the general public (Torrey vi). When Higginson attempted to enlist the aid of Judge Hoar, Concord’s leading citizen, in persuading her otherwise, he met with the withering reply, “why should anyone care to have Thoreau’s journal put into print” (Torrey vi)? Still unmined is a wealth of material on political and social attitudes of the time. The journal is a veritable gold mine with its ore still virtually untouched (Torrey vii). It is now seen that the impression Thoreau made on his friends was the right one; he was not well appreciated by the world outside, simply because he was not well known (Hendrick 154). All that was generally known of himand it was not muchseemed to show him to be a person of peculiar and impracticable ideas, and of unfriendly if not actually morose disposition (Hendrick 154).
It is said that Thoreau regarded literature as his profession, but also that of Thoreau himself, who declared, in unmistakable terms: “My work is writing.” Yet it must be remembered that in his lifetime he published only two books, the Week and Walden; that the creative impulse in him was neither vehement nor persistent, most of his journal being a bare record of facts; and that he wanted both the spur of fame and the desire to serve men, at least as these aims are usually conceived by writers. “If writing was his work, it was his work in much the same sense in which surveying and pencil-making were his work: he was not a surveyor or manufacturer of pencils, nor was he a man of letters” (Hendrick 123).
There was great success in the 1930’s for the writings of Thoreau. This success came mainly as a result of the great depression. The most severe and widespread of all-economic depressions occurred in the 1930s. The Great Depression affected the U.S. first but quickly spread to Western Europe. The American economy, however, suffered the most. From 1933 to 1937 the U.S. began to recover from the depression, but the economy declined again from 1937 to 1938, before regaining its normal level. This decline was called a recession, a term that is now used in preference to liquidation. Real economic recovery was not evident until early 1941. This established him in the front rank of American Authors. Thoreau was one of he rare authors that a poor man could read without being insulted (Hendrick 2).
In the 1960’s, there were days of accelerated living, and the sheer bulk of Thoreau’s journal may frighten some of the faint-hearted (Torrey vii). It did not happen often, but the connoisseur will read through in proper sequence the whole two million words of the single journal (Torrey vii). To its readers, the journal is thought of as a work of art (Torrey vii). No one has yet made an adequate study of the journal as a sourcebook of mid-nineteenth century American word usage or as a compendium of folklore and regional proverbs (Torrey vii). Henry Seidel Canby once aptly described it as “one of the most complete records extant of the inner life of an individual (Torrey vi).
It wasn’t until the 1980’s until Henry David Thoreau became a well-known author. Many Criticized Walden, One of Thoreau’s greatest works. Thoreau in Walden, not only investigates many such old saws to see how much truth there is in them, but gives them an ironic twist for his own purposes (Paul 79). Some say that the great fault in his writing, and indeed the real photos of his life, is that he was all too aware of what other men would think of him. Had he not been so, he could never have written Walden (Hendrick 191). It is refreshing to find in these books the sentiments of one man whose aim manifestly is to live, and not to waste his time upon the externals of living (Hendrick 9). Walden, A later critic pronounces this very volume to be “the only book yet written in America, to my thinking, that bears an annual perusal” (Hendrick 84).
Thoreau believed that reading and thinking should not be locked away within the mind only. Thoreau said of what he thought a truly good book: “I must lay it down and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading I must finish by acting” (Torrey 213). Thoreau also explained that when ideas and circumstances seemed unrealistic we must “put the foundations of reflective action and community-building under them” (Krutch 23).
It was not only Thoreau’s book that got the criticism, it was also Thoreau himself who got criticized too. It was impossible for Thoreau to take the means of life seriously at all; he was literally “out from under” society by virtue of a continence like that of a lone goldfish in a glass of ice water (Hendrick 119). He was unsinkable as a cork, thanks to the universal thinker’s genius with which his nimblehanded forebears had endowed him (Hendrick 119). Contrary to the usual belief from Emerson and Lowell on, that Thoreau was too intractable, “not enough in touch with his fellow man.” Stevenson called him a “skulker,” Lowell said that his whole life was a search for the doctor (Hendrick 121).
Around a decade ago, it was thought that we all need a Walden of sorts, weather it’s two blocks or two miles away. It doesn’t need to be a north woods wilderness, desert solitude, or an island paradise. A magazine article states that if you, too, have a secluded place you call your own, go to it. Visit it. Revere it. If not, search one out. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll meet at Walden. Emerson said that “if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” and it’s not that the stars are apparent exactly in this electronic world, but if a man would be alone in the go-go 90s, the local brain saloon may be as close to Walden Pond as he’s going to get (Ramo 75).
Americans tended to be more Cromwellian, preferring the puritanical look. “Beware of all enterprises requiring new clothes,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, who was immensely proud of the patches that covered his own outfits (Profit 157). Thoreau felt that people should get away from the material world as well. He loved nature and everything it had to offer him. We do not ever think about it in our daily lives. People do not really take the time to look at their lives to realize what they want to accomplish in them. “Patches are recurring theme in American fashion,” says Richard Martin, curator of the costume institute at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, “We don’t want to seem dressy or ostentatious” (Profit 157).
The reactions of modern society towards Henry David Thoreau are without the usual criticism. Groups as diverse as anarchists and limnologists have claimed him (Hendrick 2). His genius itself is arrow-like, and typical of the wild weapon he so loved, –hard, flinty, fine-grained, penetrating, winged, a flying shaft, bringing down its game with marvelous sureness (Hendrick 89). Some have praised the originality and profound sympathy with which he views natural objects (Hendrick 10). Thoreau looked at life in a totally different perspective than anyone else. He believed in appreciating nature and all that it has to offer. He also felt that there was more to living than just being alive. Thoreau also defined success different from the rest of society as well. He did not see wealth and power as success. Thoreau felt that modern society held the wrong views when it came to the way we perceive life, value success, and appreciate nature. He felt that people in modern society should just stop and take a look at their lives. We are merely living. He wanted people to understand that there is more to being alive than just living.
Furthermore, throughout time the thoughts of people towards Henry David Thoreau and his works greatly differed. First it was the nature lovers who discovered him. They dismissed his philosophy as worthless, but delighted in his description of the great outdoors. Perfectly self-coherent as he was and, unlike most writers, the embodiment of all his ideas, he marks better perhaps than any other figure in our social history the distance we have traveled in our progress from the unity of the one to the unity of the many. Thoreau could never have found a measure for his prose, like Hemmingway’s and Faulkner’s, that most characteristically defines the American in literature (Harding 191). We have had greater or at least more comprehensive writers, but none who with such deep intuition grasped in their solitariness the secret of the wilderness, of the legacy occupied Western lands, the very tone of man’s battle in America against empty space (Harding 191). Emerson had given the call. It was Thoreau who went out and tried it: who wrote as if a sentence were not even true unless you herd it first ring against the ground (Harding 191).
Thoreau looked at life in a totally different perspective than anyone else in society. He wanted to be able to say that he had lived, not just say that he was alive. He felt that he got more out of his life than any other ever could. He tried to experience absolutely all that he could. Thoreau lived his life to the best of his potential. Many people may not agree with everything that he did, but in the end he felt he had lived a fulfilled life.