The Primary Message of Walden

By "Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the Group"  The pseudonym is a reference to the original drummer of the Mothers of Invention, who "was indeed a different drummer." 

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In his "Conclusion" chapter of Walden, Thoreau says, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings." That is what I think freedom really is. He concludes the paragraph: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." 

This is the main message of the book: if you advance in the direction of how you imagine your life, not how convention dictates that it should be, then you will find success on a scale undreamed through reasonable expectations. When you are beginning your reading and study on Walden for your school English course, this is an important theme that you may consider exploring for your term paper or class exposition. It's a theme that is extended throughout the book, and one that will resonate powerfully with your teacher and your classmates. 

In that paragraph that I quoted above, I left out this sentence: "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness." This is not an aside. It is essential to his theme, but don't let it distract from the main theme, let it expand and realize it. 

Consider the first chapter, "Economy". In it, Thoreau tells how he buys and dismantles a squalid Irishman's shanty, straightens the boards and nails, transports them to another site, and rebuilds it as a noble abode to act as the center of his "experiment." This is a powerful, elegant metaphor. 

In the next chapter, he explains why he went into the woods: "...to suck the marrow out of life," etc., and that is important to your task. I will leave it to your gifts of the mind to determine how to fit it into the theme I've identified. 

Look at the "Baker Farm" chapter, the story of his meeting with the Irish laborer. What does Thoreau say to him, and what is his reaction? What is his wife's reaction? What does Thoreau do after the rainstorm? 

Go through the book looking for things like this, such as his story of the French Canadian woodchopper, and his story of the Indian who made baskets and then was indignant when someone wouldn't buy them, and the quip about the man who asked about his lost dog. 

Your quickness of mind and virility of spirit will be tested on your ability to ferret out these important passages and assign meaning to them that advances your exposition of the theme you pursue. It's what you have to do, and you will accomplish greatness through it. 

Also, what you will do is reach the marrow of Thoreau's great thought in Walden, and that accomplishment will establish you as among the best of the best, not in a hierarchical sense, but in a sense of brotherhood with serious and substantial persons. For Thoreau is not a lightweight, and to get his bag is to become a heavyweight yourself. 


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