The Walden Express
If you really don't want to read the whole book...
The Walden Express is an abbreviated tour of Thoreau's Walden. It does not make every stop, but you should be able to reach some understanding of why it's an important part of American literature. Any sampling of Walden is in some way inadequate, but it's better to read some Walden than none, and far better to read a few chapters deliberately than to rush through them all.

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About our author: Many of us have known friends who were not perfect, and whose imperfections have somehow made them better friends. Henry has been this sort of friend for a great many people. Those who never get beyond "Who does this guy think he is?" miss just about everything. You may disagree with him, and you may not always understand him, but this is probably true on some level for virtually all Walden readers, and you should not let it keep you from enjoying the book. 

In 1954, E. B. White wrote, "Many think it a sermon; many set it down as an attempt to rearrange society; some think it an excuse for nature-loving; some find it a rather irritating collection of inspirational puffballs by an eccentric show-off. I think it none of these. It still seems to me the best youth's companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one's valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of powerful adoration, it contains religious feeling without religious images, and it steadfastly refuses to record bad news." 

This is not an easy book, especially at the beginning. Usually, it's best not to spend too much time on individual sentences, pondering the meaning of each phrase. Walden is the classic "more than the sum of its parts," and it's easier to pick up the overall meaning if you take care not to get caught in the details — just keep reading. But not too fast! Try to "listen" to the words, to catch the tone, the color, the sound. Henry Thoreau loved words and writing and ideas. He put a lot of his life into developing his ideas and writing them down, and much of the time he never expected to get a lot back, except for the joy of his work. If you listen carefully, the joy is still there. 

There are many ways of looking at Walden; one is to see it as having three functional parts. In part one, mostly in the first chapter, Thoreau defines what he sees as the major problem of his time: how work and the acquisition of material goods can consume your life. Henry did not want to live out his life, then "when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Part two, especially in the first, second, and seventh chapters, describes his own experiment in living a simple life. While careful not to recommend his own specific lifestyle, Henry does make a genuine effort to test his ideas and follow his own advice. Part three is his (and our) reward for having focused on what is really important. In Henry's case it is mostly Nature, and the capital "N" reflects his belief that the study of the natural world is a spiritual pursuit. Nina Baym writes: 

    Thoreau was ... anxious to define man's proper relationship to a Power assumed to have created the universe and still actively sustaining it. ... he believed that this Power could be directly known by man through intuitions arising from his own internal divinity. These intuitions are supported by the evidences of nature around him, which, as it was created by the Mind he shares, can be perceived and understood by him.
The later chapters of Walden describe a spiritual communion with the natural world that would eventually make Thoreau one of the founders of our modern appreciation of nature and ecology. There is also a seasonal structure to Walden, from Henry's arrival at the pond in March to the following spring; this symbolism suggests a spiritual rebirth. And as Ken Kifer pointed out, "quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau's non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand." The three parts described above are not defined sections within the book, and they frequently overlap, but the overall development of ideas does follow the same general sequence. 

Any "hermit in the wilderness" interpretation of this book is misleading. Henry has been compared to a kid camping in his mom's back yard — he could always go home for a good meal when he felt like it, and he never claimed otherwise. This is not a book about Henry Thoreau, nor is it about self-sufficiency. Walden describes an experiment in living well; it is about personal discovery by a man who took the time to look carefully at the world he lived in, and who was fascinated and excited by what he found. 

There are tools that can help when Henry gets obscure. Small numbers in parenthesis within the text are links to annotations for many of Thoreau's references, some of which have become more obscure since Henry's time. If you bookmark the inquiry page for the G & C. Merriam Co. 1913 edition of Webster's Dictionary, it can be easier to look up the more obscure words. 

What follows is an abbreviated Table of Contents for Walden; six of the eighteen chapters are represented. The Walden Express bypasses two portions of the first chapter, but the remaining chapters listed below are complete; no text has been edited. If you ask any ten Thoreauvians for the six best Walden chapters, you will almost certainly get ten different lists, and this one should not be considered definitive. To follow the order below, use the "back" button to return to this page before connecting to the next chapter in the "express" sequence. If you are really pressed for time, try to read at least part of each chapter... 

  • Chapter 1.  Economy - Part A - "No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."
  • Chapter 1.  Economy - Part C - "I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber."
  • Chapter 1.  Economy - Part D - "Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners?"
  • Chapter 2.  Where I Lived, & What I Lived for - "Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light."
  • Chapter 5.  Solitude - "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water."
  • Chapter 7.  The Bean-Field - "Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass — this was my daily work."
  • Chapter 13.  House-Warming - "At length the winter set in good earnest, just as I had finished plastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had permission to do so till then. Night after night the geese came lumbering in the dark with a clangor and a whistling of wings, even after the ground was covered with snow, some to alight in Walden, and some flying low over the woods toward Fair Haven, bound for Mexico."
  • Chapter 17.  Spring - "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in. ... Fogs and rains and warmer suns are gradually melting the snow; the days have grown sensibly longer; and I see how I shall get through the winter without adding to my wood-pile, for large fires are no longer necessary."
In a 1985 introduction to Walden, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "... so superb a stylist is Thoreau we always have the sense as we read of a mind flying brilliantly before us, throwing off sparks, dazzling and iridescent and seemingly effortless as a butterfly in flight." 

"Thoreau understood himself as physical part of that field of dirt that gave birth to beans, cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, pigweed, sorrel, piper-grass and many other forms of life. The pure and crystalline Walden Pond was a part of his soul." - George Gow

"Thoreau's quiet, one-man revolution ... has become a symbol of the willed integrity of human beings, their inner freedom, and their ability to build their own lives." - The Columbia Encyclopedia

Ask Jimmy - from a Walden chat board: collected student questions & answers
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