Thoreau, Walden

I recently read Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. This is mostly a note of things I found interesting in the book. Much has been written about Thoreau in general and the book in particular, but I tried briefly to get into addressing some of it and found it would take me until the new year. I will use the phrase “the narrator” as I have seen arguments that Thoreau did not intend the narrator to be literally himself as we would expect in 20th century non-fiction.

So then: this was interesting. The narrator would be described, in today’s terms, as a minimalist, an environmentalist, a “simple living” advocate, an introvert, an early social/economic equalist, a conservative (in the original, literal meaning of the word), a late adopter, and a puritan.

I liked the money bits; I found the simplicity parts to be impressively modern (or maybe modern minimalism discourse just all cribs Thoreau); I found his idolization of Greek and Roman writers elitist but somewhat amusing. I thought his unacknowledged privilege detracted from his ideas, and I found the advocacy for people to just be good and do what’s right to be unhelpful.


The narrator values simplicity in all things. His stated motivation is to simplify to find the core, the essence of life.

He advocates finding the grossest necessaries of life by looking at old trader records to see what was bought, stored, and eaten, reckoning that our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors. He describes the necessaries of Massachusetts climate as food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, and advocates covering that, and no more: when [one] has obtained those things which are necessary to life … his vacation from humbler toil [has] commenced.

He places a day-labourer above a farmer, for the labourer has no long-term obligations nor concerns; the farmer, meanwhile, is tied to his farm, frequently a mortgaged one, and the narrator thinks that farms are more easily acquired than got rid of.

He speaks against keeping useless furniture and stuff, claiming that having more stuff is not worth the hassle involved in cleaning, housekeeping, and moving. He lists his own furniture, which consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, and 3 chairs; and his implements: a looking glass, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, 2 knives, 2 forks, 3 plates, a cup, a spoon, two jugs, and a lamp. The advocacy, and the list, would not feel out of place in a modern minimalist’s blog post.

He mocks his contemporaries’ obsession with news, and dismisses news as fundamentally unimportant. While he takes it to an extreme (if you’ve read about one murder, you’ve read about them all), I think it is a valid point: it is not clear to me I’m better off for knowing everything happening in the first world, and I have spent way too much time reading “news” due to my compulsive personality.

He supports vegetarianism as essentially minimalism: meat and fish are not worth the hassle of obtaining (labour to earn money to eat meat to have energy for labour), preparing, and cleaning; they are not appreciably better than vegetables.

He advocates what would today be called an open-plan house, complete with a cathedral ceiling. His reasoning is less hassle and less walking; he says everything in the said house should have its place — its peg — and not more.

The drive to simplicity frequently crosses over into amusing Puritanism (except a kind of slacker Puritanism). The narrator calls luxuries hindrances to the elevation of mankind; he advocates plain food, including unleavened bread, as leaven is too much of a hassle. He claims to not consume tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat and points out that he had to work less because of this. He praises chastity in eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep.

Late adopter

The narrator is what we’d today call a late adopter of technology. There is the famous sentence about a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas (but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate). Predictably, he makes no particular note of the details of his japanned lamp and oil he buys for it, and whatever technology is involved in its manufacture and fuel is natural enough to him. On subject of railways, he says a ticket to ride 30 miles (50 km) costs 90 cents — almost a day’s wages — but he could instead spend the day walking and get to the destination just as well. The issue with this line of argument is that technology frequently improves. Currently a German daily minimum wage buys a ticket from Berlin to Frankfurt, a 500 km distance, tough to walk in a day. That being said, there are obvious advantages to being a late adopter — others beta-test the technology for you — I feel similarly about many new gadgets today, but if improved they will clearly make things simpler.

Intellectual elitism

There is a whole chapter devoted to the narrator’s elitism. The narrator fairly raises the point that all issues we are facing now have already been faced and written about; but then goes on to outright idolize Greek and Roman writers and philosophers: For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?, the lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients. He says that they are only worth reading and studying in the original, not translated, and says that good, worthy reading is when we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours. He dismisses spoken language and favours written, which he claims signifies maturity and experience.


People have had mixed reactions to the money discussions in the book; lots find the numbers annoying, some reckon it’s satire. I actually rather liked it, found it an interesting insight into relative costs of things in mid-19th century New England, and was able to put his expenditures into context.

And so:

  • The narrator estimates an average house in the village at $800, and saving up to buy it in cash will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life, even if he is not encumbered with a family. He thinks that too much, but the balance would make most of today’s day-labourers and minimum-wage earners jealous. A rough calculation tells us that he expects a day-labourer to save around 15% to 23% of his wages. Saving 23% of Ontario minimum wage at 40 hours per week adds up to $80,730 in 15 years, which will buy a humble house indeed.
  • Disapproving of the costs of contemporary houses, he built himself a cabin 10′ wide by 15′ long by 8′ tall (3 m by 5 m by 2.4 m), with two windows and a brick fireplace; the materials cost $28.12, this didn’t include labour nor timber, stones and sand claimed by squatter’s right; of course, this didn’t include the land either.
  • He reckons the building’s cost is cheaper than a year’s rent (no word on the land rent), and points out that this is cheaper than rent of a student room at Cambridge College which costs $30 per year (though he does point out that said room is bigger than his house).

The narrator tries his hand at farming, and so:

  • He plants 2.5 acres (approx 10,000 sq m, or 100 m x 100 m) of light and sandy soil, valued at $8.08 an acre, so ~$20.20 total, or about 2.5% of cost of average house in town.
  • He says that the crop was more than he personally needed, though as noted elsewhere he endeavoured to eat like a Spartan; consequently he made $23.44 revenue and $8.71 profit on $14.72 capital (for implements, seed, work, etc.). This would have paid off the farmland, if purchased, in three seasons.

He is insistent he does not want to be a farmer, and his other money figures are:

  • $8.74 spent on food and ~$8 on clothing, etc. in 8 months (per year this is $13.11 for food and $12.60 for clothing).
  • Those costs exceeded the farm profit, so in addition he earned $13.34 in the year working occasionally as a day-labourer.
  • He quotes very basic food as costing $0.27 a week per person, which the calculator will say is $14 a year, about 3 weeks of day-labour with weekends, or about the cost of 7000 sq m (100 m x 70 m) of weak farmland.
  • A squatter’s house vacated after a year, and very basic food, would then cost around $42 a year, or around two months’ day-labour (the narrator’s claim is working about six weeks in a year); perhaps some savings can be found by bringing along the more expensive parts of the house once the landlord expresses his desire to see the squatter away (but at cost of flexibility and simplicity). The practicality appears to hinge on availability of suitable land near work opportunities.


The book contains a fair amount of unstated privilege, and little to suggest the narrator or author were aware of it. The flexibility of day-labourer brings with it uncertainty — in old age, in sickness, in times of low demand for day-labour. To not care about this uncertainty is either extremely stoic or knowing you have rich friends to fall back on.

With the passage of time, it might be a little difficult to put the author’s recommendations into action. His house was “about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord” — this is 2.4 km, or about 30 minutes’ walk, from a village with a bank, a post office, a bar, and a railway station with service to Boston — on his friend’s land, which he got to use for two years in exchange for cutting down some trees. Such a location, or such a friend, would not be easy to find today.

The narrator professes that favourite of liberals and libertarians, self-determination by self-expectation: 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 is also fairly liberal (his term) in his approach to laws, which he believes will accommodate him, as he is a reasonable man. Some can only dream of such a confidence.

Smaller points

I observed that the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank — substituting the post-office with new ways of communicating with people, this is likely still true.

The narrator ends up an early American advocate of wealth equality: I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

The narrator generally kind of disapproves of philanthropy, reckoning — as far as I can tell — that it would be better to work improve the world in general, or lesser your bad impact on the world. He calls philanthropy selfish, apparently believing most philanthropists are just looking for personal glory or penance. He wants people to just be good, without much concern about the definition of good.

It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood even in this age and in this new country, a value more permanent and universal than that of gold. … It is as precious to us as it was to our Saxon and Norman ancestors. — as a fan of solid wood furniture this is amusing and interesting, though it appears he meant the value of wood for fire for warmth and cooking, and less so for furniture.

Awesome one-liners

  • I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.
  • As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.
  • As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.
  • At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.
  • The pond rises and falls, but whether regularly or not, and within what period, nobody knows, though, as usual, many pretend to know.
  • It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.

Bonus: Civil Disobedience

Walden is frequently bundled with Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government a.k.a. Civil Disobedience, so I read the latter as well.

In it, the narrator draws a distinction between the American people and government. He advocates individualism and right and conscience above law. He is big on justice, for instance saying that Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. He speaks, effectively, against representative and in favour of direct democracy; believes the individual is paramount and that the individual is the source of state’s power and authority.

The essay has rather a lot of rhetoric, and little in the way of proof or evidence. While it has proven to be influential to some famous rights campaigners, I’m not sure if leaving it to people to act according to their conscience and their feeling of what is “right” would scale in a world as interconnected as today’s. Perhaps it works better when everyone lives in a small cabin a mile away from each other.

… antagonism is never worse than when it involves two men each of whom is convinced that he speaks for goodness and rectitude… — Vincent Buranelli, The Case Against Thoreau