Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is many things: an account of a man’s solitary retreat from society, a testament to the threat of modernity, a call for autonomy and mental awakening, and a sheer appreciation of life’s simplicities. While some of the text is devoted to his daily life on Walden Pond, much of it is highly political and dialectical, advocating strongly for social change in nineteenth-century society rife with increasing industrialization, capitalism, and slavery. His withdrawal from this society was intended to show all the flaws of social organization andobsequious citizenship and the benefits of living simply, independently, and with a goal of improving oneself before one’s society.
Thoreau’s cultural longevity proves his mental and physical independence as clearly endearing to some, but he is often criticized for being hypocritical: calling for so much social change while he sat happily secluded from his struggling society. This essay will explore what civic responsibility Thoreau had to his society, and whether attending to his duty of self-preservation excuses his lack of social action. Even though he had many ideasregarding social reform, Thoreau’s goals and gains from his experiment were firmly based in personal growth and reflection. I will argue that Thoreau’s social withdrawal as seen in Walden was in fact his most poignant expression of civic duty, as it allowed him to become a more conscious, morally sound, and autonomous human being. This personal growth, in turn, fortified his society, and many societies thenceforward, to prosper as a whole.
"Negotiating Selfhood and Civic Responsibility in Thoreau’s Walden,"
The Compass: Vol. 1
, Article 6.
Available at: https://scholarworks.arcadia.edu/thecompass/vol1/iss2/6