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Walden Essay Prompt

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Lesson plans and activities

Bill Watterson: A Cartoonist's Advice
A great pre- or post-reading text to pair with the "different drummer" passage from the conclusion of Walden .

How to be a Nonconformist
This tongue-in-cheek guide was written and illustrated by a high school student in 1968. What might students write after studying Thoreau? (Nonfiction; informational text.)

Introduction to the Nature Journal
"Students exercise the observation skills that are essential to writing, visual art, and science." This lesson from the Smithsonian Institute is designed for all grade levels.

Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight
Looking for a way to connect Transcendentalism with our lives? Try this TED talk, in which Dr. Taylor describes her understanding of the brain and perception. The parallels with Transcendentalism are striking. The talk runs 18:42.

Packing for Walden
"Technology is about empowerment, and in fact I think that Thoreau’s modern analogue would find many useful tools to bring with him on his sojourn in nature." What digital tools might a modern Thoreau be willing to accept, and at what cost? A thought-provoking article, good companion piece.

Read Thoreau
Links to 4 short selected readings from Walden and a collection of quotations, all with questions for discussion or writing.

Suggestions for Pairing Contemporary Music and Canonical Literature
A list of songs that were inspired by reading literature. Organized by the last name of the author (e.g. Chinua Achebe, William Butler Yeats), the list includes song title, performer, year of release, and more. The list includes 7 titles inspired by Walden .

Susan Cain: The power of introverts
In this TED talk, Susan Cain explores historical factors behind society's attitudes toward intorverts. Length: 19:04. Possible writing prompt: Susan Cain and Henry David Thoreau discuss living alone. Write the script of their conversation. Where possible, include quotations.

Thoreau's Walden from the Thoreau Reader
E-text (the only annotated version on the Web), Thoreau's own survey map of Walden, student questions, and a valuable resource in "Walden Express."

Downloadable text of Walden in multiple formats, including EPUB, Kindle, and plain text.

Downloadable audio file of Walden in multiple formats, including MP3, iTunes, and Ogg Vorbis.

Free audio files of the text. A great resource to support readers who will be challenged by Thoreau's writing.

Vocabulary, focus questions, links, and classroom activities.

Vocabulary from Walden :

Words are presented in context and with definitions. Click on a word for pronunciation, synonyms, examples of use, more.

The Walden Express
Can't get your students to read the whole book? Try this sampling instead.

World Wide Waldens
A web-based service learning project offering young people an opportunity to apply their knowledge, creativity and energy in putting Henry David Thoreau's words into action. Sponsored by the Walden Woods Project.

Few contemporaries of Henry David Thoreau would have predicted the enormous popularity his small volume Walden would eventually win. Author and work were virtually neglected during Thoreau’s lifetime. Locally, he was considered the village eccentric; even his great friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was disappointed because his young disciple seemingly frittered away his talent instead of “engineering for all America.” After Thoreau’s death in 1862, his works attracted serious critical attention, but unfavorable reviews by James Russell Lowell and Robert Louis Stevenson severely damaged his reputation. Toward the end of the nineteenth century he began to win favorable attention again, mainly in Britain. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when most people were forced to cut the frills from their lives, Walden, which admonishes readers to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” became something of a fad. In the 1960’s, with new awareness of environmental issues and emphasis on nonconformity, Thoreau was exalted as a prophet and Walden as the individualist’s bible.

Walden can be approached in several different ways. It can be viewed as an excellent nature book. During the Romantic era, many writers, such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, paid tribute to nature. Thoreau, however, went beyond simply rhapsodizing natural wonders. He was a serious student of the natural world, one who would spend hours observing a woodchuck or tribes of battling ants, who meticulously sounded and mapped Walden Pond, who enjoyed a hilarious game of tag with a loon. Like Emerson, he saw nature as a master teacher. In his observations of nature, Thoreau was a scientist; in his descriptions, a poet; in his interpretations, a philosopher and psychologist. Certainly he was an ecologist in his insistence on humanity’s place in (not power over) the natural universe and on the need for daily contact with the earth.

Walden may also be considered as a handbook for the simplification of life. As such, it becomes a commentary on the sophistication, “refinement,” frequently distorted values, and devotion to things of civilized society. Thoreau admits the necessities of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, “for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success.” He then illustrates how people may strip these necessities to essentials for survival and health, ignoring the dictates of fashion or the yearning for luxury. “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life,” he asserts, “are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” With relentless logic he points out how making a living has come to take precedence over living itself; how people mortgage themselves to pay for more land and fancier clothing and food than they really require; how they refuse to walk to a neighboring city because it will take too long, but then must work longer than the walk would take in order to pay for a train ticket. He questions the dedication to “progress,” noting that it is technological, not spiritual. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Perhaps the most serious purpose of Walden, and its most powerful message, is to call people to freedom as individuals. One looks at nature in order to learn about oneself; one simplifies one’s life in order to have time to develop the self fully; one must honor one’s uniqueness if one is to know full self-realization. It is this emphasis on nonconformity that has so endeared Thoreau to the young over successive generations; many young readers have adopted as their call to life these words from the final chapter of Walden: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Thoreau’s prose exhibits an ease, a clarity, and a concreteness that separate it from the more abstract, eloquent, and frequently involuted styles of his contemporaries. The ease and seeming spontaneity are deceptive. Thoreau revised the book meticulously during the five years it took to find a publisher; five complete drafts demonstrate how consciously he organized not only the general outline but also every chapter and paragraph. For an overall pattern, he condensed the two years of his actual Walden experience into one fictional year, beginning and concluding with spring—the time of rebirth.

The pace and tone of Walden are also carefully controlled. Thoreau’s sentences and paragraphs flow smoothly. The reader is frequently surprised to discover that sentences occasionally run to more than half a page, paragraphs to a page or more; the syntax is so skillfully handled that one never feels tangled in verbiage. The tone varies from matter-of-fact to poetic to inspirational and is spiced with humor—usually some well-placed satire—at all levels. Even the most abstract topics are handled in concrete terms; Thoreau’s ready use of images and figurative language prepares one for twentieth century Imagist poetry.

Taken as a whole, Walden is a first-rate example of organic writing, with organization, style, and content fused to form a work that, more than 150 years after its publication, is as readable as and perhaps even more timely than when it was written. In Walden, Thoreau reaches across the years to continue to “brag as lustily as Chanticleer . . . to wake my neighbors up.”