Walden and Civil Disobedience

Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
323 pages
Vintage Classics, 1854
Genre: Classics, environmental literature, philosophy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I’ll be reading this one again and again throughout my life.

Reviewed by Indiana

Reading Walden and Civil Disobedience during the summer is a bit like reading A Christmas Carol on Christmas Day: cheesy and cliche, but perfect.

As the story goes, at age 28 Thoreau decided to go off into the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, and live apart from society.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he writes, “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

There’s some debate as to whether or not Thoreau actually lived as off the grid as he seemed to hint at in Walden. His family lived pretty close by and he often had visitors from town. So the terms hermit and roughing it don’t exactly apply. (For a full Thoreau dress-down read Kathryn Schulz’s article in The New Yorker).   

However, Walden is as much about Thoreau’s experiences in the woods as it is a series of essays on his worldview. Through the lens of his experiences in the woods, Thoreau discusses his thoughts on government, the human condition, religion, slavery, and the environment. He’s an idealist above all else and some of his ideals still connect with readers today (especially millennials): “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half-a-dozen, and keep your accounts to a thumb-nail” and “for our houses are such unwieldy property, that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”

Thoreau has a tendency to point out annoying truths: “But men labour under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” When I read it at first, I thought “Well, thanks for pointing that out but I have to work so too bad.”

But then, he goes on to talk about how no matter what your life brings you, it’s your choice to find a way to not waste your life with work that seems completely temporary.

Civil Disobedience is an especially relevant essay in today’s political climate where everyone seems to be involved or interested in some way or another. While reading it through this time, Thoreau’s view on the U.S. government reminded me a bit of Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec. They’re both cantankerous and believe that the government that governs least is the government that governs best.

This is the second (or third, the years blur) time reading Thoreau’s famous work. But it’s the first time I’ve read it outside the classroom setting. While English classes are wonderful, it was refreshing to read it outside of that context. Instead of reading it for pithy quotes for a paper or for pieces of symbolism that I can discuss in class, I got to wander through the book and find those fantastic quotes just to use in life.   

There’s no doubt that the book can be dry at times—he spends an entire chapter discussing his bean field. But dig past those sections for the gems. They aren’t hard to find.

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