The Spiritual Experiment at Walden

In order to better apply deliberate reading of Thoreau, I will discuss the question regarding possible success or failure of the Walden experiment. Is Thoreau’s two year experiment in the woods a long enough to be considered a triumph? Having established that Thoreau was undertaking several projects at Walden, applying a binary assessment would be an inaccurate analysis of his work.

One of the projects undertaken is of a spiritual mission. In light of his transcendentalist ideals, Thoreau would have considered it an utter failure to continue living at Walden- possibly repeating life which would directly threaten his spirit. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” (217) Just as he had embarked into the woods in order to live a life he was presumably meant to live, he left in peace, comfortable that he had achieved everything that he set out to complete.

And so it appears that Thoreau does not leave out of boredom, misery, or failure, but with his head held high having accomplished what he set out to do, live a new life. If there is one antagonistic quality in his departure, it is fear. The most awful thing in Thoreau’s imagination is monotony. “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.” (217) Even though the footsteps were his own, and very recent, Thoreau was already feeling uncomfortable a week into the experiment. Not only did he not want to follow others but he was afraid of following his own paths too much. Imagine what he must have felt two years into his life at Walden.

Which brings me to ask, did he stay there too long? “It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels.” (217) Just as he did not want to repeat his own footsteps, he did not want others to follow him. Thoreau is talking about the actual paths he made while at Walden, but also the paths of thought which he created seemingly, by living and then writing about his experience. In writing of his life there, did he set himself up for failure? If he had left Walden earlier, would this have prevented others from simulating his life? We see many have indeed followed the path of which his mind had travelled. Chris Mccandless comes to mind.

It seems unfair that Thoreau would go to such trouble to detail his experiment, and then preemptively fear that his readership will copy his life. Perhaps he simply does so to prove to himself that he succeeded in living a new life and got out before it was too late. Anything to come after is out of his hands. No. To me it feels more appropriate that this spiritual project ends in a challenge. “I lived a unique life for two years, now you go live one.”

One thought on “The Spiritual Experiment at Walden

  1. Good close reading–you make a nice connection with that wonderful image in which Thoreau compares the impressionability of thought to the earth. Back to Antaeus again, though with further complications. This would be something to explore further for the project. Buell’s argument can help you sharpen the perspective as well.

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