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Walking ()

Walking began its literary life as a lecture given at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851. Thoreau repeated it over the years and then it was published posthumously in The Atlantic in June 1862. It has ridden a surge of popularity lately, thanks both to the forced isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting boom in walking. But, as always with Thoreau, his text is more confrontational than the reader would expect, preachier and even annoying.

It famously opens thus:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make a emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization; the minister, and the school-committee, and every one of you will take care of that.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre"—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer", a saunterer—a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which indeed is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, now-a-days, who undertake no persevering never ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.
Now, I happen to live in New Hampshire in an area as rural as any reader is likely to call home. Part of our property is "wetlands;" a brook runs behind our home; and across the street is the town reservoir and a massive protected wildlife area that stretches back to the Appalachian Trail. I walk daily--surrounded by woods for much of the walk--and see deer, bears, foxes, moose, snakes, frogs, hawks, raven, acorn-laden oaks, chestnuts, mushrooms, lichen, moths, butterflies, etc., etc., etc. But that would be inadequate to Thoreau's stated marching orders here. That despite the fact that he, notoriously, was not exactly exploring the great wilderness all by his lonesome as he pretended to be. But does that necessarily make him a hypocrite we should be angered by? Here's a recent biographer:
LOA: The Thoreau who emerges from these pages—son, brother, very much a citizen within a community—is notably different from what you call “the iconic hermit of American lore.” Why has the hermit image been so persistent? Do we misread Thoreau as a result of its tenacity?

Walls: I’ve come to think there are two sides to the hermit image. First, you could say he was a hermit, about half the time—that is, every day he set off alone to walk, as he said, with the serene, silent, and invisible “companion” who kept him sane. That hermit side gave us the Thoreau we love—the one who walked beyond bounds and dared us to do the same, who protected his creative solitude fiercely and rebuked anyone who intruded on it. But there was also the Thoreau who presided daily over the family’s boarding house dinner table, who was loving and funny and far too talkative, as his friends well knew, to keep to himself for very long. Good thing, too: Thoreau the great talker gave us Thoreau the great writer.

Second, beyond the biographical reality: America, too, is split on the hermit question. Part of the American mind yearns for the brave, solitary spiritual seeker in the wilderness, and that part wants Thoreau to be, and always remain, a pure hermit; since the need seems to be perpetual, no historical reality can shake it. Perhaps it shouldn’t. On the flip side, another part of America is deeply suspicious of those loners and solitary seekers, for they tend to be disturbers of the peace: troublemakers, schismatics, separatists, self-righteous prophets. And some of Thoreau’s pages—unfortunately, most of them are in the first chapter of Walden, the easiest for a reader to find—play on this hermit-back-from-the-wilderness-with-the-Truth persona. This narrative voice, meant to provoke us, can sound terribly condescending; interestingly enough, it evolved in his lectures, and what worked well before a live audience can offend in cold hard print! Many readers, hearing that whiff of condescension, get their backs up. Then when they learn that he went home sometimes for dinner, they accuse him of hypocrisy for not being a hermit. So he’s damned no matter what.
    -INTERVIEW: Laura Dassow Walls: “We have misread Thoreau, tragically” (Library of America, October 16, 2017)
Maybe, just maybe, the real Thoreau is even more a model for us than the one he depicts? By all means, we ought to get out there and walk and experience nature and commune with ourselves, but there's nothing wrong with ending the day at a family dinner instead of in a hammock in Yellowstone, eh?


Grade: (B)


See also:

Henry Thoreau Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Henry David Thoreau
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Henry David Thoreau (Library of America)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Walking
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Henry David Thoreau (IMDB)
    -The Thoreau Society
    -Henry David Thoreau Online
    -The Walden Woods Project
    -Thoreau Farm
    -The Web of American Transcendentalism
    -DIGITAL COLLECTION: Henry David Thoreau (Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas)
    -The Henry David Thoreau Collection (Concord Museum)
    -EXHIBITION: This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal (Morgan Library & Museum)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau (New World Encyclopedia)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau (Library of Congress)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau 1817–1862 (Poetry Foundation)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau: American writer (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau Biography (1817–1862) (
    -ENTRY: Henry David Thoreau (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -SHORT STORY: “The Landlord,” Henry David Thoreau (LIbrary of America)
    -LECTURE: “He loved a broad margin to his life”: Maxine Hong Kingston on Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson: The following remarks were given by Maxine Hong Kingston at LOA’s 40th anniversary gala reception on May 1, 2023 (Library of America)
    -ESSAY: “I Feel Like a Feather Floating in the Atmosphere.” How Thoreau Reckoned with the Loss of His Brother: Robert D. Richardson on the Writers’ Grief-Stricken Observations (Robert D. Richardson, January 25, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau’s Guilty Conscience (Michael J. Connolly, July 11th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Fiery sermons on the way to Concord:: Emerson, Thoreau and the journey towards self-determination : a review of THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS AND THEIR WORLD by Robert A. Gross (Mark Ford, 11/21/21, TLS)
    -ESSAY: Mad Dogs and Transcendentalists: How the individualism of Emerson and Thoreau differs from today’s libertarianism (Robert A. Gross | November 20, 2021, American Scholar)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau’s Guilty Conscience (Michael J. Connolly|May 31st, 2021, Intellectual Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Sophia Thoreau to the Rescue!: Who made sure Henry David Thoreau’s works came out after his death? His sister. (Matthew Wills May 28, 2021, JSTOR)
    -ESSAY: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity”: Henry David Thoreau and the politics of solitude (Alda Balthrop-Lewis, 12 Mar 2021,ABC Religion & ethics)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau and Social Distancing (PATRICK J. WALSH, 1/11/21, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: Feminized Civilization and Its Discontents: Thoreau’s studied contempt for popular writing (L.D. Burnett, Nov 29, 2020, Arc Digital)
-ESSAY: Walking: Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, philosopher, and author of such classics as Walden and "Civil Disobedience," contributed a number of writings to The Atlantic in its early years. The month after his death from tuberculosis, in May 1862, the magazine published "Walking," one of his most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness. (HENRY DAVID THOREAU, JUNE 1862, The Atlantic)
    -ETEXT: Walking (Project Gutenberg)
    -AUDIO: Walking (LibriVox)
    -VIDEO: Writings of Emerson and Thoreau: Guests discussed the history of the Early Republic, the transcendental movement, and American intellectual history through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson pioneered the transcendental movement with his essay Nature. Thoreau wrote Walden and several other works. (C-SPAN, MAY 7, 2001)
    -FILM: Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul (Vimeo)
    -VIDEO: Reflect on Thoreau’s Vision of Walden Pond: On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, visit Walden Pond, where he once lived, in 360 video. Listen to excerpts from his book “Walden.” (VEDA SHASTRI, 7/12/17, NY Times)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Henry David Thoreau (eNotes)
    -PODCAST: NATURE: WALKING WITH EMERSON & THOREAU: The complex relationship between Emerson & Thoreau is captured in a play staged outdoors More (PBS: TPT, 4/22/18)
    -PODCAST: American Icons: ‘Walden’ (Contributor Matt Frassica, August 09, 2018, Studio 360)
    -PODCAST: Thoreau's Leaves
    -PODCAST: Episode 103: Thoreau on Living Deliberately (Mark Linsenmayer, 10/14/14, The Partially Examined Life)
    -PODCAST: The Inspiring Life of Henry David Thoreau: Guest: Laura Dassow Walls, author of the book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, a biography of the naturalist, inventor and activist. He left behind a monumental legacy in addition to his essay Civil Disobedience, a paean to human freedom. Two hundred years after his birth, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity (KPFA Letters & Politics)
    -PODCAST: Springtime with Henry David Thoreau (History of Adventure, APR 19, 2018)
    -PODCAST: Thoreau and the American Idyll : Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the American 19th century writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (BBC In Our Time, 1/15/09)
    -INTERVIEW: Thoreau, Now More than Ever: A Conversation with Laura Dassow Walls and Daegan Miller (NATHAN JANDL, FEBRUARY 20, 2018, Edge Effects)
    -TEACHING PLAN: Text to Text | Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walking’ and ‘Time to Write? Go Outside.’ (Caroline Crosson Gilpin and Sarah Gross, May 10, 2017, NY Times)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Thoreau's "Walking" Summary and Analysis (Cliff Notes)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Henry David Thoreau (Spark Notes)
    -TEACHING GUIDE: Henry David Thoreau | Author, Philosopher, and Abolitionist (PBS Learning)
    -ESSAY: Nationalism and the Nature of Thoreau's "Walking" (Andrew Menard, MIT Press Journal)[PDF]
-ESSAY: Henry David Thoreau Was Funnier Than You Think, Particularly on the Subject of Work: John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle on the Necessary “Deep Sincerity” of Dark Humor (John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, June 26, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Misunderstanding Thoreau: Reading Neurodiversity in Literature and in Life: Steve Edwards on Kathryn Schulz, Donald Hall, and the Things We Miss (Steve Edwards, August 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: THOREAU IN GOOD FAITH (Caleb Smith, 7/19/21, Public Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Was Thoreau Just a Slacker and a Hypocrite?: Few writers have had reputations so unfairly maligned by cynical character assassination as Henry David Thoreau. A masterful new biography rescues him from these shallow attacks. (Malcolm Jones, Nov. 26, 2019, Daily Beast)
    -ESSAY: At Walden, Thoreau Wasn’t Really Alone With Nature (John Kaag and Clancy Martin, July 10, 2017, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Henry David Thoreau and why nothing is as it seems (Ozan Varol, February 19, 2019, Ladders)
    -ESSAY: Everybody Hates Henry: Literary saint or arrogant fraud—why do we need Thoreau to be one or the other? (Donovan Hohn, October 21, 2015, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: James Russell Lowell’s Feud with Henry David Thoreau (Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, March 5, 2013, History of Massachusetts Blog)
    -ESSAY: The Observer (John Summers, April 20, 2010, The New Republic)
    -LECTURE: Thoreau 2.0: On simplicity, self-reliance and refusing to cooperate with “the apparatus of secrecy” that surrounds online surveillance (Maciej Ceg?owski , September 21, 2013, XOXO conference in Portland)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau's Walden: Phony Testament of the Greens (Gary North, April 19, 2014,
    -ESSAY: Henry David Thoreau’s Views of 19th-Century Media Resonate Today (Mark Canada, 08/03/17, NY Observer)
    -ESSAY: THE FAKE SOLITUDE OF WALDEN POND (Kevin Donovan, December 27, 2012, Letters Republic)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau on Trump, Twitter, and Fake News: The Ongoing and Depressing Relevance of a 200-Year-Old Thinker (Emily Temple, July 12, 2017, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau: Why, given its fabrications, inconsistencies, and myopia, do we continue to cherish “Walden”? (Kathryn Schulz, October 12, 2015, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: At Walden Pond (E.B. (Elwyn Brooks) White, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: The unhandselled globe. With Thoreau in darkest Maine (Maxine Kumin, July 1986, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau and the Harvard libureaucracy (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harper's)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Vast Designs: How America came of age. (Jill Lepore, 10/29/07, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau at Harvard: Some Unpublished Records (Raymond Adams, Mar., 1940, The New England Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Not Exactly a Hermit: Henry David Thoreau: Henry David Thoreau went in for society, but on his own terms. (Danny Heitman, September/October 2012,, Humanities)
    -ESSAY: Henry David Thoreau was the original hipster minimalist (Ephrat Livni, January 13, 2017, Quartz)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau Was Fake (Steve Wardrip, Sep 23, 2017, Medium)
    -ESSAY: In Thoreau's footsteps: my journey to Walden for the bicentennial of the original de-clutterer: He retreated to a cabin by a pond and wrote Walden, the most influential guide to happy living ever. As his devotees (modestly) celebrate his bicentennial, our writer follows in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (Rafia Zakaria, 12 Jul 2017, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: A Map of Radical Bewilderment: On the liberation cartography of Henry David Thoreau. (DAEGAN MILLER, MARCH 2018, Places)
    -ESSAY: Did Thoreau Actually Live on Walden Pond?: "A Lake is the Landscape’s Most Beautiful and Expressive Feature" (Robert Thorson, March 12, 2018, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau and the Search for a Cosmic Community: His Thinking Was Structured by Deep Time and Planetary Space (Laura Dassow Walls, July 12, 2017, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Howard Zinn on Henry David Thoreau and When to Resist an Immoral State: “The law will never make men free; it is men who make the law free.” (Howard Zinn, July 12, 2017, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Henry David Thoreau, Tree-Hugger: On the Philosopher's Obsession with a New England Oak Forest (Richard Higgins, July 12, 2017, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: WALKING AS SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE: Henry Thoreau and the Inward Journey (David C. Smith, Spring/Summer 1991, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau Walks The Cape: In the blustery days of late fall, the traveler still can find the sparseness and solitude that so greatly pleased the Concord naturalist in 1849 (Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., April 1987, American Heritage)
    -ESSAY: Was It Legal? Thoreau In Jail (Walter Harding, August 1975, American Heritage)
    -ESSAY: The Indispensable Thoreau: He lived alone for two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond, but he was neither misanthropic nor solitary. Perhaps more than any other American writer, he can teach us how to live with ourselves. (Edward Hoagland, July/August 1988, American Heritage)
    -ESSAY: Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Thoreau, Miss Alcott, Mr. Emerson, And Me: A childhood reminiscence of Concord, that special Massachusetts town where the Transcendentalists chose to live their rarefied lives (Annie Sawyer Downs, December 1978, American Heritage)
    -ESSAY: In the Footsteps of Thoreau (Alda Balthrop-Lewis, 1584)
    -ESSAY: Why Walking Helps Us Think (Ferris Jabr, September 3, 2014, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Understanding Thoreau (Randal O'Toole, July 11, 2017, American Spectator)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau’s Wilderness Legacy, Beyond the Shores of Walden Pond (Douglas Brinkley, 7/07/17, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Eco-Tourist, English Heritage, and Arthurian Legend: Walking with Thoreau (Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Spring 2013, Arthuriana)
    -ESSAY: Man Thinking About Nature: The Evolution of the Poet's Form and Function in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau 1837-1852 (S. H. Bagley, April 2006, Honors Thesis, Oberlin College)
    -ESSAY: Lessons in Constructive Solitude From Thoreau: The writer used his self-quarantine at Walden to pursue an intensive course in self-education. In the present pandemic moment, there’s plenty to learn from standing still. (HOLLAND COTTER, April 9, 2020, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Thoreau: American Resister (and Kitten Rescuer): A model of resistance for our time, Thoreau was not just the antisocial man of legend. He was a sensualist, his journal, a New York treasure, shows. (HOLLAND COTTER, 7/01/17, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Laura Dassow Walls: “We have misread Thoreau, tragically” (Library of America, October 16, 2017)
    -INTERVIEW: Thoreau as Naturalist: A Conversation with Four Authors (DIANNE TIMBLIN, American Scientist)
    -ESSAY: Yes, Henry David Thoreau Was an Industrial Innovator: We can learn valuable lessons from the transcendentalist writer’s forays into the family pencil business (Daniel Akst, 1/14/19, Strategy+Business)
    -ESSAY: The Revolutionary Thoreau (R.H. Lossin, 9/03/20, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Cowardice And Joy In Portland, Part 2: Navigating By Thoreau (David Oates, 9/14/20, 3 Quarks)
-ARCHIVES: Henry David Thoreau (NY Times)
    -ARCHIVES: thoreau (American Heritage)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Henry David Thoreau (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: thoreau (Kirkus)
    -ARCHIVES: Henry David Thoreau (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: thoreau (LitHub)
    -ARCHIVES: thoreau (Longform)
    -AUDIO ARCHIVES: Henry David Thoreau (LibriVox)
    -REVIEW: of Walking by Henry David Thoreau (MARIA POPOVA, Brain Pickings)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (David Paul Kirkpatrick's Living In The Metaverse)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Rodrigo Peñaloza, Medium)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (David Charles)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Beck, Information Bravo)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Thinking Country
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Aesthetics Today)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Jeffrey Peters, News & Times)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Justin Richards, Medium)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (JS Blog)
    -REVIEW: of Walking (Jim Baggett, Birmingham Public Library)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: A sage for all seasons: Walden, Henry Thoreau's classic account of life in a simple one-room cabin in New England remains, 150 years on, an anti-establishment masterpiece and a testament to individualism, writes John Updike (John Updike, 25 Jun 2004, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Daegan Miller, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (Michael Sims, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Randall Fuller, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Jedediah Britton-Purdy, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Daegan Miller, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Colin Fleming, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (James Marcus, Harper's)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Sarah Bakewell, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (William H. Pritchard, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Barbara Lloyd McMichael, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis By David Gessner (Christopher Lancette, Washington Independent Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of Ben Shattuck’s “Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (Heller McAlpin, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Six Walks (Morgan Graham, Chicago Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living, John Kaag and Jonathan Van Belle (Jeannette Cooperman, Common Reader)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: Traveling At The Speed Of The Soul: Of the three stages of a pilgrimage — departure, initiation and return — the last is the least examined and perhaps most important. (NICK HUNT, APRIL 10, 2024, Noema)
    -ESSAY: On the Moral and Metaphysical Significance of Aloneness: Sumana Roy Considers Solitary Ways of Being (Sumana Roy, 2/03/22, LitHub)
    -PODCAST: Walking, Witnessing, and Our Primordial Nature with Paul Salopek and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 2/12/24)
    -REVIEW: Of The Art of Walking: A History in 100 Images, by William Chapman Sharpe (John Wilson, First Things)