Where I Lived And What I Lived For Essay Summary Generator

Henry David Thoreau – Walden – Summary and Analysis Economy The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (See Important Quotations Explained) Summary Thoreau begins by matter-of-factly outlining his two-year project at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts (on land owned by his spiritual mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, although Thoreau does not mention this detail). He says he lived there for two years and two months, and then moved back to “civilized society”—thus acknowledging right away, and quite honestly, that this was not a permanent lifestyle choice, but only an experiment in living. He describes the reactions of people to news of his project, noting their concern for his well-being out in the wilderness, their worry about his health in the winter, their shock that anyone would willingly forsake human companionship, and occasionally their envy. Thoreau moves quickly to the moral of his experiment: to illustrate the benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He tells us he is recounting the rudimentary existence he led there so that others might see the virtue of it. He argues that excess possessions not only require excess labor to purchase them, but also oppress us spiritually with worry and constraint. As people suppose they need to own things, this need forces them to devote all their time to labor, and the result is the loss of inner freedom. Thoreau asserts that, in their own way, farmers are chained to their farms just as much as prisoners are chained in jails. Working more than is necessary for subsistence shackles people. Faced with a choice between increasing one’s means to acquire alleged necessities and decreasing one’s needs, Thoreau believes minimizing one’s needs is preferable by far. Thoreau identifies only four necessities: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Since nature itself does much to provide these, a person willing to accept the basic gifts of nature can live off the land with minimal toil. Any attempt at luxury is likely to prove more a hindrance than a help to an individual’s improvement. Thoreau describes the construction of his small house as an application of his faith in simplicity and self-reliance. Starting with nothing, Thoreau must even borrow the axe he needs to fell trees, an axe that he later returns (eager never to appear indebted to anyone) sharper than when he got it. He receives gifts of some supplies, purchasing others, and sets to work slowly but steadily through the spring months. Thoreau is ready to move in on July 4, 1845, the day of his own independence from social norms and conventions. Throughout the construction process and the agricultural endeavors that follow, Thoreau keeps meticulous books that he shares with us, accounting for all his debits and credits literally down to the last penny. He explains that in farming, after an investment of roughly fifteen dollars, he is able to turn a profit of almost nine dollars. He describes the diet of beans, corn, peas, and potatoes that sustains him, giving us the market value for all these foodstuffs as well. Overall, Thoreau’s review of his own accounts reveals approximately sixty-two dollars of expenses during his first eight months at Walden, offset by a gain of almost thirty-seven dollars. Thus, at a total cost of just over twenty-five dollars, Thoreau acquires a home and the freedom to do as he pleases—a handsome bargain, in his opinion. Analysis The first chapter of Walden offers an introduction to the oddball hodgepodge of styles, allusions, and subject matter that the work as a whole offers us. Thoreau moves from moral gravity to the style of a how-to manual, and then to a lyrical flight of fancy, and then to a diary entry. In a prophetic vein he tells us that his Walden experiment was intended to instruct his fellow men, who “labor under a mistake” about life, work, and leisure. But soon afterward, he tells us we may expect to spend $3.14 on nails if we build a shack of our own. And then, just as unexpectedly, he quotes the poet Chapman telling us how “for earthly greatness / All heavenly comforts rarefies to air.” He can speak like a philosopher, using grand polysyllabic words, or he can talk quite simply about sitting on a pumpkin. It is never obvious whether this is the diary of a private experience, a sermon delivered to his compatriots, an extended fantasy about life in the woods, or a piece of nature writing. The common denominator of all this patchwork is the distinctive voice of Thoreau himself, who is the true subject of this work. Rather than a handbook for good living, Waldenmight best be read as a subjective extravaganza on the subject of Henry David Thoreau. Reading the work as a personal fantasia rather than as a manual or sermon allows us to brush aside a lot of the criticism that has been aimed at Walden from its first publication until now. Some readers enjoy pointing out the failure of his project, how contradictory it is to claim self-reliance when he builds a shack on another man’s property with borrowed tools and gifts of lumber, and how self-centered Thoreau seems throughout the work. Yet Thoreau himself never denies any of these accusations. He tells us in the first paragraph of “Economy” that his Walden project was only a temporary experiment, not a lifelong commitment to an ideal. He never claims to be a model socialist or a pioneer hero; he never even claims to be a very successful farmer or house-builder. Nor does he ever claim to eschew society altogether; on the contrary, he tells us that he never had more company than when he went to live in the woods, and that he goes to the village every day. As for self-reliance, he is content merely to have acquired a house for little money, relying more or less on his own labor, and is not an extremist about never seeking help from others (though he always aims to return favors). Self-reliance for Thoreau is more than paying one’s own bills without debt; it is the spiritual pleasure of fully claiming ownership over the world in which one lives. Finally, Thoreau would happily admit the charge of self-centeredness: he exults in his vision and in the depths of his mind and soul. The vitality of this first chapter makes us ponder whether a lively sense of being centered in one’s world is such a bad thing after all.


For two years and two months Thoreau lived alone in the woods by Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the bulk of the book, though now he has left the woods and returned to civilization. Many people have asked him about his daily life in the woods, and this book is in part an attempt to answer those readers. He defends writing about himself and his use of the first person against the charge of egotism by saying that he is the person that he knows best, after all, and that he aims to give "a simple and sincere account of his own life."
Thoreau removes himself from society and chooses solitude at Walden Pond. At the same time, however, he presents his book as an explanation of his solitude for the readers in society. He sees his book as a way for him to communicate his ideas to others effectively.
What is the chief purpose of man? Thoreau asks. Most men live in despair because they have forgotten that they have a choice in how to conduct their lives. Instead, they follow the older generations, calling them wise. But it is not enough to make choices based on received wisdom, even if those choices have been practiced through history and written about by the ancients. Human lives are as various as nature. A man must be open to change and must himself figure out what is the right way for him to live.
Thoreau sees himself as addressing the highest and most basic question of human life. If man follows received wisdom, he forsakes himself and cuts himself off from the possibility of living a good life, at one with himself and spiritually fulfilled. Even the writing of the ancients is less important than a man's own internal compass.
Human advancements throughout time have not changed "the essential laws of man's existence." Thoreau designs a primitive life for himself in order to figure out what are the barest necessities a man needs to live, the elements without which no one has been able to live. He determines these necessities to be: food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. His aim is to combine the toughness of primitive life with the intellectualness of civilization.
By paring his life down to the essentials, Thoreau seeks to free himself from the excesses of society. His lifestyle is a kind of experiment conducted on himself whose aim is to discover the nature of mankind's existence in general.
The luxuries and comforts to which men are so attached only hinder mankind. Being poor in outward riches is often a sign of being rich in inward riches. Thoreau calls his way of life "voluntary poverty" and suggests it is a good vantage point from which to observe human life. He seeks to solve the problems of how to live not only theoretically, like a professor, but practically as well. His advice on how to live, he says, is not directed to those who are strong and have mastered their lives, nor to those who are happy with the current state, but to those who are discontented and overworked, and also to those who are wealthy but poor in spirit.
Before coming to the woods, Thoreau spent time as a newspaper reporter, (though the editor never published his writing), a self-appointed weatherman, and an amateur herdsman and gardener of the town, before it became clear that his fellow townsmen did not appreciate his work. He tells a parable about an Indian who gets angry at a lawyer because the lawyer refuses to buy his woven baskets, and Thoreau notes that, like the Indian, he did not realize he had to sell work that other people wanted. Instead of adapting to the town, though, he chooses to go to the woods and work as he wants, calling it "a good place for business."
Thoreau tried all kinds of ways he might belong to society, but found that being alone at Walden would be the best place for him. The parable of the Indian basket-weaver represents the ways in which belonging to society dictates the kind of work a man must do and therefore limits him. Instead, Thoreau chooses solitude and self-reliance.
Clothing, Thoreau argues, is an embarrassingly excessive concern for most people. They worry more about having new, pristine clothes than they do about having a clean conscience. Thoreau urges that choice of clothing be led not by a taste for novelty or by the whims of fashion, which people adhere to do fanatically, but by utility and simplicity. Without clothes, a man's social rank would be rightfully indistinguishable. The clothing industry does not serve people's best interests but only makes corporations rich.
What are the differences between "the civilized man" and "the savage"? Thoreau asks. The civilized man conceives of institutions into which the individual is absorbed for the good of mankind. This trade-off, Thoreau maintains, is a great sacrifice, and an unnecessary one. The civilized man is morally and spiritually distracted, while the savage lives free of the threat of poverty. As far as shelter goes, civilization has created palaces but not noblemen to live in them. While the wealthy set the taste for the mass of people to chase after, the existence of the poor, who live in shanties, has been degraded. In reality, the pursuits of the civilized man are no worthier than that of the savages, so their dwellings should not be any different.
The best art, Thoreau asserts, is made out of man's desire to free himself from the constraints of civilization. Paradoxically, however, there is no room for art in civilized life because people are distracted by lesser pursuits and pursue false beauty. Before beauty can really be appreciated, the lives of ordinary men must be dismantled and brought to their most basic state, as the first settlers of Concord lived, making homes of holes in the ground until they were secure enough and had enough food to build houses. Society's habit of building luxurious dwellings is a symptom of spiritual deprivation.
Like the college system and other modern advancements, railroads and traveling in general, Thoreau believes, are a ridiculous waste of money and another symptom of an unhealthy way of life in which a person spends most of his life earning money so that he can enjoy only a small part of it. In addition, people seem to place more value on the speed of getting from one place to another than they do on the importance of what they do in either place.
Travel and other purported signs of society's "progress" are not only a practical waste of money but a spiritual problem; Thoreau adheres to the Transcendentalist idea that one must find meaning in the present moment rather than suffer through it in order to enjoy a later time.
In order to defray his expenses, Thoreau plants a bean-field of couple of acres and makes a modest gain. The next year he does even better. Comparing himself to the farmers of Concord, Thoreau believes he has done better than them financially, and all while maintaining his independence. Out of greed, farmers use the labor of animals, but it is a great folly, he says, because whereas the farmer wants the animals to work for him, he ends up working for the animals.
Men should not be judged by their architecture or material wealth, Thoreau believes, but by the richness of their abstract thought: not by the temples of the East but by the Bhagvat-Geeta. Nations obsess over making monuments to prolong their renown and satisfy their vanity, but Thoreau finds them vulgar.
The building of great monuments is an improper kind of work for man. Not only is it an offense to Thoreau's taste for simplicity, but it is also a vain pursuit that distracts from true spiritual striving.
Continuing with his record-keeping, Thoreau makes charts of all his purchases for household goods and food, detailing all that he ate and asserting that a man can eat very simply and retain his health. He adds up all his expenses, adds up all his earnings, and finds the balance to be a modest deficit, against which he has gained a house, a new way of life, and the contentment that comes along with them.
Thoreau's record-keeping is proof that his philosophy of self-reliance and simplicity, far from being merely abstract, can practically be lived, and furthermore, that it does not require one to deprive oneself. Thoreau emphasizes that he enjoys his life and lives well.
After many experiments in making bread, Thoreau finds that the best way is to use just meal and water, not even salt. Originally he used leavening but then discovered by accident that he could do without it, and he notes that Marcus Porcius Cato's ancient recipe for bread does not include it. He relishes making his own food and encourages his readers to do so.
Even in bread-making Thoreau finds an opportunity to figure it out for himself, and his recipe is the simplest possible one. He stresses individuality; he does not follow Marcus Porcius Cato's recipe but enjoys the fact that they independently discovered the same thing.
For furniture and household goods, Thoreau chooses to have only the basics, including a table, a desk, three chairs, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, and one spoon. He believes that it is a shame to have lots of belongings. Once he attended an auction of a man's effects, and he says it would have been better to have had "a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them," as in the Indian practice of casting off old possessions annually and burning them together in a public ritual and feast.
To have such few belongings is as much as sign of the simplicity of Thoreau's way of life as it is a sign of his solitude. Living unencumbered by material possessions is a spiritual matter, so such a bonfire would be purifying to the spirit and a cause for communal celebration.
Thoreau finds that he can meet all his expenses by working six weeks out of the year, leaving the rest of his time for study. He tried teaching and trade, even contemplated picking huckleberries, but found that day labor was the best work because it left him freest. Most of all he values his freedom and doesn't desire more money because of the sacrifice in time it would entail. Labor should not be loved for its own sake, Thoreau argues. Supporting oneself does not have to be a hardship, and all of life can be a pleasure. At the same time, it does not suffice merely to follow his example; the individual must find his own way in the world, and it is best to go alone.
Some townsmen have accused Thoreau


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