The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

X. Thoreau

§ 6. The Experiment at Walden Pond

Apparently the suggestion as to the particular recess came from his friend, Channing, who writes,

  • I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened “Briars”; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive.
  • Thoreau was a natural ascetic. He ate little flesh meat, but subsisted almost entirely on vegetable food; he drank nothing but water; he never married. He refers in a letter to a nameless lady who wished to marry him, and he calls the inverted courtship “tragic.” In the Age of Faith he would have fled to the wilderness for the same reason that he built his hut by Walden pond, in order to save his soul. Salvation for him meant escape from endless labour for the acquisition of useless things. By another paradox of his career, he freed himself from New England thrift by being still more thrifty. By denying himself and faring more scantily than his neighbours, he secured leisure for pursuits they could not comprehend. Thoreau is a prophet of the simple life, perhaps the first in America. He uses the very term.
  • I do believe in simplicity. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation from all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real.
  • He was preaching to his friend Blake what he had already practised. He had felled the pines with his borrowed axe, and dug his cellar, and built his
  • tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap-doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.
  • It was a little smaller than the room he occupied at Harvard. The materials cost less than twenty-nine dollars; and by cultivating beans and other vegetables he was able to support himself at an annual expense of a little more than eight dollars. This was removing the encumbrances from the equation, with a vengeance, but Thoreau could make a “dinner” of berries. The experiment lasted from March, 1845, until September, 1847, and then having satisfied himself that the thing could be done, he gave it up.