A change of scenery: Thoreau leaves Walden (Walden 198)

Why did Thoreau leave Walden Pond after two and a half years?

Within a month of moving out of his little “hut,” he was back living at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. Biographer Robert Richardson says “he may have left the pond for no better reason than that Lydia Emerson had invited him to spend the winter helping out while her husband was away in Europe.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185).

Even if true, of course, Henry wasn’t going to write that. Likely his reasons were complex. He was restless, and though he had accomplished much at Walden (writing his first and as yet unpublished book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, plus early drafts of Walden), his publishing credits were thin. As far as anyone else was concerned, he had little to show for his thirty years of living. He begins the Conclusion:

“To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world… The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou… If you are chosen town clerk, forsooth, you cannot go to Tierra del Fuego this summer: but you may go to the land of infernal fire nevertheless. The universe is wider than our views of it.”

He is restless — you can hear it in his words — but for now he deflects attention from his own life toward one of his great themes: self-discovery. He speaks metaphorically of voyaging, warns that we should “not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum.” (A menial task assigned to sailors to keep them busy when there was nothing else to do.) He talks of hunting wild game in Africa — again, not literally — “but I trust it would be nobler game to shoot one’s self.”

So he is both voyager and landscape, both hunter and prey.

“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.”

He’s no longer telling us why he left the pond (though he will shortly return to the subject). He’s reminding us of why he went there in the first place.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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