Thoreau’s Background

Ron Paul Curriculum, English 1, Lesson 140

Write 500 words on this topic: “Would Walden have been a better book if Thoreau had supplied more background information on his life?”

Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, detailing his famous stay at Walden Pond, is said to be one of the great pieces of American literature. It is revered for Thoreau’s example of independence and simple living. Strangely, however, it got it’s reputation based on assumptions made by the reader, about background information Thoreau never supplies. For instance, he lived with his mother for his whole life prior to his 26 months in a shack. The book is written in such a way that these things never come up, and the reader will usually assume that Thoreau lead a scholarly life in a small cottage. Were he to add such background information, assuming it would be accurate, the book would likely not have achieved such renown, but by book standards would be much better.

The judgment of how ‘good’ a book is is often a very subjective standard. Fortunately, there are certain variables that can be used to help get a more objective result. Among these are honesty, information provided, and enjoyability. If a book is dishonest and/or deceptive, it is a big failure as a “Good book.” Likewise, if the reader comes out of a book not having learned anything, or not being able to recount anything about the story, the book has some room for improvement too. Enjoyability is self explanatory. Some fictional books are written exclusively for that purpose, while other books, like guidebooks or technical books, prioritize information.

Including honest background information would undoubtedly improve Walden significantly. In fact, the more personal background information, the better the book would become. The book would be more informative, provide more perspective, and be much less romantic. Readers would learn about how Thoreau lived with his mother prior to his 26 month stay on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property, thus explaining how he could sustain himself on just $40 a year. This would help more people realize that Thoreau has a pretty bad self-sufficiency record, and therefore is not to be used as a role-model. The only negative of honest background info would be that romantic transcendentalists would find the book less appealing, less enjoyable. That would, fortunately, be greatly outweighed by the increased honesty and perspective.

On the other hand, if Thoreau lies about his background info, there would be a very pronounced reduction in quality. For one, obviously, it would make the book much less truthful. This by itself would make the book much worse, especially considering it would only reinforce the romanticists’ enthusiasm. However, it would open up new inconsistencies that attention could be drawn to. For instance, he might claim to own a small cottage on the outskirts of Concord, rather than living with his mother. History would clearly show that he never left his mother, and it’s mildly possible that such inconsistencies would do Thoreau’s reputation more harm than good.

It will never really be known exactly what would change had Henry David Thoreau decided to provide more background information. It can only be guessed at, but chances are, if he did add it, Walden would improve in at least some respects, either in honesty and perspective, or in more holes to be pointed out and then compared to his stated philosophy.


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