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• Last updated: October 19, 2022

Podcast #841: What People Get Wrong About Walden

The two years, two months, and two days Henry David Thoreau spent at Walden Pond represent one of the most well-known experiences in American literary and philosophical history. Thoreau’s time at Walden has become something of a legend, one that is alternately lionized and criticized.

Yet though many people know of Thoreau’s experience at Walden, and the book he wrote about it, far fewer really understand its whys, whats, and hows.

My guest, who’s dedicated his career to studying Thoreau, will unpack the oft-missed nuances and common misconceptions about Walden. His name is Jeffrey S. Cramer, and he’s the Curator of Collections at The Walden Woods Project, as well as the author and editor of numerous books about Thoreau, including Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Today on the show, Jeffrey explains the reason Thoreau went to Walden, which wasn’t originally to write about that experience, and which ended up evolving over time. We discuss what Walden Pond was like, the dimensions and furnishings of the house Thoreau built on its shores, and how he spent his days there. Jeffrey explains why Thoreau left Walden, how he was less attached to the experience than we commonly assume, and how the significance of the experience came less from living it and more from writing about it. We then discuss how Walden the book became a classic despite an initially slow start, before turning to what Jeffrey thinks of the common criticisms of it, and the popular impulse to tear Thoreau down. We end our conversation with what we moderns can learn from Thoreau’s experiment with living deliberately.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The two years, two months, and two days Henry David Thoreau spent at Walden Pond represent one of the most well known experiences in American literary and philosophical history. Thoreau’s time at Walden has become something of a legend, one that is alternately lionized and criticized. Yet though many people know of Thoreau’s experience at Walden, and the book he wrote about it, far fewer really understand its whys, whats and hows. My guest, who’s dedicated his career to studying Thoreau will unpack the oft missed nuances and common misconceptions about Walden. His name is Jeffrey S. Cramer and he’s the Curator of Collections at the Walden Woods Project, as well as the author and editor of numerous books about Thoreau, including Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Today on the show, Jeffrey explains the reason Thoreau went to Walden, which wasn’t originally to write about that experience, and which ended up evolving over time.

We discuss what Walden Pond was like, the dimensions and furnishings of the house Thoreau built on its shores, and how he spent his days there. Jeffrey explains why Thoreau left Walden, how he was less attached to the experience than we commonly assume, and how the significance of the experience came less from living it and more from writing about it. We then discuss how Walden the book became a classic, despite an initially slow start before turning to what Jeffrey thinks of the common criticisms of it and the popular impulse to tear Thoreau down. We end our conversation with what we moderns can learn from Thoreau’s experiment with living deliberately. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right, Jeffrey Cramer, welcome to the show.

Jeffrey Cramer: Thank you, Brett, I’m happy to be here.

Brett McKay: So I think everyone, particularly in the United States, if you went to high school, you probably read Walden. I remember… Oh I think it was like 11th grade, was when we did American literature or 10th grade. Or even if you didn’t read it in high school, you might have picked it up and it really resonated with you ’cause you’re in that period of your life, you’re trying to become an individual and figure out who you are and there’s something about Walden that speaks to that. So I hope we can dig into this, into Walden. But before we do, let’s do like a thumbnail sketch of Henry David Thoreau before his Walden project. When and where was he born, what was his upbringing, education like, and that sort of thing?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. So I mean, he was born in Concord July 12th, 1817. We don’t know a lot of specific things about his childhood, we only knew a few things, but he did visit Walden for the first time when he was about four or five. His family consisted of his parents, Cynthia and John, his older siblings, Helen and also John and his younger sister Sophia. He attended Concord Academy, which is not the same one that’s there today and… As did his brother John, and they studied things like geography, history, science, but also languages, French, Latin, Greek and then he attended Harvard, graduating in 1837.

He had taken a boat trip in 1838 with his brother John from Concord, Mass to Concord, New Hampshire, which became the basis of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And he also lived in the Emerson household for a while as Emerson’s handyman of sorts, helping out in various ways, but also being mentored by Emerson as a writer and helping Emerson with the editing of the transcendental journal, the Dial. Oh yeah, he also fell in love and proposed marriage at that time, and yeah, he had quite a busy time prior to the Walden experiment.

Brett McKay: And after college, didn’t he have a period where he did some teaching as well?

Jeffrey Cramer: He did. So when he graduated, that was going to be his career path, to be a teacher and he did teach in the Concord Public School for a short time. But he left that. He didn’t like the idea of having to flog the children as a method of teaching them. And so he quit and he and his brother John started a school which eventually moved into what was the Concord Academy. And so he did have, I guess, you could call a traditional career path. He graduated college, he was starting a school, he was teaching, he actually had fallen in love and he proposed marriage, that didn’t work out for various reasons. But then John got sick and they closed the school and then eventually John died for a completely different reason. He had… He cut himself shaving and got lockjaw and died. And that pretty much put an end to Thoreau as a teacher.

Brett McKay: And how did his death… I mean, besides ending his teaching career, but how did it impact him personally?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, he and John were very, very close brothers, and that death was extremely difficult for Thoreau to get beyond. It was hard for him. People tell stories of mentioning John in passing to Thoreau and tears would come to his eyes. So it was something that affected him deeply more than I think people tend to realize. And his going to Walden Pond, which we’ll talk about I think shortly was in part to write a book about John. It was a way of working through that grief and to write his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers about this boat trip that he had taken with John was a way of sort of working through things. And so going to Walden was in part to write that book.

Brett McKay: So he is a teacher, he was doing some writing as well. When do we know that he’s decided like, “I’m gonna do this thing, I’m gonna try this Walden experiment?” Do we have an idea when that happened?

Jeffrey Cramer: We don’t. So the interesting thing about Thoreau, which I think a lot of people don’t tend to realize, is that the narrator in most of his works, whether it’s Walden or Civil Disobedience, Katahdin, it’s sort of a persona. It’s not exactly Henry David Thoreau. It’s not the Henry David Thoreau that walked around Concord. So despite the fact that we read Walden almost as autobiography, it’s not, it’s creative nonfiction, it’s something he worked on. I mean, he went to Walden really, as he said, to conduct some private business and that was to write the book about John. And while he was there, people started asking him questions. “Henry, what are you doing?”

If you think about it, Walden Pond or Walden Woods was marginal land. It was land that wasn’t good for farming, it wasn’t good for much. So it’s where people lived who were not sort of welcome in Concord society. It’s where freed enslaved people had lived. It’s where the Irish lived who were there building the railroad, but really weren’t part of Concord society. It’s where what they called lurkers, I love that word, kind of 19th century word, lurkers lived in the woods. Alcoholics, just people who were not part of the normal mid-19th century Concord society. So there you have Henry David Thoreau, college graduate, former teacher from a respectable family going off and living in this place where you would not normally expect somebody like that to live. And some people started saying like, “Henry, what are you doing?” And he started giving a lecture called A History of Myself, in part to explain what he was doing. And in that lecture, and in thinking about what he was doing, it evolved over time into the book Walden. So I don’t think he actually started out to do what we think of him as doing at Walden Pond.

Brett McKay: Okay. So he went to Walden, he had no intention of writing a book about his experience. He went there to write another book. It was because people were asking him, what you’re doing, like well, maybe this is, this could be a book.

Jeffrey Cramer: Right. I mean, he started thinking about what was he actually doing out there? What was he trying to do while he was living there besides writing the book?

Brett McKay: And yeah, I think something people need to understand about Concord life, as you said, Walden Pond wasn’t great land, people that were there were sort of the outcast. Concord at the time was very community-based. Most people lived with somebody.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yes.

Brett McKay: And you were kind of a weirdo, if you decided to live by yourself.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. I mean, it was a, family was important. Being part, member of a church, all that community sense was extremely important, so… And Thoreau was very close to his family. It wasn’t like he was in any way estranged, he was very, very close to his family, he loved his family dearly. And so it was odd to kind of pick up and go off. People did that. He had a friend who had done that a couple of years previous. But to kind of go off for a long period of time where you’re living in the woods was a bit odd.

Brett McKay: Well, tell us more about the spot he decided to build his cabin alongside Walden Pond. So you said not great land, people in the area, they were free blacks, the Irish, just sort of the outcasts of society. Tell us more about that area.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lovely pond, it’s a kettle pond. It’s quite beautiful. Is it the most exquisite pond ever? Is it the most beautiful place on earth? No, it’s a lovely pond. It has become more lovely or more beautiful in the eyes of people who look at it through Thoreau’s eyes. Who come to it because it’s Walden Pond that he wrote about. But it’s a fairly ordinary pond, I’d have to say. He was living on Emerson’s land. Emerson had some wood lots there, and Thoreau got permission from Emerson to build a house there in which he could write, sort of as a writer’s retreat, basically. And he did not live for free off of Emerson’s land. I just want to sort of clear up the ideas that Thoreau may have been living off of people, that’s actually not true.

He worked for Emerson, he did manual labor for Emerson, he did things like help plant pine trees in Emerson’s wood lots. He did various things to help out the Emersons. So it was a bartering for permission to live there. And he built himself this house. And I wanna say it’s a house, not a cabin or a shack or a shanty, which is how a lot of people refer to it. It was a place he was planning on living for a while and establishing himself for a while. And it’s interesting that he had the front door of the house situated in a way that would allow him to see the sunrise most mornings when he opened the door. But the most beautiful part about the whole move to Walden Pond is that he moved on July 4th, which in most people’s mind is, Independence Day. He is trying to strike out some kind of independence from his existence as it was. But he went to write a book about his brother John, who he was thinking about often. And John’s birthday is July 5th, which means that in moving to Walden Pond on July 4th, his very first day of his new life at Walden Pond is his brother John’s birthday. And that’s kind of a beautiful, has a beautiful symmetry to it.

Brett McKay: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. So, I mean, in Thoreau’s mind and in like, we’re talking about Thoreau himself, right, the real Thoreau. He went there for his brother’s birthday. I mean, that’s probably what was going on. But then afterwards, when Thoreau was writing Walden, did he make a significance that he moved in on July 4th?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. I mean, there are things that he is saying in the book that are, I think are also true. I mean, it was an Independence Day of sorts. He went to live deliberately. There are things that he says in the book that I think are absolutely true, but they also become true through the writing of the book. It’s a process in which he’s thinking about his life.

Brett McKay: So I wanna talk more a little bit about Walden, the physical aspect of it. Was it far away from Concord or was it pretty close?

Jeffrey Cramer: It was very close. I believe it’s about a mile or half a mile from town. He could walk into town on the railroad tracks if he wanted to go that way. It’s an easy walk. And he would walk into town almost every day, to go to the post office, to get the newspaper, to visit friends and family. People would visit him at the pond. It was not secluded. It was not a wilderness area far away from humanity. In fact, the Irish who were building the railroad lived at the time he was there on the other side of the railroad tracks, which means, he could literally hear the Irish workers who lived there, from his own house. He was that close to other people. So not some kind of go off into the wilderness and not come back for two years. It wasn’t that kind of experience.

Brett McKay: But it was far enough away where he could be alone?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yes, absolutely.

Brett McKay: So talk about more at this house, like how, what were it’s dimensions? How big was it? What were it’s furnishings? And why do you think Thoreau he, in the, in Walden, he spends a lot of time like doing the calculations like on the cost of my house? Like what was going on there? Why did he do that?

Jeffrey Cramer: I think in part because he wants people to know that it was real. That it’s actually he did build a house. This is what it costs, this is what what he did. And I think it hits home that what he was doing was an actual real life choice that he was making at the time. The house itself was about 10 by 15 feet. For comparison, you might wanna realize that most single dorm rooms are less than that. So when people come to the pond to Walden Pond and they stand in the replica that is there, I think they’re often surprised at the size of it because it feels bigger than they imagined it to be. The house had a root cellar, a garret, a closet, a brick fireplace. For furnishings, he had a bed, a table, desk, three chairs as he said, three chairs, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. Had a small mirror, a pair of tongs and andirons. And for cooking and dining, he had a kettle, skillet, frying pan, a dipper, wash bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup and one spoon. [laughter] He also had an oil lamp and a jug for oil and a jug for molasses. Before the second winter, he also added a small cooking stove. And so, and if you think about those kinds of furnishings and the things he had, that’s a pretty comfortable existence for somebody.

Brett McKay: Okay. So after he builds the cabin, like what was the typical day like for Thoreau at Walden? What did he… What’d he… How’d he spend his time?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. Well, one of the first things he did was he had a morning bath. So he loved to go out into the pond. He said that he was inclined to think bathing almost one of the necessaries of life. But he said it’s also surprising how indifferent some are to it. If you think about it, like books of hygiene from the 19th century indicated that bathing for cleanliness had not yet become a practice. It was clear that people weren’t bathing to be clean. So his was more of a spiritual practice. He, in fact, there’s a story he tells in his journal about a farmer, Minette, who he was talking to and he said he was thinking of bathing after he was done with his hoeing. And he doesn’t mean his hoeing for the day, he actually means his hoeing for the growing for the entire season. So Minette was gonna bathe after he did his hoeing and taking some soap and going down to Walden and having himself a bath. But something had occurred to prevent it and Minette said that he’ll just go unwashed until the next harvesting.

So I mean, you’re talking about farmers who haven’t bathed for over a year. So Thoreau is doing something a bit unique, but it was definitely more of a spiritual exercise than anything. He would work in his bean field doing some hoeing or other work, sometimes followed by another bath. He confessed that sometimes he would sit in his doorway from sunrise till noon in some sort of reverie just thinking about things. The afternoon was then free in which he could explore the natural world around him or walk into town, visit friends and family in town or at Walden. And also to read and to write. So he spent many hours not only exploring the world around him, but many hours thinking about it, reading about it, and writing about it.

Brett McKay: Well, I wanna talk about the reading aspect. Let’s talk about these, the bean field. ‘Cause he has a whole chapter dedicated to the bean field. Why did he decide to grow beans? ‘Cause from my understanding. Beans weren’t a very profitable crop.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, it’s… It’s always… That is a question that comes up a lot and Thoreau himself didn’t particularly like beans. So it’s kind of a interesting thing and it… He did it sort of as a cash crop, but as you say, it’s not very profitable. I think it plays on a pun, and that is in the idea that a person doesn’t know beans. There’s a New England phrase, I don’t know if it’s all over, if everybody uses it. But they don’t know beans about nothing. They don’t know beans about this, they don’t know beans about that. And I think just the idea of saying, I want to know beans means I wanna know things. I wanna understand things, I wanna be able to grasp things. So yes, he did grow beans, and yes, he had a field where he grew various crops, but I don’t think that’s the reason for it being in Walden. And I think the reason is really to talk about that idea of wanting to know things, to know beans.

Brett McKay: And I also think he picked beans because they didn’t require a lot of work. You just kind of…

Jeffrey Cramer: Right. Easy, yeah.

Brett McKay: He had other stuff he was… More important things to think about besides food.

Jeffrey Cramer: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Also, I think it was sort of a… Kind of a, he was being a… What’s the word? A rebel, right?

Jeffrey Cramer: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: Because at the time this agriculture was really picking up in Concord, all the scientific methods about how to get the most yield, and Thoreau in his section about growing beans, he just say, “I’d sprinkle them around and I’d hoe around a little bit. That’s it.”

I think he’s kind of like putting a thumb in the eye of those guys.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. And in the second year, there was a frost that killed a lot of things. And so it’s not that he’s that upset about it, it’s not like it was his livelihood.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned the reading. Thoreau said, he had this whole chapter about reading the great books. So we’re talking Homer and Aristotle and even the Bhagavad Gita but he even admitted, “Well, when I first got there, I was hoping to read a lot, but I didn’t read as much as I wanted.”

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What happened there?

Jeffrey Cramer: He was just, he was busy, not just busy finishing up his house, which did take time. And as well as the bean field. It’s interesting, people think of him as being off in the woods and not really doing anything but his job, his reason for being, the things he did was studying nature, exploring, thinking, writing. Those are his tasks. So I think he didn’t have enough time for the actual reading because he was so busy doing other things, writing in his journal and exploring the area.

Brett McKay: So you said that he went there to write this book about him and his brother, did he write that book while he was in Walden? Did he, did that happen?

Jeffrey Cramer: He did.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. So while he was at Walden, he wrote two drafts of his first book. He also wrote drafts of Walden. So Walden in its first iteration was written at Walden Pond, even though the later versions of it were written after he was back in Concord. And he also wrote the essay, Katahdin from the book, The Main Woods and probably some kind of draft or notes on Civil Disobedience ’cause he was also arrested and put in jail while he was there. So there was a lot going on in those two years. A lot of writing.

Brett McKay: I don’t think a lot of people know that. I think a lot of people think he just kinda hang out and looked at nature, but he was productive. Let’s talk about the nature, ’cause a lot of the book is just about his observations of nature. What was going on there? Was he trying to be scientific? Was he trying to contribute to what nature is and what it’s like or was it something else going on?

Jeffrey Cramer: I think it was something else going on. I mean, people use his observations now to talk about global warming and to show how things have changed. And so his observations being very precise, they’re very helpful now. But I don’t think that was his purpose. I think his purpose was to try to understand the world we are in. If you think about nature as a gift, a gift from God. The natural world as a gift. It’s a holy place, it’s sacred and to spend time out in nature trying to understand this world we are blessed to be in, was equivalent to anybody else going to church. It was a way that he worshipped God, worshipped the world we live in, worshipped the greater things around us. So, there’s that, but there also is in trying to understand literally about why does this plant grow here and not there? Why when you cut down trees in a field, does a different kind of tree grow? Why or when does the ice break up on Walden Pond and what does that mean? So, he is conducting his own kind of somewhat scientific experiments to try to understand things also at the time.

Brett McKay: Yeah. One of my favorite ones is he tries to figure out how deep Walden Pond is.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yes.

Brett McKay: He goes on the ice, and he drops a hammer down there and he’s able to fish it up somehow with a rope.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. So he would have a rope that would have knots in it, that would tell him how deep it is. And he’d put a weight, usually, I think a rock, so that you can tell when you are plumbing the depth by putting the rope with a rock, you can tell lowering it down when it hits the bottom. ‘Cause there’s a give to the rope. So, in doing that he could very accurately measure Walden Pond. So his measurements that he made in all different directions across the pond when they’ve been tested by today’s method are extremely accurate.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned he besides writing his book, besides working on his beans marginally, besides the nature observation, he spent time writing in his journal. When did he start keeping a journal? Was is it like right as soon he moved in and what was his journaling practice like in general?

Jeffrey Cramer: It was before that. So, it’s literally on October 22, 1837. That’s when he made his first journal entry. So he had been living off and on at the Emerson House, but of course visiting with Emerson a lot. And they would have lots of discussions. And it’s interesting that Emerson wrote in his journal on the next day, October 22, that he was trying to think of people who kept journals. And he could only name the French SAS Montane, his neighbour Bronson Alcott, his aunt Mary Moody Emerson and himself. And he said in his journal, “Besides these, I did not last night think of another.” But it’s clear that he’s having this discussion with Thoreau. And so he then asked Thoreau, “What are you doing now? Do you keep a journal?” And so Thoreau made his very first entry that day in response to Emerson’s question. And then he was writing in it for most of his life until he got too weak and ill in later months to actually write in it. But he wrote in it almost every day.

Brett McKay: What did he write about?

Jeffrey Cramer: Everything. So, as he said, at one point he said, “My journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste.” So, it’s a place to put his thoughts. It’s a place to practice his writing, to rewrite things, to edit, to think about things. It was a, in some ways a storehouse for information, for thoughts. But the journal is kind of interesting thing that people look at as almost like a diary, which it’s not. There’s a difference between a diary and journals, but in some ways that’s more of an academic difference than how Thoreau might have looked at it. But people look at the journal as almost his first response. He is going out in nature, he’s doing this or that. Something happens, let me write my journal. But often he was writing in a field notebook, just a cheaper notebook in which he could jot down notes while he’s out in the woods.

He’s not carrying his journal around with him in the woods. And that’s where he’s writing his first thoughts. And then he would transcribe those entries into his journal, but not always right away. Sometimes it would be that day or that evening. Sometimes it might not be for a day or two. And Thoreau is a writer, so obviously he’s gonna take the ideas that he put down in one form in the field notebook, and as he’s writing into his journal he’s already sort of editing and creating and re-writing as things go. So the journal is often, in many cases, a second idea. A second pass on things, not always.

And so that writing process would be a place where he would put all of his thoughts into those journals, but when he wants to give a lecture, he would go through the journal and cull out ideas that worked together to create a lecture and eventually an essay, and eventually an essay that might end up in a book. But there are places where he is… He will write something and then he will rewrite it the next day or several days later. There’s… I once sort of tracked down the whole different drummer of passage that’s so well known about Thoreau. And you can see him perfecting this over a period literally of years where he’s tossing the idea around, and then he writes something and he rewrites it three months later or six months later before he gets it just right to make that such a quotable phrase.

Brett McKay: That process sounds a lot like what writers do today. Some guy has a tweet, and he’ll take that tweet, and then he’ll turn it into a blog post. And then he might take that blog post and turn into a lecture or like a TED talk, whatever. And then the TED talk turns to an article for the Atlantic Monthly or The New York Times. And then they get a book deal.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. And it is exactly that same process. It’s taking that idea and using it in various forms and adjusting it to the next level per se, and seeing what you could do with it.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So when did Thoreau decide to leave Walden Pond?

Jeffrey Cramer:Well, he left on September 6th, 1847, and he left for actually a very mundane reason, and that was that Emerson was going away on a lecture tour to Europe and Mrs. Emerson, Lydian wanted somebody to take care of her and the house, children while Emerson was gone. And Thoreau had lived in the household before. He was very close to the family. The children loved him, so it made perfect sense. So he went.

Brett McKay: So how long did he stay at Walden?

Jeffrey Cramer: He was there for two years, two months, two days. Kind of a beautifully symmetrical number that has absolutely no significance that anybody’s ever figured out. But it’s interesting when we think about when he was at the Pond or when he left the Pond. People sort of almost conflate the name Thoreau and the name Walden together. I mean, you can almost… It’s almost difficult for people to take the name Thoreau away from Walden or Walden away from Thoreau. They’re so joined at the hip, so to speak, as if it was something that Thoreau could not live without being at Walden Pond. But there’s an interesting thing, and it’s not in any biography ever, and I actually have no idea why biographers sort of either don’t see this point or refuse to see this point. So, as I said, Emerson was going away on a lecture tour to Europe and asks Thoreau if he would come take care of the family. And Thoreau, of course, is gonna say yes.

He would absolutely do that for his friend. But Emerson wasn’t leaving for almost five weeks when he asked Thoreau and Thoreau did something that is so significant. It was, when I first realized it, it just kind of floored me. He packed his bags and moved to the Emerson house. He could have actually stayed at Walden for about four or four and a half more weeks than he did. And so you have to ask yourselves the question if being at Walden Pond was so important to him, so significant, so something he couldn’t do without, he would not have moved to Emerson’s house until the day Emerson was getting on the coach or the train to go to Boston to get the boat to Europe. But he packed his bags and left. And the reason for that, I think is that, because as I said, we tend to equate the things he writes with autobiography, but they’re not. And so it is actually, I think the writing process in which we are meeting the Thoreau that we know through his books.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So like personally, he was probably ready to move on.

Jeffrey Cramer: Right. Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Well, here he said this about ending his Walden experiment. He said, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there, perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Jeffrey Cramer: Absolutely. You know, and it’s… So the 26 months he spent at the Pond, I don’t think they were life defining moments in the same way that, the various other things he did, including the night in jail or other things were not life defining moments. They are moments that inspired him to ask questions about his life or life in general and things that he would then write about. And in that writing process, that’s when Henry David Thoreau becomes Thoreau.

Brett McKay: When did he decide to write Walden? So you mentioned as soon as he went out there, he started getting asked questions. Did this lecture about an autobiography for myself. How far into the experiment did he say, I gotta start writing a book about this experiment?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, I mean, it’s a little unclear because nothing’s dated. So I mean there are manuscripts and there we have the various drafts of Walden, but it’s not clear exactly when those started. But I would say pretty immediately into the experience when people are starting to say, “What are you doing there, Henry.” He started thinking about what did it mean to be there.

Brett McKay: And then how long did it take to write that first draft of the book?

Jeffrey Cramer: Well, he wrote it while he was at Walden, so definitely within a year or two of being there, ’cause he was only there for two years. And then the rest of it took, I mean, there were seven drafts, basically nine years to write the book that we know as Walden.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And you said in one of your other books, Solid Seasons, which is about the friendship of Thoreau and Emerson, going back to this idea that you said that the writing of Walden, not the actual visit to Walden or living at Walden was more significant. You said, “Two years at Walden Pond were not in the end as momentous and as transformative as the writing about those events.” I mean, I wanna flesh this idea out. I mean, so like, what do you think was going on in Thoreau’s head? So you said there’s like, Thoreau the person, but the Thoreau we’re seeing in Walden is not, you said it’s like creative nonfiction. So what, I mean was he trying to do like was he trying to take transcendental ideas that he was kind of baking in, stewing in and superimposing that on his Walden experience or was something else going on?

Jeffrey Cramer: I think there’s some of that. I think it’s… This is a hard one to actually say out loud to people, but there’s very little that Thoreau did that was original. So, we can’t think of somebody going off to live in the woods without thinking of Thoreau. We can’t think of somebody performing an act of civil disobedience and going to jail for the things they believe in without thinking of Thoreau. But all those things have been done before by many people. It’s in the writing of those experiences that he turns it into something not just personal to himself but universal, that at that point we cannot think of that experience without thinking of it as Thoreauvian. When you look at, for instance, Walden, when the book was first published, it was called Walden or Life In The Woods, and he left very clear instructions before he died that that subtitle should be stricken off.

The book should no longer be called Walden or Life In The Woods. It should just be called Walden. And I think, he never states why he did that, but I think the reason is because people were confusing what the book was about. And so when I teach Walden to students or anyone, I don’t talk about Walden as a book about a man living in the woods, I just talk about it as a book about a man living. In which he’s asking himself and his readers questions about how do you conduct your life? How do you conduct your life in relation to your government, your church, your society, your family, your friends, everything around you. How do you conduct your life in such a way that you hopefully can get through it without having regrets? And so I think it’s important to remember that…

I think all of his works are works which are questioning how do we live our lives? It’s not… I mean, even civil disobedience, it’s not just about, his nonpayment of taxes or what he was supporting. It is really about how does a person interact with a government, for instance, that you feel is doing something morally reprehensible. What do you do as an individual about it? Walden is the same. What do you do as an individual to make sure your life is on the right path and you’re doing the right things.

Brett McKay: Right. The personal is universal, is was it was.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yes, exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So you said it took nine years for him to finish Walden. When it was released, how was it initially received by critics?

Jeffrey Cramer: It was, there are some good reviews. There are some bad reviews. I would say overall it was not terribly successful. There was an initial run of 2000 copies, which is, alright, it’s not a great number. And it took the rest of Thoreau’s life to sell that out. But there were people who loved it and were amazed by it. There was a man in New Bedford, a Quaker named Daniel Ricketson, who started a friendship with Thoreau, started correspondence and a friendship because of that book. So there were a lot of people who liked it. He was well respected in some literary circles, but not all. And then after Thoreau died, the book at that point had sold out and then went back into print and has remained in print ever since. So it is actually literally one of the few books of American literature that has virtually been in print ever since it came out.

And that doesn’t happen for most books. They go out of print for periods of time, and that’s never happened for Walden. So the interesting thing is that although it didn’t have a huge success, he, for instance, when he died, or many years after he died, when they were putting together a collected set of his works, he was, for instance, the first American author to have his journals printed in full or what were virtually in full at the time. That didn’t happen for other, more successful or well known authors. It wasn’t Emerson, it wasn’t Hawthorne, it wasn’t Melville, it was Henry David Thoreau who has journals published in full. So I think he was respected in many ways, but he really wasn’t read a lot. And really, he wasn’t read in colleges and such until the 1940s and 1950s. So for virtually 100 years after he died, he was really just kind of a footnote to Emerson and the transcendental ideas. People weren’t really reading him a lot, but things changed. And now he is, well read a lot. He’s certainly read a lot.

Brett McKay: Yeah. What happened? What caused these changes? This happened to Melville as well. I remember when Moby-Dick came out, it wasn’t a success, but it wasn’t until like the 20th century that it became this American classic. What happened with Thoreau?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, Yeah. I mean, in fact Melville, when he died was virtually forgotten. Which is, amazing when you think about it. I think for Thoreau, it was the right things at the right time. So by, in the 1940s, people were reading things like Civil Disobedience and they were literally using it during World War II to be conscientious objectors. The reason people read Thoreau varies a lot. I mean, you have people who love the nature writing. And you have people who love the civil disobedient. You have people who love various aspects of from the spiritual whatever it is that people find in Thoreau. And that comes in different periods. So when we get into, for instance the 1960s, where Thoreau is considered like the original hippie, it’s people who are trying to find a more natural way of life. So, and a more simple way of life. So of course Thoreau’s going to appeal to them. You have people later who, it’s all about nature and the descriptions of nature and the understanding of nature. You have various reasons for why people read Thoreau, but I think once people got hold of Thoreau starting in the 1940s and ’50s, people didn’t stop reading him.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about some of the criticisms that are levied at Walden. ‘Cause Walden’s one of those books that people either they love it, well, I don’t know, maybe there’s a lot of people who’s… They’re indifferent to it. But people I’ve talked to, they’re, they either love it. It’s like, “I’ve read that book when I was in high school and it’s like really influenced me.” Or there’s people who’s like, “Ah, that book, what a phony.” I mean, that’s one of the criticisms of Thoreau’s experiments. Like, it wasn’t, it was insufficiently authentic, right? I mean they say that, Well, Thoreau made it sound like he was, living this very wild and solitary life when, he actually was close to town. He regularly had visitors, and then he… Thoreau he makes himself out as this paragon of self sufficiency when his family sometimes fed him and so on and so on. What do you think about that criticism?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah. So I think the people who think they know about Thoreau they really haven’t read his works, or maybe they’ve read Walden for instance, but it’s a cursory reading. They’re not really paying attention because they’re not getting it what Thoreau wrote, they’re only getting some ideas of what they think Thoreau wrote about. Thoreau is really clear everywhere in that book. He is not off in the wilderness. He is not far from town. He talks about walking into town every day or two. He talks about visitors, he talks about visiting people. He is literally not making any of those statements that people levy against him. And so people are coming to Walden with misconceptions that they will not let go of. And every so often people write articles about Thoreau and Thoreau being the hypocrite that he is and all of that kind of thing.

But that’s ’cause people are not reading him carefully. It’s, they think of him as some kind of hermit. Somebody who went away from society, not true. Society was always important to him. I mean, being part of a community, being part of Concord, being part of his family, those were important things. He didn’t walk away from anything or try to get away from… It’s kind of interesting. If you think about the time he spent at Walden Pond, the two years, two months, two days. That’s 5% of his life. That means that 95% of his life that was spent living in a town, primarily Concord, a short time in New York and in Cambridge. But somehow we ignore this Thoreau, who spent his day interacting with family and friends and farmers, strangers, students, employers and audiences, and think only about the time at Walden Pond, turn him into a hermit and then call him a hypocrite because he wasn’t. I just think people are, they get him wrong.

I talk to a lot of students. And for many of them, that idea of living a Thoreauvian life has to do with separating themselves from society, shutting off their phones maybe, or unplugging their laptops, going off on their own, living in the woods or some equivalent, or like Christopher McCandless going off into the wild. And I tell them, “No. You’ve got it all wrong. That is not what it’s about. It’s just about how to live your life.” And I think people who feel that they need to do something Thoreauvian and in doing that, it is going and building a cabin in the woods or going off somewhere to the mountains or whatever, are really missing the point of what the book is about.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You say it’s about living deliberately. Well, not necessarily. That’s not deliberately in the woods, but just living deliberately in general.

Jeffrey Cramer: Absolutely. And people love to tear down iconic figures. I mean, there was an article in The New Yorker several years ago by Katherine Schultz, where she just tears Thoreau down. Several years before that John Updyke had done a similar kind of piece, tearing Emerson down. I mean, there’s just something about a target and it’s easy to fling accusations at writers you don’t quite understand. And there are reasons why writers do that because it certainly gets them an audience who are gonna cheer them on. But, yeah, I think you’re right. I think most people do either love or hate Thoreau. I don’t think there’s any sort of middle ground with him. I remember giving… I was giving a lecture somewhere and somebody came out to me beforehand and said, “Oh. You’re doing the Thoreau talk later.” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I hate him.”

And it’s like, “Oh. Well, then don’t come.” It’s… I don’t understand why people are so interested in tearing him down. Read Thoreau, if you like him, keep reading him. If you don’t like him, put the book down and go somewhere and do something else. But there are people who are strongly vehement about tearing him down and calling him a hypocrite.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think what you’ve been saying that it wasn’t… The actual Walden experience wasn’t that… I mean, he left. Right? Just…

Jeffrey Cramer: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: He wasn’t attached to it. But I think he saw that it was a symbol for something larger of that whole idea that he wanted… I’m gonna… I’m not just gonna do whatever my parents did or what Concord people want me to do. I want… I wanna live life on my terms. That’s what… Walden is just a symbol of that.

Jeffrey Cramer: Right. Yeah. And it’s… I think about the criticisms about him as being contradictory and all that. But, I actually love that about him. I mean, I… It’s part of what attracts me to him as a writer and as a human being. When we have these iconic figures, we sometimes like to make them out of stone and not out of clay. We want them in something solid and not really malleable and wanna be able to say Thoreau was a… Whatever. A blank. And that should be who Thoreau is from the day he was born till the day he died. But… I mean, the fact is Thoreau was the vegetarian who ate meat, or the conservationist who surveyed woodlots to be cut down, the pacifist who endorsed violence. I mean, he’s the hermit who loved gossip. There’s just so much that is not… I don’t wanna call it contradictory or even hypocrisy. It is a person who is absolutely willing to question everything about himself all the time and to grow. And it’s something that people, I think, have trouble with.

Brett McKay: No. I totally get that. I mean, I love Thoreau for that reason too. So what he does in Walden, he’ll have these things where he’s kind of ranting about some aspect of life. And it’s not that he’s like, “Well, I’m just gonna reject that.” He’s like, “Well, I’m still gonna take part in that. But here’s some stuff that I’m just… I… It’s not that great. Maybe I can make it better.” So for example, we often think of Thoreau as this hermit. This loner. But like you said, he had guests coming in all the time. He had this one instance where he talked about, “I had like 20 people in my house.” So he loved people.

But then he has this thing in this… In the chapter on solitude. I just… I laughed out loud when I read it. He said this, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day… ” This is my favorite part. “And give each other a new taste of the old musty cheese that we are.” [chuckle] And you read that like, “Man. Henry, you’re cynical.” But I mean, I think all of his experience that… We… You might… Even though you love being around people, there’s periods where just like, “Ahh. Just… These people are annoying me. I need a break. ”

Jeffrey Cramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, ’cause he did love people, but he… People talked to him as if he was… He didn’t like people. And that’s so wrong because he actually loved conversing with people. But what he particularly loved in conversing with anybody is an exchange of ideas. So, he doesn’t want to sit around and say, “Oh. What did you have for lunch?” It’s really, “What did you think about while you had your lunch? What are your thoughts?” And if those thoughts hadn’t changed, there’s no point in getting together again. He was annoyed when people wanted to come on walks with him. I mean, walking in the woods was not… For Thoreau, that was work. He is working when he’s walking in the woods. And he said somewhere that he wouldn’t necessarily follow a doctor and watch them with a patient. You… ‘Cause they’re doing their work. But when Thoreau’s out in the woods and doing his work, people just think he’s walking in the woods and having a nice time of it. So people would accompany him sometimes. And that was exasperating to him because it was interfering with his process.

Brett McKay: Well, another contradiction I noticed in Walden is, he’d have these rants against industry and business. But at the same time he’d have these sections where he would speak admirably of the spiritedness of these new New England industrialists. And I thought… I mean, I think… I mean that’s what I think a lot of people have a hard time with individuals who are like that. Who won’t take sides on things, who can see both the good and bad. And that’s one of the things I love about Thoreau.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, me too. And, people look at some of the things he said about industry and think he was, you know, some kinda Luddite who did not like progress. But again, that’s so absolutely not true. I mean, he was very interested in progress. If you think about it, he was published by some of the greatest publishers of his day who used the greatest and newest techniques for publishing. You know, he used the railroad, I mean, it’s… He wrote it had things that were annoying about it. They were noisy and they caused fires, and woods were torn down. But on the other hand, that railroad was something that allowed Thoreau to get from Concord to Cambridge or Boston to use the libraries in a relatively short amount of time. So these were tools to be used. I know there’s this passage where he talks about farmers and how they used to set their time pieces or watches, clocks, whatever, by the sun.

And, you know, the sun is overhead. It must be noon. But when the train started coming through Concord, they started setting their time pieces by the train. The train’s coming through, it must be two o’clock. And losing that sort of vital connection to the world around them. And so Thoreau, I think was somebody who admired technology but did not love it when technology ruled people. You shouldn’t set your clock by the the train.

So, I think about just all of the people today, myself included, how we’re tied to our phones, you know, things like that. The phone buzzes or rings and some kind of message. You know, we gotta go see who it is or what they’re talking about. And not refusing to run just because the bell goes off. To use technology as a tool. I mean, people say, if Thoreau were here, wouldn’t he have a laptop? And it’s like, well, of course he’d have a laptop. He’s a writer. What writer doesn’t have a laptop? You know, he loved to do research. Think of the, you know, how much Thoreau would love the idea of going on the internet and finding most of the books he’s looking for, right there for him to read. It would be amazing. So, but that would be using the technology and not letting the technology use him.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s a common thing he looked at in Walden, like, don’t become a tool of your tools.

Jeffrey Cramer: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Talked about the rails, like we used to ride on the rails, but now the rails ride on us. Don’t…

Jeffrey Cramer: Yes.

Brett McKay: Avoid that. Make sure use this stuff, but don’t make sure you’re not subjected or like, you become a servant to this stuff.

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, absolutely.

Brett McKay: So what principles or inspiration do you think people in the modern world here in the 21st century, whether they live a more wild or more domesticated life, what do you think they can take from Thoreau’s Walden experiment?

Jeffrey Cramer: Well, I think certainly the idea about questioning what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. I think trying to understand, I mean, a lot of what Thoreau is about is trying to understand who he himself is. What does he feel and think about things. There’s a quotation that I actually love. It’s one of Thoreau’s shortest ones so I can actually memorize it. And he said, “If I am not I, who will be?” And I love that because so many of us, whether we’re children, students in high school or college or adults, we could be 80 years old and still doing this, where we sometimes deny or hide who we are, because we want to be accepted. We wanna be brought into the fold, you know, things like that. And so we spend a lot of our lives not being true to ourselves for various reasons. And I think the thing like that’s most inspiration about Thoreau is the idea that you need to be true to yourself and figuring out who you are and then be that person. I mean, if you think about how absolutely unique each of us are as individuals, you know, that we should be proud of who we are, what we believe in, what our preferences are, what are, you know, anything about us that makes us who we are. And that’s such a beautiful thing that comes out of Thoreau.

Brett McKay: So you’ve been studying the life and writings of Thoreau for decades. I’m curious, in your own life, how has his thoughts and ideas influenced you? And then also like how has it changed as you’ve gotten older, ’cause I think it’s interesting. I think a lot of us read Walden when we’re 17, 18, early twenties. And it, it hits different from when you’re in your forties and fifties. So I’m, curious personally, how’s that influenced your life?

Jeffrey Cramer: Yeah, in fact it’s one of the things when I talk to high school students and they don’t like the book, I say, “That’s absolutely fine, but read it again when you’re 30 or read it when you’re 50 or 60 because it will be a different book.” You know, I mean it’s been really helpful to me in ways that, it’s kind of hard to sort of figure out how to phrase it. But it’s really taking the ideas that Thoreau has about questioning ourselves and testing them out on me. You know, it’s taking the ideas of simplicity. It’s taking the ideas of being true to yourself. It’s taking the ideas of not harming other people, being good to the world around you, trying to improve the world around you that you have to take sort of seriously. There’s a great quotation, if I can remember it exactly by the Austrian philosopher Martin Buber. And Buber had said that Thoreau, “He addressed his readers in a way that they discovered not only why Thoreau acted as he did, but also it’s the reader assuming him, of course, to be honest and as passionate, would have to act in just such a way whenever the proper occasion arose, provided he was seriously engaged and fulfilling his existence as a human being.”

And I kind of love that idea, that when you read Thoreau, or at least when I read Thoreau, I wanna be better than I am. I wanna be a better person, I want to do more for my neighbors or the people around me, I wanna make the world a better place. And that is what I get out of Thoreau and find most inspiring about him. Because it doesn’t really let you off the hook, and I don’t wanna be let off off the hook. I don’t wanna glide through life as he said, “like his neighbors who are asleep”. I wanna be awake to what’s going on around me and face things whether it’s good or bad. But face them and deal with them in whatever way I can.

Brett McKay: Well Jeffrey, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Jeffrey Cramer: So I have a website, and that’s where people can sort of keep tabs on the work I’m doing and where I might be speaking or, what I’m publishing these days. And for the work I do for the Walden Woods Project, they can go to and find out about what I’m doing there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jeffrey Cramer, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jeffrey Cramer: My pleasure. And thank you so much for Brett for inviting me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Jeffrey S. Cramer. He’s the curator of collections at the Walden Woods Project Library. He’s also the author and editor of several books about Thoreau and Walden, including Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AoM Podcast you can do so in Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AoM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continuous support. Until next time this is Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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