There's some nice, flowery prose here. Also some overly discursive and recursive prose that I found tedious.
But overall, and I'm writing this as someone who's happiest living out in the woods where I can't see my neighbors, the book drove me bonkers. His privilege is suffocating. He talks against things he was a huge subscriber and user of (Post Office, railroad, etc), writing about how we'd be better off without them, how he has no need of them, etc. He portrays himself as a common man supporting himself on his own labor... but he's on this property with express permission, certainly was not destitute going into this, and should things go very poorly he had plenty of reasonably wealthy friends who could help him get back on his feet. He likes to educate folks who come from lesser means about how his way is so much better and fulfilling, but at the same time ignoring the situational elements that allow his way of life.
There are definitely sentiments I enjoy here, but they're wrapped in so much of the above that it was frustrating. Land and resource management are almost moot when you're one person living in the woods. Once you start facing large congregations and communities things aren't as simple as his hybrid farmer/hunter-gatherer lifestyle enjoins, and for all that he speaks against it, he too enjoys the products of commerce and industrialization.
I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVAR understand the association between scribbling in the margins and becoming a more "active" reader. Where is the logic????
As you may have guessed, I read this for school and am referring to the abominable requirement by the vast majority of English classes called "annotating." I did not read the entirety of the book, but rather a select few of specific chapters: "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," "Solitude," "Spring," "Conclusion," and the essay "Civil Disobedience," which is not part of Walden but is included in this volume.
First, I apologize. Great American Romantic or no, I could not get into this. *ducks* Those looking for extensive analysis, thoughtful processing, and intense scrutinizing of textual evidence should look elsewhere.
I will confess that having to read this with a figurative gun to my head played a large part in my reaction. When you're being exhorted left and right to view a writer as "great" regardless of your own independent observations, the temptation to play devil's advocate is so overwhelmingly alluring, although I prefer to think of my judgment as impartial. (ha)
It's just, here's the thing. I know these people were ahead of their times and all, that they faced social repercussions for thinking outside of the box, that they might even have kicked off future movements, like the civil rights movement in this case. (Although really, I think crediting the civil rights movement and MLK's leadership to Thoreau is going way too far--the movement happened because a giant section of the population was being unfairly disenfranchised, not because some white guy started it all with his wise white words.)
But...how about now? Doesn't that mean these "classics" are outdated? Will this stuff be relevant to ME?
One of the things that absolutely drove me up the wall was Thoreau's repeated use of "man" and "mankind" as synonyms for "human" and "humankind." I was told that this guy was progressive for his time, goddammit. (Ditto for Emerson's Self-Reliance and Other Essays, too.)
Why that bothers me so much is another issue. I think that it's because this is a book that ruminates on the wrongs and ills of society--in addition to making sweeping generalizations of how humanity should behave and fight against unjust social and political structures--at a time when feminism was already starting to become a thing, yet Thoreau blindsides an entire gender of people as if they don't fucking exist.
Again, I admit I might have tolerated this if I read it of my own will. Alas, Thoreau shall have to bear the brunt of my increasingly belligerent feminist temper tantrums.
He does, however, give several nice denunciations of slavery, for instance in "Civil Disobedience":
...when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
Thank you. Now remember that half of all blacks are women too, pretty please?
Another thing is that I find Thoreau's biography (what I learned in class anyway, so I could be missing something here and I'm far too lazy to Google it) shockingly unimpressive, having only spent a single night in jail before being bailed out. Much of the philosophizing like quoted above came almost entirely from meditating in naaaaaature (well, it is a memoir) rather than firsthand social experience, and hence lacks the down-to-earth immediacy I expect when it comes to discourse on issues of any kind, particularly a classic as venerated as this.
I mean, seriously. If you're going to spend two years as a semi-solitary hermit in the wild, then of course you can afford to pass bland aesthetic judgments of no relevance whatsoever to people who actually live in the world you rejected and criticize.
Thoreau is a lot more concerned about ideals than practicality, and his commentary reflects that distance. One symptom of this is the anti-industrialist sentiments expressed, which for the most part I found so holier-than-thou and blandly naive as to be totally irrelevant to any discussion of industrialism-- decrying the ugly artificiality of human civilization and the innocent beauty of the natural world before humans come in and ruin it all, blah blah blah.
You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into.
And all I could think to myself was, whatever.
All that said, Thoreau is a stunningly beautiful prose writer, and the neutral-literary part of myself loved going over his sentences almost as a form of therapy. "Spring" is full of glittering descriptions of what is essentially the awakening of a new world, and by extension, the awakening of the self. The lush landscape portrayed, combined with Thoreau's love of botany and science, is a real treat and fairly spoiling for a reader who loves to get immersed. Anyone with an ounce of love for nature in their veins should read that chapter, if nothing else.
Still, I think I'm gonna go with Whitman. Reading "Song of Myself" at the moment and it is delightfully inclusive, as well as earthly and relatable in a way Thoreau never was for even a single millisecond I spent with him. Perhaps one day I'll return to Thoreau without the school-incurred resentment and recognize his literary glory for myself.