Walden Historical Context 📖

The historical context of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ connects to the start of the New England transcendentalism movement – touching back to as far as the American Revolution and the cultural zeitgeist of such eras.


Henry David Thoreau

During these eras – as Thoreau partly documents in ‘Walden,’ there was a growing surge of individual awakening that held sway over the Unitarianism-powered social convention, as many Americans began welcoming the ideas of self-reliance and individualism while shunning European (foreign) ideas on both individual and societal levels. In this article, key historical timelines will be analyzed.

The American Revolution

The American revolution of 1775 is perhaps the farthest historical event that served as the planting bed for the awakening of the American people which resulted in a drastic change from the acceptance of European rules and ideas to believing in the ideas of self-responsibility and self-rule.

Although the root cause of this event, historians still debate, was either triggered by a minor scuffle between locals and foreign settlers up north of America or caused by an overarching inner desire for democracy and the complete self-rule of America by Americans. Whatever the case may be, one thing was clear, the American revolution became a catalyst for the country’s attainment of democratic rule.

The Start of New England Transcendentalism

On the 4th of July, 1776, America got her independence from British rule, a year after the event of the American revolution. However, despite what felt like good national progress, the people, particularly the elite minds, were not satisfied with the state of affairs, and this was mostly because foreign rules and ideologies were still running the country from the shadows. 

These elite minds included the likes of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a younger Ralph Waldo Emerson, Branson Alcott, and W.E. Channing, among others. This group of persons would later pioneer the formation of the New England transcendentalist movement to force out the long-standing traditional Unitarian systems already in place and fanatically practiced by seniors and the elderly population. 

With a mindset shift, Emerson and Co. traveled far and wide abroad – across Europe mostly – learning and educating themselves in disciplines including philosophy, theology, German transcendentalism, and world politics. Greece and Germany were especially the most favored destinations for these American scholars who sought to change their country by carving out an original, bespoke ideology for the people.

They gleaned from the works of notable philosophers and change-makers such as Thomas Carlyle, Emanuel Swedenborg, Plato, and the like. Soon, they had gathered enough ideologies and refined them into costume-made ideals that resonated with their worldviews, The New England Transcendentalism. Emerson and other young followers began practicing the new movement in their local Concord area around 1830, but it was always going to be at loggerheads with the existing Christian-based Unitarian ideology practices by their fathers.

Thoreau’s Impact on Transcendentalism

Henry David Thoreau was just a boy when Waldo Emerson, Branson Alcott, and the others were setting the superstructure for New England Transcendentalism. However, his entrance into the scene, along with a few transcendentalists’ young, bright stars, had a huge impact on the progress of the movement – especially with ‘Walden’ publication. 

Thoreau’s transcendentalist beliefs were similar to the models of Emerson, his influence because they both upheld the principles of individualism as well as emphasized spiritual superiority over materialism. However, unlike Emerson, Thoreau’s expression of his Transcendentalist values was on nature and natural things, as he imagined them as metaphors for spiritual growth. 

Through his book ‘Walden,’ Thoreau proposed the ‘nature’ angle of transcendentalism and inspired thousands of his contemporaries – giving them a good reason to have a mindset shift. 


How did Thoreau express his transcendentalist ideas in ‘Walden’?

Thoreau’s transcendental expressions revolved around nature and the love of all natural things. He found them as portals through with anyone could have a personal spiritual encounter and enlightenment – which was the goal of a typical transcendentalist.

How was earlier acceptance of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ ideas?

The ideas imprinted in Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ was first viewed as being strange and ridiculous; however, over time, more and more people started piquing interest and having an understanding of the rationality beyond his ideas. 

How is ‘Walden’ influenced by the American revolution?

The American revolution of 1775 had a somehow indirect influence on Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ because the event marked the beginning of the people’s mindset shift from Unitarianism towards individualism – which was one of the core values of transcendentalism. 

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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