Historical Context in Walden
Historical Context Examples in Walden:
"not being the owner..." See in text (Economy)
One thing that Thoreau fails to mention is that he is living on land owned by his friend and fellow transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is important to consider, because while Thoreau does much to advocate for people to be self-reliant, he appears to ignore the privilege and fortune at his disposal to live on land allowed him by a generous friend. Many are not afforded such luxuries.
"Old Johnson, in his "Wonder-Working Providence,"..." See in text (Economy)
Considered the first printed history of New England, Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence relates events around the lives of colonists in the Massachusetts area in the early to mid 17th century. Thoreau brings up Captain Johnson's account as an example of a simpler time for those who colonized New England before the advent of more modern technology.
"Chapman..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau is quoting the work of the English playwright George Chapman from his play "The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey." In addition to his own works, Chapman is also well remembered for his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
"Middlesex Cattle Show..." See in text (Economy)
The Middlesex Agricultural Society in Middlesex County, Massachusetts was organized in 1794 and steadily grew in local popularity with the help of their annual cattle show. Thoreau notes that this event is well regarded and popular among farmers.
"eight hundred dollars..." See in text (Economy)
Walden was published in 1854, and so this amount of money in more modern terms, taking inflation into account, would be valued at approximately $22,000.
"be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau is quoting from the Vishnu Purana, one of the eighteen Maha (or great) Puranas, a genre of ancient and medieval texts of Hinduism. This Purana primarily centers around the god Vishnu and is one of the most studied Puranas, containing controversial details of the genealogy of various dynasties. As mentioned earlier, Thoreau and other thinkers in the 19th century took a strong interest in exploring Eastern religions and philosophies.
"Bramins..." See in text (Economy)
"Bramin" (spelled "Brahmin" or "Brahman") refers to a member of the priestly caste of the Hindu faith. During the 19th century, many philosophers looked to the dominant religions in parts of Asia for new perspectives on spiritual enlightenment. Thoreau will later talk of the influence such faiths had on the transcendentalist movement.
"When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again..." See in text (Economy)
In Walden, Thoreau builds on the philosophy of transcendentalism that was most famously described in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance." In that essay, Emerson established a set of ideals for living that combined abstract philosophy with practical advice. Walden builds on these ideas. Interestingly, Emerson owned the land that he allowed Thoreau to built his house on. The ideals that both of these men espouse in their works is for people to have unfailing trust in themselves and confidence in their abilities, preferring individuality to conformity.
"Is it impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the intellectualness of the civilized man?..." See in text (Economy)
Thoreau uses this rhetorical question to challenge assumptions of knowledge regarding behavior and the function of certain necessities. His aim is to demonstrate that the toughness of a "primitive" life can be combined with the intellectual aspects of "civilization." It is worth noting that Thoreau, like others at the time, viewed Western civilization as more advanced and intellectually superior to other cultures around the world. Consequently, many writers like Thoreau exoticized and romanticized native cultures outside the European experience.
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
"the exact state or ruin of things in Spain..." See in text (Where I Lived, and What I Lived For)
Thoreau is referring to the political issues that were taking place in Spain and Portugal during the 1830s and 1840s. He uses this international example in order to further state his opinion that such news is unnecessary, like the post office, because events like this and yearning for more information on them take people away from more important things.
"Orpheus..." See in text (The Village)
Orpheus was a central figure of Greek mythology. He was an exceptionally gifted musician and poet, known for his ability to enthrall animals with his performances. The quotation about Orpheus Thoreau uses comes from “Wisdom of the Ancients,” a work of collected mythology by the English Elizabethan-era author Francis Bacon.
"the diamond of Kohinoor...." See in text (The Ponds)
The “diamond of Kohinoor” refers to the legendary 186-carat Koh-i-noor diamond from India. The diamond was famously seized in the name of Queen Victoria during the conquest of Punjab in 1849, four years after Thoreau set out for Walden.
"to make sandpaper..." See in text (The Ponds)
During Thoreau’s early years, his family made a living by manufacturing sandpaper and pencils. Thoreau would do intermittent work at the pencil factory over the course of his adult life, making refinements to the processes of pencil and graphite production.
"One proposes that it be called "God's Drop."..." See in text (The Ponds)
This is a reference to author and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and neighbor in Concord, who had suggested the name “God's Drop” for Walden Pond.
"Revolution..." See in text (The Ponds)
This is a reference to the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), when the American Colonies rebelled against the British Empire for independence. Thoreau made his trip to Walden about seventy years after the revolution.
"heathen..." See in text (Higher Laws)
According to Christian doctrine, a “heathen” is a person who has not been exposed to Christianity or has not acknowledged the Christian God of the Bible. The term is often equated to “pagan.” In this passage, Thoreau displays his open-mindedness with regards to religious belief systems. To Thoreau, it is not obvious that a Christian behaves better than a follower of another religion. From his writings, it is clear that he found Chinese and Hindu ideas to be immensely instructive.
"Mencius..." See in text (Higher Laws)
Meng Ke (ca. 372–289 BCE) was a Chinese philosopher, teacher, and the most famous disciple of Confucius. Thoreau agreed with many of the concepts of the Confucian school, namely the idea that humans are inherently good and noble.