I was originally titled Life in the Woods, because the bulk of me was written in an isolated cabin approximately a mile away from basic civilization. Later I was called Walden. I was written by Henry David Thoreau – a philosopher in the Transcendental movement who sought self-discovery as a sojourner away from civilized life. That is what I’m about: his conquest to overcome the superfluity of everyday life and to find happiness in the life already present around him. Of course, that is a very general explanation of my purpose, but certainly it fulfills the requirements of a broad-spectrum overview.
When I was first published, I did not know what to expect. People at the time did not really have a classification for works like me. I was not necessarily leisure reading; I was kind of seen as a dense newspaper. I was nonfiction, and at the time, where American Romantics were sprouting charily designed worlds of fiction, people did not have much room on their shelves for the verbose ramblings of a Transcendental lunatic. They did not read to confront the real world so much as they read to escape from it.
Likewise, the books I came across felt very much the same. When I first left Concord for Chicago in the late 1860s, I was introduced to a library of works – all fiction. They could not comprehend the purpose for my existence, not in a direct way at least. According to them, the fundamental purpose of a creative work was to be imaginative, especially with Romantic works, where the lines drawn between reality and surreal are essentially nonexistent. I remember one confrontation in particular with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work The Blithedale Romance, where he openly questioned my privilege as a member of the academic literary community.
“I don’t understand why you are here,” he spat coldy.
“What does it matter?”
“What do you mean, ‘what does it matter?’,” he shot back. “All of us real literary works have are dues in the canon, but you? You are nothing but dry opinion. You hold the words of nothing purposeful. What can readers possibly take from you, other than poorly-drawn conclusions of a simple life?” Then he dwelled for a moment. “A simple life? What excitement does that offer?”
I silently ignored. The words in me may be confrontational and outspoken, but I am shy. I do not like confrontation.
“Readers will be through with you before they even start,” Blithedale continued. “We do not live in a world of fools. They will see right through your urgent demeanor and find that you are nothing more than a travesty of words.”
After a couple of years of this abuse, I decided that Chicago was not the place for me. Academia was shallow and short-sighted. The students were merely products of their professors, and no one could really fully develop a true understanding of themselves and the works they read without invalid distortion of the texts. They just tossed around unsubstantiated ideas, until they eventually found themselves generalizing to a very simple, very wrong conclusion. I do not like to be misunderstood.
My next quest was to take to the idea of my author: to find simplicity. Academia was too stern and too complicated. I decided to reduce myself from a library of many to a library of one. I was taken by an intellectual in Pennsylvania, who appreciated the words I had to offer him. I have to say that this was the most pleasant time of my existence. He opened me up to read at least once a week, and he read me everywhere. I was no longer confined to libraries, classrooms, and cluttered bookshelves, but I was allowed to explore the delicate scenery of the world, like Thoreau. I was read on beaches and bus stops and railways and park benches and walking paths and porch swings. I was able to observe and delight. And I was appreciated, not because I was a source of entertainment – a humorous punch line not to be taken seriously – but because I contained ideas and I was powerful.
I also met many of my contemporaries in this period of my life. I ran into the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and discovered the influence the author had on Thoreau and my birth. I even discovered that Emerson owned the property on which I had been written, and had not been for him, I would have never been written. So, as to be expected, the works of Emerson and myself became very good friends.
On one occasion, a collection of essays by Emerson confronted me and asked, “Walden, why do you think we are here?”
“What do you mean?” I inquired back.
“I don’t know,” he pondered momentarily. “We are books filled with grand, philosophical ideas, and although we are admired by many, I can’t help but wonder if we are even purposeful at all. Who has use for these ideas?”
“Honestly,” I answered plainly. “I don’t know.”
And, at the time, I didn’t know. For works like Emerson and Thoreau, purpose cannot be generalized to a specific point, and that’s something I couldn’t understand at the time. The world is still so dominated by works of fiction; it’s difficult to find a common place for ideas. But the purpose of a written work – especially a work like me – is not created by the work itself, but is created by the individual reading it. That was something I had to discover.
Eventually, the public grew more appreciative of me, and I ended up back in the academic literary canon. I was reluctant to return, but I thought I would try it again, for the sake of education. Even though my last encounter with academia left me jaded with their system of learning, I’m still deeply appreciative of the learning process. So I returned.
Several decades later, and it appeared as though students were beginning to expand their willingness to learn. With more flexibility in the classroom, students opened their minds and were beginning to discover things about me that I didn’t even consider. It was a very informative process, this learning thing.
They began to intently explore Thoreau’s journey into the woods, to understand why he did it, and why it was important. Why I was important. This was the most meaningful time in my life. This was my Walden Pond. I began to understand myself better than ever before.
And this is what I’ve learned: I am not inherently purposeful. My reason for existing is not concrete, it is not direct, and furthermore, I do not care whether it is or not. Truthfully, most books like myself desire purpose – a reason for existing. They are not content with just being, in the simplest way possible. That is not okay with them. They must have a higher purpose, because all words must be written for one. Some find solace in the fact that they entertain, or that they allegorically explain, or satirize life, but no matter what, they have to be aware of their purpose. However, I have found my purpose is not clear cut. It is not obvious and that is okay. Like Thoreau, I do not mind living simply, or living deliberately. Honestly, I am happy just to have been created, to exist without agenda. I am contented because I exist. I am not a story with a plot or structured characters or purposeful conflicts, but I am as solid and real as any book with a hardcover binding. I am alive.