Book Review: Philosophy Grown in Nature: Thoreau’s Anti-Capitalist Revolution in the Woods

By Hannah Robinson

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, With an Introduction and Notes by Jonathan Levin (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003 [1854]). 315 pages.

Walden Thoreau

In Walden; or, Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau recounts living at Walden Pond in near isolation and how his social experiment influenced his anti-capitalist and transcendentalist philosophies. Thoreau lived next to Walden Pond for two years but reduced the narrative of his experiences to one year, dividing the book into four seasons: Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. While devised as a narrative, Thoreau employs metaphors, allusions, and hyperbole to transform his project of personal introspection into a biting critique of American society in the mid-nineteenth century. Thoreau writes to the “mass of men who are discontented,” urging individuals to reassess the “true necessaries and means of life” by returning to nature and in turn discovering the woes of materialism, the benefits of self-improvement, and man’s individual agency (11).    

At the core of his argument, Thoreau proposes that nature and society are separate entities. Further, he argues that society, and capitalism, corrupts individuals and the best way for humans to become pure is to return to nature or at least mimic nature’s simplicity (65). Thoreau begins with “Economy,” an introduction to both his time spent at Walden Pond and an overview of his reflections on American economic and social conditions. In “Economy” Thoreau outlines the problems in American society. He emphasizes the wrongness of materialism. Thoreau’s thoughts on materialism are reflective of larger trends in American thought, specifically the worry that the American overvaluation of luxury would lead to the decline of republican ideals and ultimately the fall of the republic.

In later chapters, such as “the Bean Field” and “the Ponds,” Thoreau writes about the biological and geological attributes of the Massachusetts countryside. Thoreau’s detailed, scientific observations of nature serve to place Walden Pond in the imagination of the reader and advance his philosophical argument (153). While Thoreau is deeply attached to nature, he uses nature as a means to convey his intellectual arguments. Thoreau concludes the book with a call to arms. He stresses the risk of materialism, urges his audience to become introspective, and pushes his reader “to live the life which he has imagined” (253).

While verbose and densely layered, Walden is an incredibly important book because Thoreau represents an early American perspective on the roles of nature and society in American thought. He believes nature and society are separate, one good, and one corrupt; and writers, scholars, and environmental historians have grappled with this complicated relationship ever since. For example, in 1967 historian Roderick Nash argues that Thoreau contributed to a new American conception of wilderness because he praised both the rural and the wild, while prior to Thoreau Americans’ mainly idealized the pastoral. In addition, English scholar Jonathan Levin argues that Thoreau is representative of intellectual thought in America in the mid-nineteenth century with his “critique of the material and moral condition of life” (xxvi).

For further reading on intellectual life in nineteenth century American check out Ross Barrett's article "Violent Prophecies" in American Art 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013). For more on historian Roderick Nash's take on Thoreau read Wilderness and the American Mind.