Civilization and Modernity: Thoreau’s Experience likened Universal

Griffin Fraser, Rachel Swihart, Mari Greaney, Izzy Covert, Cole Donley, and Syd Hollister


Thoreau’s changes in these passages reflect his changing opinions on how people fit into modern society. Thoreau’s changes, such as ‘man’ to ‘family’ and trying to decide whether to use the term ‘savage’ or ‘Indian’ when referring to Native American, in this section of text about property and the drawbacks of modernity, reflect his evolving beliefs about how certain groups of people fit into and interact with modern civilization.


One of the main challenges we faced in this project was locating all of the manuscript pages for the versions of 45a, b, c, d, and 46a and b. The only manuscript pages we were able to easily find using the manuscript search tool was version A for 45a, c, d, and 46a, and version B for 45b. In order to overcome this and actually see the changes in the manuscript leaves that were reflected in the fluid text, we had to find leaves that were fairly close in the versions we were looking for and combing the subsequent pages for words or phrases in the sections we were looking for. Using these methods, we were able to find all the manuscript leaves that reflected changes in the passages we chose.

Changes in the Manuscript

Throughout the passages of Walden our group was able to find many changes that Thoreau made from his first versions that he created, to version D. The passages we have decided to focus on are Economy 45 and 46.

Changes Between Version A and Version B

When looking at paragraph 45, the first thing we noticed is that version A is somewhat shorter than version B. In the beginning of the paragraph, he makes a few word changes. We think he changes man to family, which indicates that he understands that modernity and the property crisis does not only affect the ‘man of the house,’ or the ‘head of the household’ – it affects all of the townspeople. Thoreau seems to be focused mostly on making his writing more clear and concise, as well as trying to write in a way that more people would understand. He removes the personification of ‘Civilization’ – in version A, he refers to civilization as ‘her’ and allows it to have action, but changes the pronoun to ‘it’ and changes the sentence format of anything ‘civilization’ did to the passive voice, so there isn’t an active agent. In this novel, Thoreau seems to be contrasting nature versus civilization, and so this seems to reflect this. Nature is usually thought about in feminine terms – “mother nature,” while industry and civilization are usually referred to in a more masculine sense. In his first draft, he refers to civilization with feminine pronouns, which subverts expectations, but he changes it. This is probably to fit in with the expectations of his audience, as well as preserve the dichotomy of civilization versus nature. He seems to make many changes in version B but then has a lot of individual words and sentences striked through, implying that he was probably just cutting them out to make it shorter. We believe he changes his word use of Indians to savages because he wanted to imply a more negative connotation to these people. He explains the abode in much more detail in version B, followed by the line, “But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage?” We think this shows that he is not in favor of the savage. He is also creating a dichotomy between the ‘civilized man’ and ‘savage,’ which seemingly reflects his belief that Indigenous people aren’t within civilization, and instead are preserved outside of it. Again in 45d he switches the use of she to it making his work more gender neutral and accurate. He corrects his numbers from $1000 to $800 to make his writing more accurate for the time being. He makes no other major changes for the rest of the passage other than editing one sentence to shorten it down to just a word. In Version B of the same paragraph, Thoreau changes a few words in the initial first sentence such as “…will be perceived” to “…may be guessed”, we can assume this change was made to help the reader better understand Thoreau’s thinking on this topic as he may have assumed this statement rather than perceived it. Perhaps the biggest change to this paragraph however, is the addition of an entire new sentence that shows us some mildly contradicting ideas compared to the already existing first sentence: “But perhaps a man is not required to bury himself.” This sentence shows how he thinks that even though civilization may be unkind to the average person, we are ‘buried Why he may have added this is somewhat unclear, as we can assume it is to provide more context to the first sentence, it is hard to say that as these contradicting ideas make it clear that is not that case.

Changes Between Version B and Version C

From versions B to C, he adds 45b, in which he criticizes and includes renting in his discussion of property and homes.

46b Version C Manuscript

In this version, he also removes some text that he had interlined in pencil that seemingly is asking the poor to be happy with what they have instead of seeking to gain more. This may have been removed because, in the rest of the text, Thoreau seems to be really sympathetic to the poor, while this interlined sentence did not seem to be very sympathetic. He seems to think that the poor should fit better into civilization, though it is not easy for them to live within it, so removing the line shows that this belief of his still stands. . There is an added 45b section in version C that is as follows, “I do not mean to insist here on the disadvantage of hiring compared with owning, but it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it; nor can he, in the long run, any better afford to hire.” We think that he includes this as a clarification for his previous writing in the passage. He wants the reader to know why he addresses the topic in this way. This is also a continuation of the dichotomy he is working on building, of the ‘savage’ versus the civilized man. Thoreau also takes out two sentences towards the end of version B that talk about his opinion on owning an abode, saying that an owner should be content with what they have even if it is less. We think he omits this because he may have changed his mind or thinks it wasn’t necessary to include it as another point to make.

Changes Between Version C and Version D

The changes between Versions C and D is mainly to change some already changed words back to how they were in Version B, almost as though Thoreau looked at the changes he made for too long and hated what he wrote. Another significant change is the deletion of “…for even sickness is a beginning to die, and therefore every doctor’s bill is a funeral expense…”, maybe this was taken out in the case of there is too much information, or that Thoreau deemed it unnecessary. When it comes to Paragraph 46b, the entire thing was added in Version D and was not present before then.

Version D Economy 46

This addition talks about “the savage” and how they do not fit into the “civilized’ life of an institution. Thoreau does talk about how he feels that the disadvantaged “savages” have not made any sacrifices as compared to the “advantaged” peoples. This is a classic example of the “noble savage” trope – how indigenous people are constantly looked at as outside of civilization and closer to nature than those ‘civilized’ people who live in towns and villages. Of course, this trope is nothing more than disguised prejudice and ignores the centuries of advanced civilization of Native Americans, long before Europeans arrived on their shores. This trope also ignores the fact that indigenous people in modern times, including in Thoreau’s day, lived in towns and villages as well and are just as ‘civilized’ as anyone else. He is drawing on the past, which is a common occurrence when using the ‘noble savage’ trope, and ignoring that indigenous people, too, make advancements and innovations in the way they live and interact with wider society. This shows very clearly that Thoreau does not see Native people as living within civilization or even at all affected by civilization, which is just simply untrue.


Thoreau’s views on who fits in (and therefore, who doesn’t) color his whole narrative of trying to escape from civilization by going to Walden Pond. By drawing out those types of people whom he believes are impacted by modernity and civilization, he very much excludes groups of people that he believes are outside of civilization’s realm of influence. While modernity affected (and still affects) different groups in different ways, no one escapes unscathed and no one can fully avoid the consequences of industrialization and globalization. This gap between what Thoreau so clearly believes and what was the truth shows that Thoreau had a view of modernity that was very specific to his immediate circumstances, and didn’t consider people with different experiences than his. This shows that, though he liked to discuss civilization and modernity as universals, his descriptions of civilization and modernity only applied to a small portion of people in America, and was therefore a construct that he created in his writing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.