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Walden and Word Use

The many elegant graphs and charts provided by Voyant allow for a variety of questionably accurate inferences to be made regarding the structure of Walden and Thoreau’s worldview. In the interest of providing an analysis marginally further from the realm of conjecture, I am going to be focusing on one particular function: the graph that tracks the frequency of word usage.

The first word I looked at was “Pond”, which makes 201 appearances in Walden (“Ponds” makes another 24). If the graph is divided into 20 sections, there appear to be three significant spikes, one 55-60% of the way in, another smaller one 75% in, and another larger one 90% through. I predicted that these spikes would mark sections of the book mainly containing nature writing and descriptions, primarily of Walden Pond itself. Unsurprisingly, that is just the result I got. The first spike is in “The Ponds”, the second is at the end of “Brute Neighbors”, and the third is located in “The Pond in Winter” and at the start of “Spring”.

The second word examined by me was “Life”, with a solid 198 appearances, finishing just behind “Pond”. My prediction was that sections with heavy uses of the word “Life” would mainly consist of Thoreau’s musings on how to live, along with some social commentary. The graph for the word shows some large two-parted spikes, each with a low peak, a valley, and a higher peak shortly thereafter. The first two appear midway through the first half and on the boundary between the second and third, and the third (which is substantially smaller) appears closer to the end. There is also a final rise as the book draws to a close. Upon a quick skim of these sections, my guess seems pretty much correct. The first spike appears in Economy, with Thoreau speculating on the simple existence; the second in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”, where he gushes about returning to a slow-paced, natural mode of living; the third in “Baker Farm” and “Higher Laws”, in which he comments on the life of a poor farmer and his view of human nature, in that order; and the last in “Spring”, where he mostly is describing natural scenes, and the Conclusion, where he gives some closing advice on how to live.

Overall, tracking the parts of the book where certain words are heavily used seems like it might be a decent way of drawing some basic conclusions about the organization of the text. However, I’m not sure whether it reveals any deep insights; actually reading Walden seems like it might be the best means of gaining a thorough understanding of Walden (no pun intended).

More on “Deliberately”

Immediately upon seeing Walden in Voyant Tools, the context tool in the bottom right corner caught my eye. The tool is interesting; it allows one to input a certain word and outputs all occurrences of the word in the text, giving the context surrounding the word the as well. By default, the word “like” is used. I thought it would be more intriguing to take a look at one of Thoreau’s dearest words: “deliberately.”

What does it mean to live deliberately? Can men live deliberately? If so, how? These were questions I had even before exploring Voyant Tools. After seeing the context tool, I thought it offered a unique way to (begin to) answer these questions.

As we have discussed before, part of living deliberately means carefully choosing what to observe, what to do, etc. Essentially, it means being conscious about yourself, the things around you, and the intersection between the two; being closer to nature. After seeing “deliberately” in the context tool, I discovered a different, almost paradoxical, meaning of the word. To Thoreau, the deliberation of man and the deliberation of nature- although connected- are different. Thoreau seems to believe that animals and nature are inherently deliberate- they don’t have to deliberately try to be deliberate. Bear with me here.

Thoreau uses “deliberately” nine times in Walden. In seven of these, Thoreau uses the word in the context of the actions of man. For the other two, the context is of nature itself. The fifth occurrence of the word reads: “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature” (Where I Lived, And What I Lived For, paragraph 22). The seventh occurrence reads: “He uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls” (Brute Neighbors, paragraph 17). Nature in itself is deliberate; and man must therefore learn this deliberation from nature (first quote). The beast’s howl is deliberate merely because the animal is a part of nature- the beast need not to put effort into deliberation (second quote).

For most of the seven other uses of the word (regarding the actions of man), Thoreau suggests that man must act deliberately so as to become closer to nature. For example, the second use of the word reads: “It would be worth the while still to build more deliberately than I did, considering, for instance, what foundation a door, a window, a cellar, a garret, have in the nature of man, and perchance never raising any superstructure until we found a better reason for it than our temporal necessities even” (Economy, paragraph 66). Thoreau says he should have built his house more deliberately. But, this isn’t how we normally think of the word- he doesn’t mean that he should have added more time or detail, he means that he should have put in less time and taken out structures, so that his house was more natural. A very similar quote is the eighth occurrence of the word, which reads: “Indeed, I worked so deliberately, that though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks raised a few inches above the floor served for my pillow at night; yet I did not get a stiff neck” (House-Warming, paragraph 5).  Here, Thoreau did work deliberately; meaning he was brought closer to nature, sleeping on the ground without luxuries like a pillow. And, finally, our old friend “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” (Where I Lived, And What I Lived For, paragraph 16). Being deliberate means being close to nature, and vice versa, because nature itself is deliberate.

For man, deliberation is not innate. Man must consciously try be deliberate (a bit redundant, I know) to be closer to nature. Nature is intrinsically deliberate, and therefore to be more like nature man must act closely to nature– act with deliberation. I think this analysis was a combination of distant and close reading, so I’m not sure how much a close reading a Walden will help to further answer these questions. However, comparing Walden to other texts of Thoreau’s where he discusses deliberation could be very useful to see just what Thoreau means when he says “living deliberately.”

Thoreau, the Home, and the House

As a big fan of “close reading,” digging into the meat of words on a page, the idea of turning those words into numerical data through things like Voyant Tools doesn’t really float my boat. I like to try to figure out authorial intent a lot of the time, and while there is at least a faint possibility of finding that in close reading, I highly doubt that Thoreau was every considering how many times he used words like “pond.” All that considered, these kinds of tools could reveal a certain amount of subconscious meaning that proves interesting as a different kind of psychological, subliminal message. A prime example of this can be seen by looking at the top 75 words used in Walden:


For someone who so appreciates he concept of being “equally at home everywhere,” finding the necessities of a home to be minimal at most, Thoreau seems to spend quite a bit of time contemplating the small shelter he has made for himself. According to this word cloud, he uses the word “house” 197 times total throughout the entirely of Walden. This is third only behind words like “man,” which is unsurprising, given the occasionally pretentious and preacher tone that many consider Thoreau to carry throughout his writing. This kind of quantitative analysis tells me that subconsciously, Thoreau may be using the physical embodiment of a home, or his house, to anchor himself within the wilderness despite his ease of mind while wandering. Just as any other human, it occurs to me that Thoreau may be more linked to human comforts, such as a house, than he would like to admit to himself. This seems surprising given the sheer number of times he seems to have revised his work.

In keeping with this, another word that he uses frequently is the comparative word “like.” By looking at this word cloud, and the sentence within which this word is used, it appears that he uses it 301 times mostly for the sake of drawing parallels between the abstract ideas he creates and concrete images. For example, he likens his mind to a wheeling hawk in paragraph 6 of the Bean Field in Walden. This tells the distant reader that Thoreau tries to make sense of his spiritual and philosophical musings, for both the average reader and himself, by linking them to things he sees in nature that everyone can relate to on a physical level. As such, this correlates to his belief that understanding of a higher power comes through observing nature and embracing our animal and human connection with it. Given this evidence, it seems as though a good deal of meaning can come not when one looks closer, but when they take a step back to the physical words in the first place.

I May be Warming Up to Thoreau…

As I analyzed what I find to be one of the most significant parts of Thoreau’s writing, that is the first dozen or so lines of Walden in the section of Economy. This is the first taste of Thoreau that many readers experience, and is monumental in the manner in which they begin to develop how they feel about him as a writer. After putting the first fourteen lines into Voyant Tools, a handful of words stuck out to me: ‘experience,’ ‘labor,’ and ‘called.’ Given the nature of the online software, I can assume that these words occur in the text in substantial number, and thus those words must’ve frequented Thoreau’s mind in the midst of writing. Also acknowledging the nature of the section from which I pulled the text, it may seem inconsequential that ‘labor’ shows up often in a passage entitled ‘Economy.’ Still, I believe that the frequency of ‘labor,’ along with ‘experience,’ exemplify Thoreau’s deep inclination to plan and schedule, segmenting his day, or experience, with what he might think to be industrious work, or labor. It is undeniable that Thoreau is something of a preacher- he commands his prose with authority, starting countless sentences with ‘I,’ and regularly writing ‘called,’ which I can only insinuate is related to some sort of dialogue, most likely’s one of Thoreau’s reflective monologues on the state of humanity and a more idyllic lifestyle. However, I don’t wish to fault Thoreau for writing in such a manner, since much of the point of his book entirely was to provide meditative commentary.

Thoreau: Lover or Hater

Over the course of reading Walden, it becomes very easy to see Thoreau as a man preoccupied with what he dislikes. It’s easy to point out his objections to modern living, to excess, too many other things he finds trivial. It’s much harder to find what Thoreau is genuinely positive towards. Clearly, he likes something about his life on Walden Pond, you can see it in the text. But normally people don’t find their heart’s desire in farming beans, they just farm beans. What is it that truly lights up Thoreau’s life. Beneath all the philosophy, what does he love? Is that love more of a driving factor than his hatred for other things?

Using Voyant-tools I found something that surprised me. Plugging in “love,” “hate,” “enjoy,” and “dislike” you see a very clear trend. Love, in some form or another, is used 55 times throughout Walden, compared to a staggering one usage of the word hate. Enjoy in some form is utilized 22 times, whereas dislike does not appear at all. Obviously, context would affect the understanding of these words in action but I find it very intriguing that, at least in language, Thoreau is far more positive than he is negative.

Obviously, Thoreau focuses a lot on his lived philosophy, but I enjoy seeing more obvious correlations with all of the ideals removed. The connection between “love” and “nature” seemed right to me, but I was surprised to see “love” and “talk” connect. Perhaps, despite his more solitary lifestyle, his career as a writer does suggest an element of enjoying communicating. Going in to find some context for this, it seemed obvious that a man who kept up so many letter correspondences, a journal, and frequently entertained house guests loved to talk but it does seem to get lost amongst the miasma of philosophy.

This discovery brought me to my overwhelming question, is Thoreau somebody who defines himself by what he is against or what he is for. In looking at the context in which love is used, I found a passage where Thoreau qualifies his stance on his brand of philosophy. He insists that he is not speaking down on those who are content in life in the modern world, but rather towards those unhappy with their lot in life. He even goes so far as to say that he is not discrediting “those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers— and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number;” Thoreau calls himself a lover of life. That’s not something you think you’d hear from a man who swore off coffee.

I don’t know if the positive language use, or the occasional swearing he is not as cranky and filled with hate as he appears actually outweigh the tone of the work for the better. But I do find it comforting to see signs that his life was motivated to some degree by the same things as others: rather than defining himself by his “against” positions, Thoreau does seem to find what he enjoys and is in favor of.

Changing of the Seasons (or not…)

When reading Walden, I personally find myself intrigued by the structure and format of the text itself. From a writing perspective, Walden boasts a number of grammatical and organizational feats. Harding almost doesn’t do Walden justice in “Five Ways of Looking at Walden” when he claims that the text is “tightly constructed” (157). From the content of each chapter to the page-filling sentences that are carefully pieced together, it’s apparent that Thoreau was very considerate of the way in which he constructed his time at Walden. One of Thoreau’s organizational feats that intrigues me is the compression of two years, two months, and two days spent at Walden Pond into the cycle of one whole year. Walden opens in the spring with Thoreau building his cabin. By the summer, he has moved in. In the fall, Thoreau begins building a chimney for the imminent winter months approaching. In the winter, Thoreau writes. By the spring, Walden wraps up.

With this in mind, I was curious to see exactly how many times the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter) come up within the text. More importantly, however, I wanted to see if the frequency trends for each seasonal word would coincide with the cycle of the year in Walden. As an example one would expect the frequency of the word “spring” to be higher in the beginning and conclusion of Walden, as that is the respective season in those parts of the text.

Using Voyant Tools to analyze the text, a few interesting facts arose. In regards to the frequency of the seasonal terms, winter was utilized the most, appearing 102 times throughout the text. This was followed by spring utilized 81 times, summer 70 times, and fall only 29 times. Personally, I find it weird that fall only came up 29 times as fall is way better than winter, but that’s beside the point.

Now here’s where it gets more interesting. The output from Voyant tools in regards to seasonal term frequencies did not represent the results that I was expecting to see. Instead of seeing the term frequency coinciding with the change in seasons over the course of Walden, I saw terms overlapping with each other. In fact, when looking at each document segment of Walden (represented on the graph’s x axis), winter had the highest or same frequency as the highest term in 5 out of 10 segments of Walden (segments 1,3,4,8, and 9). Spring had the highest term frequency or the same frequency as the highest term in document segments 2,3,6,7, and 10. Summer had the highest frequency in document segment 5. Fall never had the highest frequency in any of the 10 document segments. The seasons don’t seem to change when just examining word frequencies.

This points out a discrepancy between interpretations that may be reached between close and distant reading techniques. Through distant reading, the seasonal progression that is present in Walden is truly difficult to pick up on. Word frequencies do not coincide with the seasonal changes that occur throughout the course of the text. While I see distant reading as an important facet of critical reading, these results seem to point out the fact that distant reading can sometimes fail to pick up on trends that a close analysis of the text can uncover.

How Alone Was Thoreau, Exactly?

In her scathing attack of Henry David Thoreau and Walden, Kathryn Schulz implies that Thoreau deliberately misleads readers into thinking he is more secluded from society than he is. However, defenders of Thoreau point out that he never does mislead readers; it is only common misconception that has lead people to view him as a recluse. So I began to wonder, what does Thoreau have to say on his isolation? And can distant reading help me determine that?

Using Voyant Tools to comb through Walden, if one enters words into the tool below, they will find words are that are commonly found near the original word. Of the words I chose to look at, three had to do with seclusion–loneliness, hermit, and alone–and three had to do with companionship–friend, Concord, and neighbor. While no definitive answer was found as to Thoreau’s own view of his separation–with this method, anyway–it was interesting to see which words were linked with each other.

Some things pointed more towards Thoreau being a member of society. He has “old” “friends,” “Concord” is “good,” his “neighbors” are also “good” and “known,” and his “loneliness” is found to be “relieved.” However, other things indicate that Thoreau was distant from others. He “avoided” his “neighbors,” and they were a mile away, maybe even a “good” “mile” if one is to read it that way. Additionally, he is “let” “alone” a “great” “deal.”

Ultimately, only six words and their correlates cannot tell us anything about Walden. Such information as I was trying to glean must be found from reading the book. But that does not mean that analyzing the novel from afar does not tell us interesting things as well. This provides a framework for what words and sections to study in order to determine more about Thoreau’s greatest work.

This “Living Deliberately” Thing

As I was poking around on Voyant Tools, I was having trouble coming up with some profound bit of distant reading with which to report back. Yet, I found myself pulled by the question, is Thoreau’s deliberate way of living attainable only by those who live in the woods? Is that what he is suggesting? Or are his insights ones that arose largely from his time spent in nature, but ones that can be appreciated no matter one’s lifestyle?

I latched onto that theme of Thoreau’s critique of society and the ways men live. Using the word frequency chart tool, I came up with some words that usually signal that Thoreau has entered into one of his wiser moods – I chose “human”, “true”, and “right”, since he often comments on the lives of men and distinguishes between good and bad or right and wrong. From the looks of the resulting graph, I gathered that Thoreau concentrates his intuitions at the very beginning, the very end, and about evenly spaced in two main areas in the middle (although, of course, we know that his ideological assertions show their face in almost every chapter). This seemed like a pretty tidy set-up for starters.

I assumed that passages more purely focused on nature and the physical environment of Walden Pond would fill up the gaps between these epiphanies, and I chose the words “animal”, “tree”, and “bird” to pinpoint those sorts of passages.

What I found was not what I predicted, however! I found that in the first half of the text, this sort of alternating appeared quite neatly. Yet, the graph shows that the third concentration of philosophical language coincides with a peak in “outdoorsy” language, too. This did not surprise me too much, though; it makes sense that Thoreau might group his observations of nature with his thoughts on society, since he probably came to many profound conclusions while simply looking out at the water.

I found it very interesting that he chose to weave the topics in this way, though – to introduce nature and society as separate entities at the beginning, and to suggest that there are many similarities and lessons to be learned about society from nature by the end. There are two things we know for sure about Thoreau, although we are assailed by both staunch criticism and utmost praise. These two things are that, one, he is a gifted writer, and two, he lived a truly unique life. This weaving of words and themes is something only a talented writer and unique person such as Thoreau would be able to do.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the questions that inspired my probing on Voyant Tools. Again I ask, do you have to live in the woods to live deliberately? In a way, the organization of the text does suggest that an understanding like Thoreau’s is only acquired by careful observation of nature and life. This excludes many people who do not have equal opportunities from that sort of wisdom. On the other hand, perhaps Thoreau is speaking to all people and simply encouraging greater appreciation for nature and the wisdom it grants by grouping the two themes together. At the moment, I am leaning toward the latter interpretation. I’d like to believe that Thoreau considered this “living deliberately” thing open to all people of all backgrounds and all lifestyles. However, only further close reading of his texts will answer that question.

Simplify, Simplify

When one thinks of Henry David Thoreau, the classic image that comes to mind is of a man who lived alone in the woods, attempting to live simply using only that which he deemed necessary. After all, one of his most famous sayings from Walden is “Simplify, simplify.” However, for someone who was so adamant on preaching simplicity, the number of times Thoreau used the term simplicity (or variations) was actually quite low. The word simple was used 25 times, simply was used 19, simplicity was used 10, and simplify was used only twice.

This brings up some interesting observations and questions. Why do certain sayings stick out to us and become memorable, especially if the words in the saying are rarely used? Generally, in order to remember something, we have to drill it into our heads, and read it and see it often to embed it. It seems that that is the opposite here. Here, the lack of frequency of certain words is what seems to be the key to remembering it. The lack of the variations of simplicity is also interesting from a message point of view. By not using those particular words frequently, Thoreau is being simple in using the term “simple,” and direct in the language he is using for his overall message of living simply. Whether he did this on purpose or not, the idea is interesting to think about.

Wordy Relationships

For a man who loved nature, I find it intriguing that Thoreau mentions his house more frequently than he does nature. I do believe that he took great pride in the structure that he not only build but also lived in for many months. I also think that this is not necessarily a true representation of how much Thoreau talks about nature, for one can talk about something without explicitly naming it. In looking at words used to describe nature, or things that are found in nature, it is clear that nature really is spoken about more often than the house is.

I am curious as to if this is a common method of Thoreau’s writing: discussing something, like nature, using both its name and its components with similar frequencies. I have found in past reading that the author will tend to either rarely name the actual object of discussion to avoid redundancy and use its components or ideas within it to talk about it or will repeat the topic name often using a variety of descriptors, rarely repeating one or another. Additionally, in comparing ‘house’ and ‘nature’, the former is more of a concrete concept than the latter. So I wonder if Thoreau finds it necessary to define the more abstract with concrete things like trees and animals. Perhaps this is a theme of his writing but that would require an analysis of other concept pairings across his works.

Thoreau was clearly an intelligent individual. However, I have to wonder what brought him enjoyment. He hardly uses the word in Walden and barely makes use of its synonyms. (He doesn’t use the word ‘fun’ once.) It is difficult to determine a correlation between amusement and companionship or a lack thereof. I think it would be interesting to explore some of his other works to see if he truly requires solitude to enjoy himself or if he just prefers it to spending time with people. I am in no way trying to suggest that he does not know how to have fun with other people; merely that he more frequently enjoys himself when people are not around.

Despite the apparent lack of amusement, it is highly likely that Thoreau had a positive outlook on life. His discussions and evaluations of the world around him reflect a deep passion for nature as seen in Spring. Perhaps his enjoyment is described in ways in which are not obvious to the untrained eye and are similar to his discussions of nature: defined without being named explicitly.