The Transcendentalist Bible: Thoreau, Walden and Religion

When going through ideas for this blog post, one must first consider what immediately jumps out to them specifically about Thoreau’s Walden. To me, it was clear that Thoreau’s main message was one of philosophy: if you should live simply, you will become enlightened. This message that is reiterated throughout Walden is an idea that has been similarly recycled in many religious doctrines since the beginning of time.

This idea is vital to understanding Thoreau as an author and as a human being. Thoreau, like many great thinkers throughout history, was fascinated with the idea of religion and the effect which it had on his fellow man. Thoreau, a radical progressive in many ways, was obsessed with the way people treated each other and how it was comparable to religious dogma. In 1859,  John Brown, a radical abolitionist, attempted to take over a military arsenal in Virginia with the help of armed slaves. After the raid failed and Brown was arrested, Thoreau, one of the most outspoken abolitionists of his time, was one of Brown’s most vocal supporters.

In his essay A Plea for Captain Brown, Thoreau attacks Christians in the United States for being hypocritical: Christ preached justice and tolerance, and slave-owning Christians defied these orders whilst continuing to preach Christ’s words:

The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward. All his prayers begin with “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and he is forever looking forward to the time when he shall go to his “long rest.” He has consented to perform certain old-established charities, too, after a fashion, but he does not wish to hear of any new-fangled ones; he doesn’t wish to have any supplementary articles added to the contract, to fit it to the present time.

Thoreau would later go on to draw parallels between Brown and Christ, as well as the United States government and Pontius Pilate. It is clear that Thoreau’s fascination with religion and followers of religion had an enormous effect on his political views. This world view seems to have developed during the writing of Walden, some ten years prior.

It is my belief that, throughout Walden, Thoreau is describing his exodus as a religious experience. As Walden progresses, Thoreau begins to slip more and more biblical references into his work. Thoreau compares the beginning of spring to the creation of the universe, as well as claiming that God “patented a leaf.” Thoreau’s eventual ascent into enlightenment is treated much in the same way Christ’s ascension to heaven is treated in the New Testament: a gradual, unfolding plotline which paints its protagonist as an enlightened figure who grinds against the norms of society only to be cast away, until he eventually becomes greater than all.

Thoreau’s experiences in Walden could be summed up in the biblical verse James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the lord, and he will lift you up.” Thoreau left everything he knew and every luxury he was accustomed to in order to live on the shores of Walden pond, humbling himself before the Lord in nature, where he felt most connected to God. Thoreau’s Christ-like journey to enlightenment provides a fantastic and intriguing subtext to the classic Walden storyline of simple living and spiritual discovery.

Implications of Isolation Beyond Ficiton

While readers tend to focus on Thoreau’s physical removal from society, and his resulting forfeit of easily accessed food, warmth and shelter, I draw larger conclusions from his emotional and mental seclusion. From literature to everyday life, solitude and introspection prove to be cathartic. However, my observations have left me questioning whether or not privacy can have constructive or damaging affects.

Last semester I took a course called the Woman Writer in which we worked with literature through a feminist lens. More so than any other piece, I long-awaited Ariel, a collection of poems by Sylvia Plath, since The Bell Jar has always been a favorite of mine. Anyway, I used to always hold Plath in high regard, because I recognized and respected her not only as a woman and a writer, but also as a victim. Plath was undeniably brilliant, but deeply motMTE4MDAzNDEwNjU4NzU2MTEwivated by an urge to please the men in her life: her controlling father, Otto, and her husband, Ted Hughes. As a result, many of her poems capture her resentment of gender roles. One of her poems in particular, ‘The Applicant’ depicts the story of an abrasive salesmen attempting to sell an appliance, a house-wife, to a young man. Sylvia Plath constructed ‘The Applicant’ days after deciding to divorce Ted Hughes, and her poem can be viewed as her disparaging commentary on marriage. In much of her work, Plath illustrates the hardship and inequity of being a woman, and refutes imposed ideals upon women. ‘The Applicant’ is no exception, as it draws upon and challenges a strict social expectation of coupling, and a subservient female role in marriage. Read along and listen here (her voice is eerily captivating).

Although I commend Plath for her stance against gender conventions, the more I have studied Plath, and the more I read up on her, the less enamored I become. Given her powerful yet disturbing writing, the tumultuous relationships which she herself formed, and her horrific suicide, I am left questioning, which was more valuable to Plath, her art or her life?

I have never thought to limit her work, or her life for that matter, to her mental illness. For this reason, I am left feeling disappointed with Sylvia Plath. I believe that her writing became so reliant on her pain and suffering, that she made no attempt at treatment. As a woman living in the 21st century, perhaps my critique of her is too harsh, but after reading a great deal of her work I can confirm that it does not extend beyond censure of the patriarchy and her struggles as a woman. Al Alvarez, an English poet, accurately viewed Plath’s self-destructiveness as “the very source of her creative energy. It was, precisely, a source of living energy, of her imaginative, creative power.” It is the nature of artists to incorporate their emotions and muses into their craft. But, Plath’s actual suffering and her work became one in the same. One of Plath’s idols, Virginia Woolf, coined the term “a room of one’s own” in which people of every gender are entitled to be alone, and uninhibited to focus upon themselves. In this state, Woolf believed that people could emerge stronger and more independent. I think that Plath found a room of her own, and locked herself inside of it forever.

Thoreau resembles Plath in his commitment to solitude. He has literally created a rooHenry_David_Thoreaum, a cabin, of his own in which he can dwell and learn to live deliberately, without contact from his superficial world. Like Plath, Thoreau seeks to gain vision, and to be able to share his experience with others. However, there is a great distinction to be made between the two. Thoreau removed himself from the world to pursue his passion, Transcendentalism. Plath isolated herself, detached herself from reality and ignored the well being of herself and her children. She became so obsessed with her work that she allowed herself to fall deeper into her pit of despair. It is a heart wrenching happening that Plath succumbed to her madness, while Thoreau led a liberating existence by combining his art with his life. In being driven by their burning passions, geniuses are rarely able to strike a balance between the two.



Source: Plath, Sylvia. “The Applicant.” Ariel. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1999. Print.