Close Reading American Literature

Walden and Anti-Capitalism

walden-in-autumn
Walden Pond in Autumn. Via Google Images

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I read Walden during the spring semester of 2016, and I was immediately drawn into this narrative for its ability to provide the reader with a sense of minimalism. This idea of minimalism can be described in various different ways, but in relation to Walden, Thoreau is able to create this sense of minimalism through life experiences in which he himself has lived through. Thus minimalism is conceptualized through the ideas of a simple life, where only the necessary is needed, and not much reliance or acquisition of materialistic things are needed as well.

In the world that we live in today, this idea shown in Walden can be seen as almost impossible. I thought that exact same thing. I wondered if the life in which Thoreau has so eloquently described in Walden, can be a lifestyle that can be followed in this day and age. While wondering that, it continued to strike me that Thoreau’s Walden is more than just this narrative for the simple, but also a novel that lets us see a life in which many of us seem to yearn for. A life where not much mattered except the clothes on your back, the food in your stomach, and the roof over your head. Money is not a problem, new shoes, phones, and just distractions in general, no longer have to be a part of your life.

Underneath this exterior of minimalism lies an array of possible topics that Thoreau may have wanted to address through Walden. The passage quoted above talks about how this idea of luxuries, only distracts us from seeing the true beauty in our world. Luxuries can mean so many things, money, unnecessary clothes, and unnecessary people. In an article that I will be using for this final paper titled, “Henry David Thoreau and the American Work Ethic”, David Raymond speaks about how even work was just as much as a distraction to Thoreau than anything else. Thoreau argued that no job should even be worth his time if he didn’t love it. Things that currently are considered luxuries in our world were not the same as the luxuries seen in the 19th century. I found this quote to be inspirational, and quite philosophical. I feel that in relation to the context surrounding the world in Thoreau’s time, luxuries only began to rise up, and the view of the world and its true beauty was being overshadowed by it as well.

These luxuries were just about to be created in factories, and in different types f manners because of the big shift to industrialization in the United States in the 19th century. Capitalistic sentiment in the United States was just about to rise, and I feel that Thoreau in some part wanted to contrast his life experiences in the wild and in nature, to the impending rise in industry, where the only thing important in industry is money. Money was not much of a worry for Thoreau, who ended up losing more than what he used. Thus, I feel as if Thoreau would view this rise in industry to be more than detrimental to society because of its reliance on having to buy things, albeit anything to be honest because companies need to profit. Which leads me to believe that Walden was written by Thoreau to criticize our capitalistic society. The quote above relates to this argument in the sense that money as a luxury, is now all that matters in Thoreau’s world, and if that’s the case, how can people overcome if they only strive to survive off of money. Money and the idea of it, grabs people by the throat and makes them only be worried about whether they have enough of it or not. That is what capitalism does anyway, as it blocks our own sense of improvement and keeps us stuck in this loop of buying, selling, buying, selling, and it just keeps going. That is why I feel that Thoreau created this underlying theme of anti-Capitalism because of how he chose to live his life in a world where the idea of money and materialism was just about to rise .

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2 thoughts on “Walden and Anti-Capitalism

  1. Nice to read! You choose a fun topic to research. This semester I took an anti-consumerism class where we focused lots on minimalism. A good direction to go would be to look at the fetishism of the commodity or Marx’s false-consciousnesses/class-consciousnesses. Fetishism would tie in closer into how we romanticize objects and make them identity with us (either to impress or create identity). False-consciousnesses is the ideology that one does realize that they are being exploited- they may believe they are simply hard working citizens. Class-consciousness, on the other hand, exemplify awareness of their exploitation.

    Liked by 1 person

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