Close Reading American Literature

American Identity in Walden

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Huffington Post | “American Dream”

Now that the end of the semester is here, I have many essays to write (which is the reason this blog post is overdue), including one for my Early American Literature course. Since we read many very interesting works this semester and explored a multitude of themes and ideas, it was difficult choosing a topic and piece(s) of literature to focus on, but I decided to write about American identity using Thoreau’s Walden. I was first intrigued with the subject of American identity when we read Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, and from thereon I paid attention to the subject throughout the rest of the semester’s readings. Before this class, I had a vague sense of what American identity was, but through the semester’s readings I was able to explore the subject more deeply. You may even read about some of my explorations in my other blog posts for the class. Now the time has come to write my final paper and below I’ve included some close reading of a passage from Walden so you may get a taste of what my paper will be about.

Thoreau’s principles on self-reliance and individualism in Walden help define American identity, as these principles are prevalent in the American mindset today, while not nearly as dominant in the central principles of other nations. In Walden, Thoreau writes:

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course (52).

In this passage, Thoreau asserts that his “mode of living” is “his own” and that others should not try to copy him, as he would already have acted according to his own true self again, and have created new qualities to his “mode of living,” thus implying that the follower would never be able to catch up to him. He promotes that each individual should rather find his own “mode of living,” which is what being true to oneself is. In today’s American schools especially, the content in the line, “The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do” is conveyed to young adults, who are at the stage of figuring out which career or life path to take. Such promotion of individualism rouses hope in youth, and helps support the American Dream mentality, that anything is possible if one puts their mind to it. Therefore, Thoreau’s Walden helps define American identity, as it reestablishes the American ideals believed and practiced today.

Please comment with any thoughts, questions, or ideas!

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4 thoughts on “American Identity in Walden

  1. Hey, I really found your topic to be rather interesting! Personally, I’ve spoken with a lot of teachers and principals since I work at an academy, and it seems to me that currently, more teachers are actually against current “cookie cutter” curriculum that doesn’t allow much room for individualism, at least at an elementary ~ high school education level. I would really love to see some insights arguing the matter, and perhaps find out in what ways the American schools are promoting individualism also!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great body paragraph for your analysis on Thoreau’s Walden! The connection you make from modern day schools to express individualism in America is very relatable. The only thing I would suggest is for your future paragraphs to link American Identity to the American Dream if that’s what your thesis is going for. You can incorporate Franklin’s interpretation of the American Dream for other sources. Good job!

    Liked by 1 person

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