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Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

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1. Economy
2. Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
3. Reading
4. Sounds
5. Solitude
6. Visitors
7. The Bean-Field
8. The Village
9. The Ponds
10. Baker Farm
11. Higher Laws
12. Brute Neighbors
13. House-Warming
14. Inhabitants and Winter Visitors
15. Winter Animals
16. The Pond in Winter
17. Spring
18. Conclusion

-- On the Duty of Civil Disobedience --


When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I
lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house
which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord,
Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.
I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner
in civilized life again.
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my
readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my
townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call
impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent,
but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.
Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I
was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn
what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and
some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained.
I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular
interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these
questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is
omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism,
is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is,
after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not
talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as
well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness
of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer,
first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not
merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as
he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has
lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps
these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As
for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply
to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the
coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
I would fain say something, not so much concerning the Chinese
and Sandwich Islanders as you who read these pages, who are said to
live in New England; something about your condition, especially your
outward condition or circumstances in this world, in this town, what
it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether
it cannot be improved as well as not. I have travelled a good deal
in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the
inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand
remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to
four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended,
with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens
over their shoulders "until it becomes impossible for them to resume
their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but
liquids can pass into the stomach"; or dwelling, chained for life,
at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like
caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on
the tops of pillars -- even these forms of conscious penance are
hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily
witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison
with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only
twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or
captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend
Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra's head, but as
soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have
inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these
are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been
born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have
seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who
made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres,
when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they
begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got
to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get
on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met
well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the
road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty,
its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land,
tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who
struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it
labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is
soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly
called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book,
laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves
break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find
when they get to the end of it, if not before. It is said that
Deucalion and Pyrrha created men by throwing stones over their heads
behind them:--

Inde genus durum sumus, experiensque laborum,
Et documenta damus qua simus origine nati.

Or, as Raleigh rhymes it in his sonorous way,--

"From thence our kind hard-hearted is, enduring pain and care,
Approving that our bodies of a stony nature are."

So much for a blind obedience to a blundering oracle, throwing the
stones over their heads behind them, and not seeing where they fell.
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere
ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and
superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be
plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy
and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not
leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain
the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the
market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he
remember well his ignorance -- which his growth requires -- who has
so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him
gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we
judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on
fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we
do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are
sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubt that
some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners
which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are
fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to
spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour.
It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live,
for my sight has been whetted by experience; always on the limits,
trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt, a very
ancient slough, called by the Latins aes alienum, another's brass,
for some of their coins were made of brass; still living, and dying,
and buried by this other's brass; always promising to pay, promising
to pay, tomorrow, and dying today, insolvent; seeking to curry
favor, to get custom, by how many modes, only not state-prison
offenses; lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a
nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and
vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you
make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import
his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up
something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old
chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in
the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little.
I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost
say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of
servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle
masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a
Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of
all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. Talk of a divinity
in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by
day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty
to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared
with the shipping interests? Does not he drive for Squire
Make-a-stir? How godlike, how immortal, is he? See how he cowers
and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor
divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a
fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared
with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it
is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
Self-emancipation even in the West Indian provinces of the fancy and
imagination -- what Wilberforce is there to bring that about?
Think, also, of the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions
against the last day, not to betray too green an interest in their
fates! As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called
resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you
go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the
bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious
despair is concealed even under what are called the games and
amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes
after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do
desperate things.
When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the
chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of
life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode
of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly
think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures
remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up
our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can
be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence
passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow,
mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would
sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you
cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people,
and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once,
perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people
put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe
with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase
is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor
as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may
almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute
value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice
to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and
their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons,
as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left
which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they
were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet
to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from
my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me
anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great
extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried
it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to
reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.
One farmer says to me, "You cannot live on vegetable food
solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with"; and so he
religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with
the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his
oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering
plow along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really
necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased,
which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are
entirely unknown.
The whole ground of human life seems to some to have been gone
over by their predecessors, both the heights and the valleys, and
all things to have been cared for. According to Evelyn, "the wise
Solomon prescribed ordinances for the very distances of trees; and
the Roman praetors have decided how often you may go into your
neighbor's land to gather the acorns which fall on it without
trespass, and what share belongs to that neighbor." Hippocrates has
even left directions how we should cut our nails; that is, even with
the ends of the fingers, neither shorter nor longer. Undoubtedly
the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the
variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam. But man's
capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he
can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have
been thy failures hitherto, "be not afflicted, my child, for who
shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?"
We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for
instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once
a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would
have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I
hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles!
What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the
universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature
and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who
shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater
miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for
an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour;
ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! -- I
know of no reading of another's experience so startling and
informing as this would be.
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my
soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be
my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?
You may say the wisest thing you can, old man -- you who have lived
seventy years, not without honor of a kind -- I hear an irresistible
voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons
the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.
I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.
We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow
elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our
strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh
incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance
of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if
we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live
by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night
we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to
uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to
live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.
This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there
can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to
contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every
instant. Confucius said, "To know that we know what we know, and
that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge."
When one man has reduced a fact of the imagination to be a fact to
his understanding, I foresee that all men at length establish their
lives on that basis.
Let us consider for a moment what most of the trouble and
anxiety which I have referred to is about, and how much it is
necessary that we be troubled, or at least careful. It would be
some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the
midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the
gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain
them; or even to look over the old day-books of the merchants, to
see what it was that men most commonly bought at the stores, what
they stored, that is, what are the grossest groceries. For the
improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential
laws of man's existence; as our skeletons, probably, are not to be
distinguished from those of our ancestors.
By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that
man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from
long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any,
whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to
do without it. To many creatures there is in this sense but one
necessary of life, Food. To the bison of the prairie it is a few
inches of palatable grass, with water to drink; unless he seeks the
Shelter of the forest or the mountain's shadow. None of the brute
creation requires more than Food and Shelter. The necessaries of
life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed
under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel; for
not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true
problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success. Man has
invented, not only houses, but clothes and cooked food; and possibly
from the accidental discovery of the warmth of fire, and the
consequent use of it, at first a luxury, arose the present necessity
to sit by it. We observe cats and dogs acquiring the same second
nature. By proper Shelter and Clothing we legitimately retain our
own internal heat; but with an excess of these, or of Fuel, that is,
with an external heat greater than our own internal, may not cookery
properly be said to begin? Darwin, the naturalist, says of the
inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, that while his own party, who were
well clothed and sitting close to a fire, were far from too warm,
these naked savages, who were farther off, were observed, to his
great surprise, "to be streaming with perspiration at undergoing
such a roasting." So, we are told, the New Hollander goes naked
with impunity, while the European shivers in his clothes. Is it
impossible to combine the hardiness of these savages with the
intellectualness of the civilized man? According to Liebig, man's
body is a stove, and food the fuel which keeps up the internal
combustion in the lungs. In cold weather we eat more, in warm less.
The animal heat is the result of a slow combustion, and disease and
death take place when this is too rapid; or for want of fuel, or
from some defect in the draught, the fire goes out. Of course the
vital heat is not to be confounded with fire; but so much for
analogy. It appears, therefore, from the above list, that the
expression, animal life, is nearly synonymous with the expression,
animal heat; for while Food may be regarded as the Fuel which keeps
up the fire within us -- and Fuel serves only to prepare that Food
or to increase the warmth of our bodies by addition from without --
Shelter and Clothing also serve only to retain the heat thus
generated and absorbed.
The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to
keep the vital heat in us. What pains we accordingly take, not only
with our Food, and Clothing, and Shelter, but with our beds, which
are our night-clothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to
prepare this shelter within a shelter, as the mole has its bed of
grass and leaves at the end of its burrow! The poor man is wont to
complain that this is a cold world; and to cold, no less physical
than social, we refer directly a great part of our ails. The
summer, in some climates, makes possible to man a sort of Elysian
life. Fuel, except to cook his Food, is then unnecessary; the sun
is his fire, and many of the fruits are sufficiently cooked by its
rays; while Food generally is more various, and more easily
obtained, and Clothing and Shelter are wholly or half unnecessary.
At the present day, and in this country, as I find by my own
experience, a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a
wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and
access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be
obtained at a trifling cost. Yet some, not wise, go to the other
side of the globe, to barbarous and unhealthy regions, and devote
themselves to trade for ten or twenty years, in order that they may
live -- that is, keep comfortably warm -- and die in New England at
last. The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm,
but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course
a la mode.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of
life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the
elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the
wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.
The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were
a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so
rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that
we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more
modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an
impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground
of what we should call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the
fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature,
or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not
philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once
admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle
thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to
live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence,
magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of
life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great
scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not
kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity,
practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the
progenitors of a noble race of men. But why do men degenerate ever?
What makes families run out? What is the nature of the luxury which
enervates and destroys nations? Are we sure that there is none of
it in our own lives? The philosopher is in advance of his age even
in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed,
warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and
not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men?
When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have
described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the
same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses,
finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and
hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which
are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain
the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his
vacation from humbler toil having commenced. The soil, it appears,
is suited to the seed, for it has sent its radicle downward, and it
may now send its shoot upward also with confidence. Why has man
rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the
same proportion into the heavens above? -- for the nobler plants are
valued for the fruit they bear at last in the air and light, far
from the ground, and are not treated like the humbler esculents,
which, though they may be biennials, are cultivated only till they
have perfected their root, and often cut down at top for this
purpose, so that most would not know them in their flowering season.
I do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures,
who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and
perchance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the
richest, without ever impoverishing themselves, not knowing how they
live -- if, indeed, there are any such, as has been dreamed; nor to
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; I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever
circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not;
-- but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly
complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they
might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically
and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their
duty. I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most
terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but
know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their
own golden or silver fetters.
If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life
in years past, it would probably surprise those of my readers who
are somewhat acquainted with its actual history; it would certainly
astonish those who know nothing about it. I will only hint at some
of the enterprises which I have cherished.
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been
anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too;
to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future,
which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. You will
pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than
in most men's, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from
its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and
never paint "No Admittance" on my gate.
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am
still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken
concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they
answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the
tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud,
and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them
To anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if
possible, Nature herself! How many mornings, summer and winter,
before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been
about mine! No doubt, many of my townsmen have met me returning
from this enterprise, farmers starting for Boston in the twilight,
or woodchoppers going to their work. It is true, I never assisted
the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last
importance only to be present at it.
So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town,
trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express!
I well-nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into
the bargain, running in the face of it. If it had concerned either
of the political parties, depend upon it, it would have appeared in
the Gazette with the earliest intelligence. At other times watching
from the observatory of some cliff or tree, to telegraph any new
arrival; or waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall,
that I might catch something, though I never caught much, and that,
manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.
For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide
circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk
of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only
my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their
own reward.
For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and
rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of
highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping
them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where
the public heel had testified to their utility.
I have looked after the wild stock of the town, which give a
faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble by leaping fences; and I
have had an eye to the unfrequented nooks and corners of the farm;
though I did not always know whether Jonas or Solomon worked in a
particular field to-day; that was none of my business. I have
watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle-tree,
the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow
violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.
In short, I went on thus for a long time (I may say it without
boasting), faithfully minding my business, till it became more and
more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the
list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate
allowance. My accounts, which I can swear to have kept faithfully,
I have, indeed, never got audited, still less accepted, still less
paid and settled. However, I have not set my heart on that.
Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the
house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to
buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the
reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do
you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors
so well off -- that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by
some magic, wealth and standing followed -- he had said to himself:
I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I
can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have
done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He
had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth
the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it
was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while
to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but
I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the
less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and
instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my
baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling
them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one
kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the
Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any
room in the court house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but
I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever
to the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into
business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using
such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to
Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to
transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be
hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense,
a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as
I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they
are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial
Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem
harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as
the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine
timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will
be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to
be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and
sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write
or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports
night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same
time -- often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey
shore; -- to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the
horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a
steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and
exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the
markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the
tendencies of trade and civilization -- taking advantage of the
results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all
improvements in navigation; -- charts to be studied, the position of
reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and
ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of
some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have
reached a friendly pier -- there is the untold fate of La Prouse;
-- universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all
great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants,
from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of
stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a
labor to task the faculties of a man -- such problems of profit and
loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it,
as demand a universal knowledge.
I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for
business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade;
it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it
is a good port and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled;
though you must everywhere build on piles of your own driving. It
is said that a flood-tide, with a westerly wind, and ice in the
Neva, would sweep St. Petersburg from the face of the earth.
As this business was to be entered into without the usual
capital, it may not be easy to conjecture where those means, that
will still be indispensable to every such undertaking, were to be
obtained. As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of
the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and
a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true
utility. Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of
clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this
state of society, to cover nakedness, and he may judge how much of
any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding
to his wardrobe. Kings and queens who wear a suit but once, though
made by some tailor or dressmaker to their majesties, cannot know
the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than
wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments
become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the
wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside without such
delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our
bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a
patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety,
commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched
clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is
not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I
sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this -- Who could
wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave
as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if
they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town
with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an
accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended; but if a
similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloons, there is no
help for it; for he considers, not what is truly respectable, but
what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and
breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing
shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a
cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I
recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more
weather-beaten than when I saw him last. I have heard of a dog that
barked at every stranger who approached his master's premises with
clothes on, but was easily quieted by a naked thief. It is an
interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if
they were divested of their clothes. Could you, in such a case,
tell surely of any company of civilized men which belonged to the
most respected class? When Madam Pfeiffer, in her adventurous
travels round the world, from east to west, had got so near home as
Asiatic Russia, she says that she felt the necessity of wearing
other than a travelling dress, when she went to meet the
authorities, for she "was now in a civilized country, where ...
people are judged of by their clothes." Even in our democratic New
England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its
manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor
almost universal respect. But they yield such respect, numerous as
they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to
them. Beside, clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you
may call endless; a woman's dress, at least, is never done.
A man who has at length found something to do will not need to
get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain
dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period. Old shoes will
serve a hero longer than they have served his valet -- if a hero
ever has a valet -- bare feet are older than shoes, and he can make
them do. Only they who go to soires and legislative balls must
have new coats, coats to change as often as the man changes in them.
But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship
God in, they will do; will they not? Who ever saw his old clothes
-- his old coat, actually worn out, resolved into its primitive
elements, so that it was not a deed of charity to bestow it on some
poor boy, by him perchance to be bestowed on some poorer still, or
shall we say richer, who could do with less? I say, beware of all
enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of
clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made
to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old
clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to
do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a
new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so
conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like
new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new
wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, like that of the fowls,
must be a crisis in our lives. The loon retires to solitary ponds
to spend it. Thus also the snake casts its slough, and the
caterpillar its wormy coat, by an internal industry and expansion;
for clothes are but our outmost cuticle and mortal coil. Otherwise
we shall be found sailing under false colors, and be inevitably
cashiered at last by our own opinion, as well as that of mankind.
We don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous
plants by addition without. Our outside and often thin and fanciful
clothes are our epidermis, or false skin, which partakes not of our
life, and may be stripped off here and there without fatal injury;
our thicker garments, constantly worn, are our cellular integument,
or cortex; but our shirts are our liber, or true bark, which cannot
be removed without girdling and so destroying the man. I believe
that all races at some seasons wear something equivalent to the
shirt. It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay
his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects
so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can,
like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without
anxiety. While one thick garment is, for most purposes, as good as
three thin ones, and cheap clothing can be obtained at prices really
to suit customers; while a thick coat can be bought for five
dollars, which will last as many years, thick pantaloons for two
dollars, cowhide boots for a dollar and a half a pair, a summer hat
for a quarter of a dollar, and a winter cap for sixty-two and a half
cents, or a better be made at home at a nominal cost, where is he so
poor that, clad in such a suit, of his own earning, there will not
be found wise men to do him reverence?
When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress
tells me gravely, "They do not make them so now," not emphasizing
the "They" at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as
the Fates, and I find it difficult to get made what I want, simply
because she cannot believe that I mean what I say, that I am so
rash. When I hear this oracular sentence, I am for a moment
absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately that
I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree
of consanguinity They are related to me, and what authority they
may have in an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am
inclined to answer her with equal mystery, and without any more
emphasis of the "they" -- "It is true, they did not make them so
recently, but they do now." Of what use this measuring of me if she
does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders,
as it were a peg to bang the coat on? We worship not the Graces,
nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with
full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap,
and all the monkeys in America do the same. I sometimes despair of
getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the
help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press
first, to squeeze their old notions out of them, so that they would
not soon get upon their legs again; and then there would be some one
in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg
deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these
things, and you would have lost your labor. Nevertheless, we will
not forget that some Egyptian wheat was handed down to us by a
On the whole, I think that it cannot be maintained that dressing
has in this or any country risen to the dignity of an art. At
present men make shift to wear what they can get. Like shipwrecked
sailors, they put on what they can find on the beach, and at a
little distance, whether of space or time, laugh at each other's
masquerade. Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but
follows religiously the new. We are amused at beholding the costume
of Henry VIII, or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the
King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands. All costume off a man is
pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and
the sincere life passed within it which restrain laughter and
consecrate the costume of any people. Let Harlequin be taken with a
fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too.
When the soldier is hit by a cannonball, rags are as becoming as
The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns
keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they
may discover the particular figure which this generation requires
today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely
whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more
or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the
other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the
lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable.
Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is
called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is
skin-deep and unalterable.
I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by
which men may get clothing. The condition of the operatives is
becoming every day more like that of the English; and it cannot be
wondered at, since, as far as I have heard or observed, the
principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad,
but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched. In the long
run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should
fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.
As for a Shelter, I will not deny that this is now a necessary
of life, though there are instances of men having done without it
for long periods in colder countries than this. Samuel Laing says
that "the Laplander in his skin dress, and in a skin bag which he
puts over his head and shoulders, will sleep night after night on
the snow ... in a degree of cold which would extinguish the life of
one exposed to it in any woollen clothing." He had seen them asleep
thus. Yet he adds, "They are not hardier than other people." But,
probably, man did not live long on the earth without discovering the
convenience which there is in a house, the domestic comforts, which
phrase may have originally signified the satisfactions of the house
more than of the family; though these must be extremely partial and
occasional in those climates where the house is associated in our
thoughts with winter or the rainy season chiefly, and two thirds of
the year, except for a parasol, is unnecessary. In our climate, in
the summer, it was formerly almost solely a covering at night. In
the Indian gazettes a wigwam was the symbol of a day's march, and a
row of them cut or painted on the bark of a tree signified that so
many times they had camped. Man was not made so large limbed and
robust but that he must seek to narrow his world and wall in a space
such as fitted him. He was at first bare and out of doors; but
though this was pleasant enough in serene and warm weather, by
daylight, the rainy season and the winter, to say nothing of the
torrid sun, would perhaps have nipped his race in the bud if he had
not made haste to clothe himself with the shelter of a house. Adam
and Eve, according to the fable, wore the bower before other
clothes. Man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort, first of
warmth, then the warmth of the affections.
We may imagine a time when, in the infancy of the human race,
some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter.
Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to
stay outdoors, even in wet and cold. It plays house, as well as
horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the
interest with which, when young, he looked at shelving rocks, or any
approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion,
any portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in
us. From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark
and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of
boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what
it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more
senses than we think. From the hearth the field is a great
distance. It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of
our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the
celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a
roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves,
nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.
However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it
behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all
he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a
museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.
Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have
seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton
cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I
thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the
wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom
left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more
than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I
used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three
wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it
suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a
one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to
admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and
hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul
be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a
despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased,
and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or
house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to
pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have
frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.
Economy is a subject which admits of being treated with levity, but
it cannot so be disposed of. A comfortable house for a rude and
hardy race, that lived mostly out of doors, was once made here
almost entirely of such materials as Nature furnished ready to their
hands. Gookin, who was superintendent of the Indians subject to the
Massachusetts Colony, writing in 1674, says, "The best of their
houses are covered very neatly, tight and warm, with barks of trees,
slipped from their bodies at those seasons when the sap is up, and
made into great flakes, with pressure of weighty timber, when they
are green.... The meaner sort are covered with mats which they make
of a kind of bulrush, and are also indifferently tight and warm, but
not so good as the former.... Some I have seen, sixty or a hundred
feet long and thirty feet broad.... I have often lodged in their
wigwams, and found them as warm as the best English houses." He
adds that they were commonly carpeted and lined within with
well-wrought embroidered mats, and were furnished with various
utensils. The Indians had advanced so far as to regulate the effect
of the wind by a mat suspended over the hole in the roof and moved
by a string. Such a lodge was in the first instance constructed in
a day or two at most, and taken down and put up in a few hours; and
every family owned one, or its apartment in one.
In the savage state every family owns a shelter as good as the
best, and sufficient for its coarser and simpler wants; but I think
that I speak within bounds when I say that, though the birds of the
air have their nests, and the foxes their holes, and the savages
their wigwams, in modern civilized society not more than one half
the families own a shelter. In the large towns and cities, where
civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a
shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an
annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable
summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but
now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. 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. But, answers one, by merely paying this tax, the poor
civilized man secures an abode which is a palace compared with the
savage's. An annual rent of from twenty-five to a hundred dollars
(these are the country rates) entitles him to the benefit of the
improvements of centuries, spacious apartments, clean paint and
paper, Rumford fire-place, back plastering, Venetian blinds, copper
pump, spring lock, a commodious cellar, and many other things. 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? If it is asserted that civilization is a real
advance in the condition of man -- and I think that it is, though
only the wise improve their advantages -- it must be shown that it
has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and
the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is
required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. An
average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred
dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years
of the laborer's life, even if he is not encumbered with a family --
estimating the pecuniary value of every man's labor at one dollar a
day, for if some receive more, others receive less; -- so that he
must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam
will be earned. If we suppose him to pay a rent instead, this is
but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to
exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?
It may be guessed that I reduce almost the whole advantage of
holding this superfluous property as a fund in store against the
future, so far as the individual is concerned, mainly to the
defraying of funeral expenses. But perhaps a man is not required to
bury himself. Nevertheless this points to an important distinction
between the civilized man and the savage; and, no doubt, they have
designs on us for our benefit, in making the life of a civilized
people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a
great extent absorbed, in order to preserve and perfect that of the
race. But I wish to show at what a sacrifice this advantage is at
present obtained, and to suggest that we may possibly so live as to
secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage.
What mean ye by saying that the poor ye have always with you, or
that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth
are set on edge?
"As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any
more to use this proverb in Israel.
"Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also
the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at
least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most
part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that
they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they
have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with hired money --
and we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses
-- but commonly they have not paid for them yet. It is true, the
encumbrances sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the
farm itself becomes one great encumbrance, and still a man is found
to inherit it, being well acquainted with it, as he says. On
applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot
at once name a dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear.
If you would know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the
bank where they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for
his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point
to him. I doubt if there are three such men in Concord. What has
been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even
ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the
farmers. With regard to the merchants, however, one of them says
pertinently that a great part of their failures are not genuine
pecuniary failures, but merely failures to fulfil their engagements,
because it is inconvenient; that is, it is the moral character that
breaks down. But this puts an infinitely worse face on the matter,
and suggests, beside, that probably not even the other three succeed
in saving their souls, but are perchance bankrupt in a worse sense
than they who fail honestly. Bankruptcy and repudiation are the
springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns
its somersets, but the savage stands on the unelastic plank of
famine. Yet the Middlesex Cattle Show goes off here with eclat
annually, as if all the joints of the agricultural machine were
The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood
by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his
shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill
he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and
independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it.
This is the reason he is poor; and for a similar reason we are all
poor in respect to a thousand savage comforts, though surrounded by
luxuries. As Chapman sings,

"The false society of men --
-- for earthly greatness
All heavenly comforts rarefies to air."

And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer
but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. As I
understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the
house which Minerva made, that she "had not made it movable, by
which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided"; and it may still
be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are
often imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad
neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or
two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation,
have been wishing to sell their houses in the outskirts and move
into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only
death will set them free.
Granted that the majority are able at last either to own or hire
the modern house with all its improvements. While civilization has
been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who
are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy
to create noblemen and kings. And if the civilized man's pursuits
are no worthier than the savage's, if he is employed the greater
part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely,
why should he have a better dwelling than the former?
But how do the poor minority fare? Perhaps it will be found
that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward
circumstances above the savage, others have been degraded below him.
The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of
another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the
almshouse and "silent poor." The myriads who built the pyramids to
be the tombs of the Pharaohs were fed on garlic, and it may be were
not decently buried themselves. The mason who finishes the cornice
of the palace returns at night perchance to a hut not so good as a
wigwam. It is a mistake to suppose that, in a country where the
usual evidences of civilization exist, the condition of a very large
body of the inhabitants may not be as degraded as that of savages.
I refer to the degraded poor, not now to the degraded rich. To know
this I should not need to look farther than to the shanties which
everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in
civilization; where I see in my daily walks human beings living in
sties, and all winter with an open door, for the sake of light,
without any visible, often imaginable, wood-pile, and the forms of
both old and young are permanently contracted by the long habit of
shrinking from cold and misery, and the development of all their
limbs and faculties is checked. It certainly is fair to look at
that class by whose labor the works which distinguish this
generation are accomplished. Such too, to a greater or less extent,
is the condition of the operatives of every denomination in England,
which is the great workhouse of the world. Or I could refer you to
Ireland, which is marked as one of the white or enlightened spots on
the map. Contrast the physical condition of the Irish with that of
the North American Indian, or the South Sea Islander, or any other
savage race before it was degraded by contact with the civilized
man. Yet I have no doubt that that people's rulers are as wise as
the average of civilized rulers. Their condition only proves what
squalidness may consist with civilization. I hardly need refer now
to the laborers in our Southern States who produce the staple
exports of this country, and are themselves a staple production of
the South. But to confine myself to those who are said to be in
moderate circumstances.
Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and
are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they
think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have. As if
one were to wear any sort of coat which the tailor might cut out for
him, or, gradually leaving off palm-leaf hat or cap of woodchuck
skin, complain of hard times because he could not afford to buy him
a crown! It is possible to invent a house still more convenient and
luxurious than we have, which yet all would admit that man could not
afford to pay for. Shall we always study to obtain more of these
things, and not sometimes to be content with less? Shall the
respectable citizen thus gravely teach, by precept and example, the
necessity of the young man's providing a certain number of
superfluous glow-shoes, and umbrellas, and empty guest chambers for
empty guests, before he dies? Why should not our furniture be as
simple as the Arab's or the Indian's? When I think of the
benefactors of the race, whom we have apotheosized as messengers
from heaven, bearers of divine gifts to man, I do not see in my mind
any retinue at their heels, any carload of fashionable furniture.
Or what if I were to allow -- would it not be a singular allowance?
-- that our furniture should be more complex than the Arab's, in
proportion as we are morally and intellectually his superiors! At
present our houses are cluttered and defiled with it, and a good
housewife would sweep out the greater part into the dust hole, and
not leave her morning's work undone. Morning work! By the blushes
of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man's morning work
in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I
was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when
the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out
the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house?
I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the
grass, unless where man has broken ground.
It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which
the herd so diligently follow. The traveller who stops at the best
houses, so called, soon discovers this, for the publicans presume
him to be a Sardanapalus, and if he resigned himself to their tender
mercies he would soon be completely emasculated. I think that in
the railroad car we are inclined to spend more on luxury than on
safety and convenience, and it threatens without attaining these to
become no better than a modern drawing-room, with its divans, and
ottomans, and sun-shades, and a hundred other oriental things, which
we are taking west with us, invented for the ladies of the harem and
the effeminate natives of the Celestial Empire, which Jonathan
should be ashamed to know the names of. I would rather sit on a
pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet
cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free
circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion
train and breathe a malaria all the way.
The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive
ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a
sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he
contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in
this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the
plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the
tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits
when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree
for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night,
but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have
adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agri-culture.
We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a
family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's
struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our
art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher
state to be forgotten. There is actually no place in this village
for a work of fine art, if any had come down to us, to stand, for
our lives, our houses and streets, furnish no proper pedestal for
it. There is not a nail to hang a picture on, nor a shelf to
receive the bust of a hero or a saint. When I consider how our
houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal
economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give
way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the
mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and
honest though earthy foundation. I cannot but perceive that this
so-called rich and refined life is a thing jumped at, and I do not
get on in the enjoyment of the fine arts which adorn it, my
attention being wholly occupied with the jump; for I remember that
the greatest genuine leap, due to human muscles alone, on record, is
that of certain wandering Arabs, who are said to have cleared
twenty-five feet on level ground. Without factitious support, man
is sure to come to earth again beyond that distance. The first
question which I am tempted to put to the proprietor of such great
impropriety is, Who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven
who fail, or the three who succeed? Answer me these questions, and
then perhaps I may look at your bawbles and find them ornamental.
The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before
we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be
stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping
and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the
beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house
and no housekeeper.
Old Johnson, in his "Wonder-Working Providence," speaking of the
first settlers of this town, with whom he was contemporary, tells us
that "they burrow themselves in the earth for their first shelter
under some hillside, and, casting the soil aloft upon timber, they
make a smoky fire against the earth, at the highest side." They did
not "provide them houses," says he, "till the earth, by the Lord's
blessing, brought forth bread to feed them," and the first year's
crop was so light that "they were forced to cut their bread very
thin for a long season." The secretary of the Province of New
Netherland, writing in Dutch, in 1650, for the information of those
who wished to take up land there, states more particularly that
"those in New Netherland, and especially in New England, who have no
means to build farmhouses at first according to their wishes, dig a
square pit in the ground, cellar fashion, six or seven feet deep, as
long and as broad as they think proper, case the earth inside with
wood all round the wall, and line the wood with the bark of trees or
something else to prevent the caving in of the earth; floor this
cellar with plank, and wainscot it overhead for a ceiling, raise a
roof of spars clear up, and cover the spars with bark or green sods,
so that they can live dry and warm in these houses with their entire
families for two, three, and four years, it being understood that
partitions are run through those cellars which are adapted to the
size of the family. The wealthy and principal men in New England,
in the beginning of the colonies, commenced their first
dwelling-houses in this fashion for two reasons: firstly, in order
not to waste time in building, and not to want food the next season;
secondly, in order not to discourage poor laboring people whom they
brought over in numbers from Fatherland. In the course of three or
four years, when the country became adapted to agriculture, they
built themselves handsome houses, spending on them several
In this course which our ancestors took there was a show of
prudence at least, as if their principle were to satisfy the more
pressing wants first. But are the more pressing wants satisfied
now? When I think of acquiring for myself one of our luxurious
dwellings, I am deterred, for, so to speak, the country is not yet
adapted to human culture, and we are still forced to cut our
spiritual bread far thinner than our forefathers did their wheaten.
Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the
rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where
they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the
shellfish, and not overlaid with it. But, alas! I have been inside
one or two of them, and know what they are lined with.
Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live
in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to
accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention
and industry of mankind offer. In such a neighborhood as this,
boards and shingles, lime and bricks, are cheaper and more easily
obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient
quantities, or even well-tempered clay or flat stones. I speak
understandingly on this subject, for I have made myself acquainted
with it both theoretically and practically. With a little more wit
we might use these materials so as to become richer than the richest
now are, and make our civilization a blessing. The civilized man is
a more experienced and wiser savage. But to make haste to my own
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to
the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my
house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in
their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without
borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit
your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner
of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the
apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It
was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods,
through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in
the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice in
the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces,
and it was all dark-colored and saturated with water. There were
some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there;
but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way
home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy
atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the
lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year
with us. They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of
man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that
had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had
come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with
a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond-hole in order to
swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay
on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed
there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not
yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for
a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive
condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of
springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and
more ethereal life. I had previously seen the snakes in frosty
mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and
inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them. On the 1st of April
it rained and melted the ice, and in the early part of the day,
which was very foggy, I heard a stray goose groping about over the
pond and cackling as if lost, or like the spirit of the fog.
So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also
studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many
communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself, --

Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings --
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.

I hewed the main timbers six inches square, most of the studs on
two sides only, and the rafters and floor timbers on one side,
leaving the rest of the bark on, so that they were just as straight
and much stronger than sawed ones. Each stick was carefully
mortised or tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by
this time. My days in the woods were not very long ones; yet I
usually carried my dinner of bread and butter, and read the
newspaper in which it was wrapped, at noon, sitting amid the green
pine boughs which I had cut off, and to my bread was imparted some
of their fragrance, for my hands were covered with a thick coat of
pitch. Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the
pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better
acquainted with it. Sometimes a rambler in the wood was attracted
by the sound of my axe, and we chatted pleasantly over the chips
which I had made.
By the middle of April, for I made no haste in my work, but
rather made the most of it, my house was framed and ready for the
raising. I had already bought the shanty of James Collins, an
Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad, for boards. James
Collins' shanty was considered an uncommonly fine one. When I
called to see it he was not at home. I walked about the outside, at
first unobserved from within, the window was so deep and high. It
was of small dimensions, with a peaked cottage roof, and not much
else to be seen, the dirt being raised five feet all around as if it
were a compost heap. The roof was the soundest part, though a good
deal warped and made brittle by the sun. Doorsill there was none,
but a perennial passage for the hens under the door board. Mrs. C.
came to the door and asked me to view it from the inside. The hens
were driven in by my approach. It was dark, and had a dirt floor
for the most part, dank, clammy, and aguish, only here a board and
there a board which would not bear removal. She lighted a lamp to
show me the inside of the roof and the walls, and also that the
board floor extended under the bed, warning me not to step into the
cellar, a sort of dust hole two feet deep. In her own words, they
were "good boards overhead, good boards all around, and a good
window" -- of two whole squares originally, only the cat had passed
out that way lately. There was a stove, a bed, and a place to sit,
an infant in the house where it was born, a silk parasol,
gilt-framed looking-glass, and a patent new coffee-mill nailed to an
oak sapling, all told. The bargain was soon concluded, for James
had in the meanwhile returned. I to pay four dollars and
twenty-five cents tonight, he to vacate at five tomorrow morning,
selling to nobody else meanwhile: I to take possession at six. It
were well, he said, to be there early, and anticipate certain
indistinct but wholly unjust claims on the score of ground rent and
fuel. This he assured me was the only encumbrance. At six I passed
him and his family on the road. One large bundle held their all --
bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens -- all but the cat; she took
to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward,
trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last.
I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails,
and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the
boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun.
One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland
path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor
Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred
the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and
spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the
time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts,
at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He
was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly
insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy.
I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south,
where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach
and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet
square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze
in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but
the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place.
It was but two hours' work. I took particular pleasure in this
breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the
earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in
the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their
roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared
posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a
sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.
At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my
acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for
neighborliness than from any necessity, I set up the frame of my
house. No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers
than I. They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of
loftier structures one day. I began to occupy my house on the 4th
of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were
carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly
impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a
chimney at one end, bringing two cartloads of stones up the hill
from the pond in my arms. I built the chimney after my hoeing in
the fall, before a fire became necessary for warmth, doing my
cooking in the meanwhile out of doors on the ground, early in the
morning: which mode I still think is in some respects more
convenient and agreeable than the usual one. When it stormed before
my bread was baked, I fixed a few boards over the fire, and sat
under them to watch my loaf, and passed some pleasant hours in that
way. In those days, when my hands were much employed, I read but
little, but the least scraps of paper which lay on the ground, my
holder, or tablecloth, afforded me as much entertainment, in fact
answered the same purpose as the Iliad.
It would be worth the while to build still 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. There is some of the same
fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's
building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their
dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and
families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be
universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so
engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their
eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller
with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign
the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does
architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I
never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and
natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the
community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a
man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer.
Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it
finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is
not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my
thinking for myself.
True, there are architects so called in this country, and I have
heard of one at least possessed with the idea of making
architectural ornaments have a core of truth, a necessity, and hence
a beauty, as if it were a revelation to him. All very well perhaps
from his point of view, but only a little better than the common
dilettantism. A sentimental reformer in architecture, he began at
the cornice, not at the foundation. It was only how to put a core
of truth within the ornaments, that every sugarplum, in fact, might
have an almond or caraway seed in it -- though I hold that almonds
are most wholesome without the sugar -- and not how the inhabitant,
the indweller, might build truly within and without, and let the
ornaments take care of themselves. What reasonable man ever
supposed that ornaments were something outward and in the skin
merely -- that the tortoise got his spotted shell, or the shell-fish
its mother-o'-pearl tints, by such a contract as the inhabitants of
Broadway their Trinity Church? But a man has no more to do with the
style of architecture of his house than a tortoise with that of its
shell: nor need the soldier be so idle as to try to paint the
precise color of his virtue on his standard. The enemy will find it
out. He may turn pale when the trial comes. This man seemed to me
to lean over the cornice, and timidly whisper his half truth to the
rude occupants who really knew it better than he. What of
architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from
within outward, out of the necessities and character of the
indweller, who is the only builder -- out of some unconscious
truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the
appearance and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined
to be produced will be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of
life. The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the
painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and
cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants
whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces
merely, which makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will
be the citizen's suburban box, when his life shall be as simple and
as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining
after effect in the style of his dwelling. A great proportion of
architectural ornaments are literally hollow, and a September gale
would strip them off, like borrowed plumes, without injury to the
substantials. They can do without architecture who have no olives
nor wines in the cellar. What if an equal ado were made about the
ornaments of style in literature, and the architects of our bibles
spent as much time about their cornices as the architects of our
churches do? So are made the belles-lettres and the beaux-arts and
their professors. Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few
sticks are slanted over him or under him, and what colors are daubed
upon his box. It would signify somewhat, if, in any earnest sense,
he slanted them and daubed it; but the spirit having departed out of
the tenant, it is of a piece with constructing his own coffin -- the
architecture of the grave -- and "carpenter" is but another name for
"coffin-maker." One man says, in his despair or indifference to
life, take up a handful of the earth at your feet, and paint your
house that color. Is he thinking of his last and narrow house?
Toss up a copper for it as well. What an abundance of leisure be
must have! Why do you take up a handful of dirt? Better paint your
house your own complexion; let it turn pale or blush for you. An
enterprise to improve the style of cottage architecture! When you
have got my ornaments ready, I will wear them.
Before winter I built a chimney, and shingled the sides of my
house, which were already impervious to rain, with imperfect and
sappy shingles made of the first slice of the log, whose edges I was
obliged to straighten with a plane.
I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide
by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a
large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and
a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the
usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work,
all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the
details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses
cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various
materials which compose them:--

Boards .......................... $ 8.03+, mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides ... 4.00
Laths ............................ 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass .................... 2.43
One thousand old brick ........... 4.00
Two casks of lime ................ 2.40 That was high.
Hair ............................. 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron ................. 0.15
Nails ............................ 3.90
Hinges and screws ................ 0.14
Latch ............................ 0.10
Chalk ............................ 0.01
Transportation ................... 1.40 I carried a good part
------- on my back.
In all ...................... $28.12+

These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones, and
sand, which I claimed by squatter's right. I have also a small
woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after
building the house.
I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main
street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me
as much and will cost me no more than my present one.
I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can
obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent
which he now pays annually. If I seem to boast more than is
becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for
myself; and my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the
truth of my statement. Notwithstanding much cant and hypocrisy --
chaff which I find it difficult to separate from my wheat, but for
which I am as sorry as any man -- I will breathe freely and stretch
myself in this respect, it is such a relief to both the moral and
physical system; and I am resolved that I will not through humility
become the devil's attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word
for the truth. At Cambridge College the mere rent of a student's
room, which is only a little larger than my own, is thirty dollars
each year, though the corporation had the advantage of building
thirty-two side by side and under one roof, and the occupant suffers
the inconvenience of many and noisy neighbors, and perhaps a
residence in the fourth story. I cannot but think that if we had
more true wisdom in these respects, not only less education would be
needed, because, forsooth, more would already have been acquired,
but the pecuniary expense of getting an education would in a great
measure vanish. Those conveniences which the student requires at
Cambridge or elsewhere cost him or somebody else ten times as great
a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both
sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never
the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is
an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable
education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of
his contemporaries no charge is made. The mode of founding a
college is, commonly, to get up a subscription of dollars and cents,
and then, following blindly the principles of a division of labor to
its extreme -- a principle which should never be followed but with
circumspection -- to call in a contractor who makes this a subject
of speculation, and he employs Irishmen or other operatives actually
to lay the foundations, while the students that are to be are said
to be fitting themselves for it; and for these oversights successive
generations have to pay. I think that it would be better than this,
for the students, or those who desire to be benefited by it, even to
lay the foundation themselves. The student who secures his coveted
leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor
necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure,
defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure
fruitful. "But," says one, "you do not mean that the students
should go to work with their hands instead of their heads?" I do
not mean that exactly, but I mean something which he might think a
good deal like that; I mean that they should not play life, or study
it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game,
but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths
better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of
living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as
mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and
sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which
is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where
anything is professed and practised but the art of life; -- to
survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with
his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is
made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new
satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to
what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the
monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters
in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end
of a month -- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore
which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary
for this -- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy
at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers'
penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his
fingers?... To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college
that I had studied navigation! -- why, if I had taken one turn down
the harbor I should have known more about it. Even the poor student
studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of
living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely
professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is
reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements";
there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive
advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last
for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them.
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our
attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an
unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive
at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste
to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and
Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is
in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to
a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end
of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if
the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are
eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some
weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak
through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the
Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose
horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important
messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating
locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers ever carried a
peck of corn to mill.
One says to me, "I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love
to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see
the country." But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the
swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend,
Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty
miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day's wages. I
remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very
road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have
travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the
meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time
tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a
job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working
here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached
round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for
seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should
have to cut your acquaintance altogether.
Such is the universal law, which no man can ever outwit, and
with regard to the railroad even we may say it is as broad as it is
long. To make a railroad round the world available to all mankind
is equivalent to grading the whole surface of the planet. Men have
an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint
stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in
next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the
depot, and the conductor shouts "All aboard!" when the smoke is
blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few
are riding, but the rest are run over -- and it will be called, and
will be, "A melancholy accident." No doubt they can ride at last
who shall have earned their fare, that is, if they survive so long,
but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to
travel by that time. This spending of the best part of one's life
earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the
least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to
India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to
England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret
at once. "What!" exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all
the shanties in the land, "is not this railroad which we have built
a good thing?" Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you
might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that
you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.
Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve
dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my
unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and
sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with
potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. The whole lot contains eleven
acres, mostly growing up to pines and hickories, and was sold the
preceding season for eight dollars and eight cents an acre. One
farmer said that it was "good for nothing but to raise cheeping
squirrels on." I put no manure whatever on this land, not being the
owner, but merely a squatter, and not expecting to cultivate so much
again, and I did not quite hoe it all once. I got out several cords
of stumps in plowing, which supplied me with fuel for a long time,
and left small circles of virgin mould, easily distinguishable
through the summer by the greater luxuriance of the beans there.
The dead and for the most part unmerchantable wood behind my house,
and the driftwood from the pond, have supplied the remainder of my
fuel. I was obliged to hire a team and a man for the plowing,
though I held the plow myself. My farm outgoes for the first season
were, for implements, seed, work, etc., $14.72+. The seed corn was
given me. This never costs anything to speak of, unless you plant
more than enough. I got twelve bushels of beans, and eighteen
bushels of potatoes, beside some peas and sweet corn. The yellow
corn and turnips were too late to come to anything. My whole income
from the farm was
$ 23.44
Deducting the outgoes ............ 14.72+
There are left .................. $ 8.71+

beside produce consumed and on hand at the time this estimate was
made of the value of $4.50 -- the amount on hand much more than
balancing a little grass which I did not raise. All things
considered, that is, considering the importance of a man's soul and
of today, notwithstanding the short time occupied by my experiment,
nay, partly even because of its transient character, I believe that
that was doing better than any farmer in Concord did that year.
The next year I did better still, for I spaded up all the land
which I required, about a third of an acre, and I learned from the
experience of both years, not being in the least awed by many
celebrated works on husbandry, Arthur Young among the rest, that if
one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and
raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient
quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to
cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to
spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh
spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all
his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours
in the summer; and thus he would not be tied to an ox, or horse, or
cow, or pig, as at present. I desire to speak impartially on this
point, and as one not interested in the success or failure of the
present economical and social arrangements. I was more independent
than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or
farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very
crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they
already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I
should have been nearly as well off as before.
I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds
as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.
Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only,
the oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is
so much the larger. Man does some of his part of the exchange work
in his six weeks of haying, and it is no boy's play. Certainly no
nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of
philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of
animals. True, there never was and is not likely soon to be a
nation of philosophers, nor am I certain it is desirable that there
should be. However, I should never have broken a horse or bull and
taken him to board for any work he might do for me, for fear I
should become a horseman or a herdsman merely; and if society seems
to be the gainer by so doing, are we certain that what is one man's
gain is not another's loss, and that the stable-boy has equal cause
with his master to be satisfied? Granted that some public works
would not have been constructed without this aid, and let man share
the glory of such with the ox and horse; does it follow that he
could not have accomplished works yet more worthy of himself in that
case? When men begin to do, not merely unnecessary or artistic, but
luxurious and idle work, with their assistance, it is inevitable
that a few do all the exchange work with the oxen, or, in other
words, become the slaves of the strongest. Man thus not only works
for the animal within him, but, for a symbol of this, he works for
the animal without him. Though we have many substantial houses of
brick or stone, the prosperity of the farmer is still measured by
the degree to which the barn overshadows the house. This town is
said to have the largest houses for oxen, cows, and horses
hereabouts, and it is not behindhand in its public buildings; but
there are very few halls for free worship or free speech in this
county. It should not be by their architecture, but why not even by
their power of abstract thought, that nations should seek to
commemorate themselves? How much more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta
than all the ruins of the East! Towers and temples are the luxury
of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the
bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor
is its material silver, or gold, or marble, except to a trifling
extent. To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered? In Arcadia,
when I was there, I did not see any hammering stone. Nations are
possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of
themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if
equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One
piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high
as the moon. I love better to see stones in place. The grandeur of
Thebes was a vulgar grandeur. More sensible is a rod of stone wall
that bounds an honest man's field than a hundred-gated Thebes that
has wandered farther from the true end of life. The religion and
civilization which are barbaric and heathenish build splendid
temples; but what you might call Christianity does not. Most of the
stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself
alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them
so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough
to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby,
whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the
Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent
some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the
religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all
the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the
United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The mainspring
is vanity, assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter. Mr.
Balcom, a promising young architect, designs it on the back of his
Vitruvius, with hard pencil and ruler, and the job is let out to
Dobson & Sons, stonecutters. When the thirty centuries begin to
look down on it, mankind begin to look up at it. As for your high
towers and monuments, there was a crazy fellow once in this town who
undertook to dig through to China, and he got so far that, as he
said, he heard the Chinese pots and kettles rattle; but I think that
I shall not go out of my way to admire the hole which he made. Many
are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East -- to
know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in
those days did not build them -- who were above such trifling. But
to proceed with my statistics.
By surveying, carpentry, and day-labor of various other kinds in
the village in the meanwhile, for I have as many trades as fingers,
I had earned $13.34. The expense of food for eight months, namely,
from July 4th to March 1st, the time when these estimates were made,
though I lived there more than two years -- not counting potatoes, a
little green corn, and some peas, which I had raised, nor
considering the value of what was on hand at the last date -- was

Rice .................... $ 1.73 1/2
Molasses ................. 1.73 Cheapest form of the
Rye meal ................. 1.04 3/4
Indian meal .............. 0.99 3/4 Cheaper than rye.
Pork ..................... 0.22
All experiments which failed:
Flour .................... 0.88 Costs more than Indian meal,
both money and trouble.
Sugar .................... 0.80
Lard ..................... 0.65
Apples ................... 0.25
Dried apple .............. 0.22
Sweet potatoes ........... 0.10
One pumpkin .............. 0.06
One watermelon ........... 0.02
Salt ..................... 0.03

Yes, I did eat $8.74, all told; but I should not thus unblushingly
publish my guilt, if I did not know that most of my readers were
equally guilty with myself, and that their deeds would look no
better in print. The next year I sometimes caught a mess of fish
for my dinner, and once I went so far as to slaughter a woodchuck
which ravaged my bean-field -- effect his transmigration, as a
Tartar would say -- and devour him, partly for experiment's sake;
but though it afforded me a momentary enjoyment, notwithstanding a
musky flavor, I saw that the longest use would not make that a good
practice, however it might seem to have your woodchucks ready
dressed by the village butcher.
Clothing and some incidental expenses within the same dates,
though little can be inferred from this item, amounted to

$ 8.40-3/4
Oil and some household utensils ........ 2.00

So that all the pecuniary outgoes, excepting for washing and
mending, which for the most part were done out of the house, and
their bills have not yet been received -- and these are all and more
than all the ways by which money necessarily goes out in this part
of the world -- were

House ................................. $ 28.12+
Farm one year ........................... 14.72+
Food eight months ....................... 8.74
Clothing, etc., eight months ............ 8.40-3/4
Oil, etc., eight months ................. 2.00
In all ............................ $ 61.99-3/4

I address myself now to those of my readers who have a living to
get. And to meet this I have for farm produce sold

$ 23.44
Earned by day-labor .................... 13.34
In all ............................ $ 36.78,

which subtracted from the sum of the outgoes leaves a balance of
$25.21 3/4 on the one side -- this being very nearly the means with
which I started, and the measure of expenses to be incurred -- and
on the other, beside the leisure and independence and health thus
secured, a comfortable house for me as long as I choose to occupy
These statistics, however accidental and therefore uninstructive
they may appear, as they have a certain completeness, have a certain
value also. Nothing was given me of which I have not rendered some
account. It appears from the above estimate, that my food alone
cost me in money about twenty-seven cents a week. It was, for
nearly two years after this, rye and Indian meal without yeast,
potatoes, rice, a very little salt pork, molasses, and salt; and my
drink, water. It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who
love so well the philosophy of India. To meet the objections of
some inveterate cavillers, I may as well state, that if I dined out
occasionally, as I always had done, and I trust shall have
opportunities to do again, it was frequently to the detriment of my
domestic arrangements. But the dining out, being, as I have stated,
a constant element, does not in the least affect a comparative
statement like this.
I learned from my two years' experience that it would cost
incredibly little trouble to obtain one's necessary food, even in
this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals,
and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory
dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply off a dish of
purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my cornfield,
boiled and salted. I give the Latin on account of the savoriness of
the trivial name. And pray what more can a reasonable man desire,
in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of
ears of green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt? Even
the little variety which I used was a yielding to the demands of
appetite, and not of health. Yet men have come to such a pass that
they frequently starve, not for want of necessaries, but for want of
luxuries; and I know a good woman who thinks that her son lost his
life because he took to drinking water only.
The reader will perceive that I am treating the subject rather
from an economic than a dietetic point of view, and he will not
venture to put my abstemiousness to the test unless he has a
well-stocked larder.
Bread I at first made of pure Indian meal and salt, genuine
hoe-cakes, which I baked before my fire out of doors on a shingle or
the end of a stick of timber sawed off in building my house; but it
was wont to get smoked and to have a piny flavor, I tried flour
also; but have at last found a mixture of rye and Indian meal most
convenient and agreeable. In cold weather it was no little
amusement to bake several small loaves of this in succession,
tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching
eggs. They were a real cereal fruit which I ripened, and they had
to my senses a fragrance like that of other noble fruits, which I
kept in as long as possible by wrapping them in cloths. I made a
study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread-making,
consulting such authorities as offered, going back to the primitive
days and first invention of the unleavened kind, when from the
wildness of nuts and meats men first reached the mildness and
refinement of this diet, and travelling gradually down in my studies
through that accidental souring of the dough which, it is supposed,
taught the leavening process, and through the various fermentations
thereafter, till I came to "good, sweet, wholesome bread," the staff
of life. Leaven, which some deem the soul of bread, the spiritus
which fills its cellular tissue, which is religiously preserved like
the vestal fire -- some precious bottleful, I suppose, first brought
over in the Mayflower, did the business for America, and its
influence is still rising, swelling, spreading, in cerealian billows
over the land -- this seed I regularly and faithfully procured from
the village, till at length one morning I forgot the rules, and
scalded my yeast; by which accident I discovered that even this was
not indispensable -- for my discoveries were not by the synthetic
but analytic process -- and I have gladly omitted it since, though
most housewives earnestly assured me that safe and wholesome bread
without yeast might not be, and elderly people prophesied a speedy
decay of the vital forces. Yet I find it not to be an essential
ingredient, and after going without it for a year am still in the
land of the living; and I am glad to escape the trivialness of
carrying a bottleful in my pocket, which would sometimes pop and
discharge its contents to my discomfiture. It is simpler and more
respectable to omit it. Man is an animal who more than any other
can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances. Neither did I
put any sal-soda, or other acid or alkali, into my bread. It would
seem that I made it according to the recipe which Marcus Porcius
Cato gave about two centuries before Christ. "Panem depsticium sic
facito. Manus mortariumque bene lavato. Farinam in mortarium
indito, aquae paulatim addito, subigitoque pulchre. Ubi bene
subegeris, defingito, coquitoque sub testu." Which I take to mean,
-- "Make kneaded bread thus. Wash your hands and trough well. Put
the meal into the trough, add water gradually, and knead it
thoroughly. When you have kneaded it well, mould it, and bake it
under a cover," that is, in a baking kettle. Not a word about
leaven. But I did not always use this staff of life. At one time,
owing to the emptiness of my purse, I saw none of it for more than a
Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs
in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and
fluctuating markets for them. Yet so far are we from simplicity and
independence that, in Concord, fresh and sweet meal is rarely sold
in the shops, and hominy and corn in a still coarser form are hardly
used by any. For the most part the farmer gives to his cattle and
hogs the grain of his own producing, and buys flour, which is at
least no more wholesome, at a greater cost, at the store. I saw
that I could easily raise my bushel or two of rye and Indian corn,
for the former will grow on the poorest land, and the latter does
not require the best, and grind them in a hand-mill, and so do
without rice and pork; and if I must have some concentrated sweet, I
found by experiment that I could make a very good molasses either of
pumpkins or beets, and I knew that I needed only to set out a few
maples to obtain it more easily still, and while these were growing
I could use various substitutes beside those which I have named.
"For," as the Forefathers sang,--

"we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-tree chips."

Finally, as for salt, that grossest of groceries, to obtain this
might be a fit occasion for a visit to the seashore, or, if I did
without it altogether, I should probably drink the less water. I do
not learn that the Indians ever troubled themselves to go after it.
Thus I could avoid all trade and barter, so far as my food was
concerned, and having a shelter already, it would only remain to get
clothing and fuel. The pantaloons which I now wear were woven in a
farmer's family -- thank Heaven there is so much virtue still in
man; for I think the fall from the farmer to the operative as great
and memorable as that from the man to the farmer; -- and in a new
country, fuel is an encumbrance. As for a habitat, if I were not
permitted still to squat, I might purchase one acre at the same
price for which the land I cultivated was sold -- namely, eight
dollars and eight cents. But as it was, I considered that I
enhanced the value of the land by squatting on it.
There is a certain class of unbelievers who sometimes ask me
such questions as, if I think that I can live on vegetable food
alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once -- for the
root is faith -- I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on
board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand
much that I have to say. For my part, I am glad to bear of
experiments of this kind being tried; as that a young man tried for
a fortnight to live on hard, raw corn on the ear, using his teeth
for all mortar. The squirrel tribe tried the same and succeeded.
The human race is interested in these experiments, though a few old
women who are incapacitated for them, or who own their thirds in
mills, may be alarmed.
My furniture, part of which I made myself -- and the rest cost
me nothing of which I have not rendered an account -- consisted of a
bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in
diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a
frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three
plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a
japanned lamp. None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That
is shiftlessness. There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best
in the village garrets to be had for taking them away. Furniture!
Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture
warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see
his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the
light of heaven and the eyes of men, a beggarly account of empty
boxes? That is Spaulding's furniture. I could never tell from
inspecting such a load whether it belonged to a so-called rich man
or a poor one; the owner always seemed poverty-stricken. Indeed,
the more you have of such things the poorer you are. Each load
looks as if it contained the contents of a dozen shanties; and if
one shanty is poor, this is a dozen times as poor. Pray, for what
do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture, our exuvioe: at
last to go from this world to another newly furnished, and leave
this to be burned? It is the same as if all these traps were
buckled to a man's belt, and he could not move over the rough
country where our lines are cast without dragging them -- dragging
his trap. He was a lucky fox that left his tail in the trap. The
muskrat will gnaw his third leg off to be free. No wonder man has
lost his elasticity. How often he is at a dead set! "Sir, if I may
be so bold, what do you mean by a dead set?" If you are a seer,
whenever you meet a man you will see all that he owns, ay, and much
that he pretends to disown, behind him, even to his kitchen
furniture and all the trumpery which he saves and will not burn, and
he will appear to be harnessed to it and making what headway he can.
I think that the man is at a dead set who has got through a
knot-hole or gateway where his sledge load of furniture cannot
follow him. I cannot but feel compassion when I hear some trig,
compact-looking man, seemingly free, all girded and ready, speak of
his "furniture," as whether it is insured or not. "But what shall I
do with my furniture?" -- My gay butterfly is entangled in a
spider's web then. Even those who seem for a long while not to have
any, if you inquire more narrowly you will find have some stored in
somebody's barn. I look upon England today as an old gentleman who
is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has
accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to
burn; great trunk, little trunk, bandbox, and bundle. Throw away
the first three at least. It would surpass the powers of a well man
nowadays to take up his bed and walk, and I should certainly advise
a sick one to lay down his bed and run. When I have met an
immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all --
looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his
neck -- I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because
he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I will
take care that it be a light one and do not nip me in a vital part.
But perchance it would be wisest never to put one's paw into it.
I would observe, by the way, that it costs me nothing for
curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and
I am willing that they should look in. The moon will not sour milk
nor taint meat of mine, nor will the sun injure my furniture or fade
my carpet; and if he is sometimes too warm a friend, I find it still
better economy to retreat behind some curtain which nature has
provided, than to add a single item to the details of housekeeping.
A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within
the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I
declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door.
It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon's
effects, for his life had not been ineffectual:--

"The evil that men do lives after them."

As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to
accumulate in his father's day. Among the rest was a dried
tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and
other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a
bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or
increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them,
bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and
dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they
will start again. When a man dies he kicks the dust.
The customs of some savage nations might, perchance, be
profitably imitated by us, for they at least go through the
semblance of casting their slough annually; they have the idea of
the thing, whether they have the reality or not. Would it not be
well if we were to celebrate such a "busk," or "feast of first
fruits," as Bartram describes to have been the custom of the
Mucclasse Indians? "When a town celebrates the busk," says he,
"having previously provided themselves with new clothes, new pots,
pans, and other household utensils and furniture, they collect all
their worn out clothes and other despicable things, sweep and
cleanse their houses, squares, and the whole town of their filth,
which with all the remaining grain and other old provisions they
cast together into one common heap, and consume it with fire. After
having taken medicine, and fasted for three days, all the fire in
the town is extinguished. During this fast they abstain from the
gratification of every appetite and passion whatever. A general
amnesty is proclaimed; all malefactors may return to their town."
"On the fourth morning, the high priest, by rubbing dry wood
together, produces new fire in the public square, from whence every
habitation in the town is supplied with the new and pure flame."
They then feast on the new corn and fruits, and dance and sing
for three days, "and the four following days they receive visits and
rejoice with their friends from neighboring towns who have in like
manner purified and prepared themselves."
The Mexicans also practised a similar purification at the end of
every fifty-two years, in the belief that it was time for the world
to come to an end.
I have scarcely heard of a truer sacrament, that is, as the
dictionary defines it, "outward and visible sign of an inward and
spiritual grace," than this, and I have no doubt that they were
originally inspired directly from Heaven to do thus, though they
have no Biblical record of the revelation.
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the
labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a
year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my
winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for
study. I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my
expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my
income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and
believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did
not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a
livelihood, this was a failure. I have tried trade but I found that
it would take ten years to get under way in that, and that then I
should probably be on my way to the devil. I was actually afraid
that I might by that time be doing what is called a good business.
When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a
living, some sad experience in conforming to the wishes of friends
being fresh in my mind to tax my ingenuity, I thought often and
seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its
small profits might suffice -- for my greatest skill has been to
want but little -- so little capital it required, so little
distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. While my
acquaintances went unhesitatingly into trade or the professions, I
contemplated this occupation as most like theirs; ranging the hills
all summer to pick the berries which came in my way, and thereafter
carelessly dispose of them; so, to keep the flocks of Admetus. I
also dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens
to such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the
city, by hay-cart loads. But I have since learned that trade curses
everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven,
the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.
As I preferred some things to others, and especially valued my
freedom, as I could fare hard and yet succeed well, I did not wish
to spend my time in earning rich carpets or other fine furniture, or
delicate cookery, or a house in the Grecian or the Gothic style just
yet. If there are any to whom it is no interruption to acquire
these things, and who know how to use them when acquired, I
relinquish to them the pursuit. Some are "industrious," and appear
to love labor for its own sake, or perhaps because it keeps them out
of worse mischief; to such I have at present nothing to say. Those
who would not know what to do with more leisure than they now enjoy,
I might advise to work twice as hard as they do -- work till they
pay for themselves, and get their free papers. For myself I found
that the occupation of a day-laborer was the most independent of
any, especially as it required only thirty or forty days in a year
to support one. The laborer's day ends with the going down of the

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