Frontispiece to an early British edition of Walden.

Success Unexpected

Why you should read Walden

Mitch Horowitz
5 min readApr 14, 2020

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Walden is in the air again. As Americans face the prospect of indefinite solitude in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some are turning to the man who ran toward not away from solitary existence.

Last year, before the term COVID-19 entered the vernacular, I wrote a new introduction to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden while sitting under the gaze of the Great Sphinx at Giza. I had an unexpected sensation: as incredible a monument as the Sphinx is, and as deeply affected as I was by its antiquity and mystery, I realized that I had a more emotional response about twenty years earlier when I visited the grassy clearing where Thoreau built his one-room cabin in 1845 near the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

I’ll never forget my first visit to Walden. It was a snowy day near Christmas and I arrived at the spot to find that the only original remains were of Thoreau’s hearthstone. I knelt in the snow and cleared away the mounting flurries from the stone. I kissed it — and began to cry. I was so deeply struck that this was the place to which one man came to experience life in its fullness. I later wrote that what was there was a kind of Sphinx of air. When writing that I forgot that Thoreau himself had written: “ If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost.”

A woman who had been walking in the woods nearby later approached me and said that she saw me kneeling in the snow — was anything wrong? No, I smiled, I had just dropped my car keys. How can you explain an emotional reaction at such a moment? It doesn’t belong to small talk.

In the years since, a few literary critics have questioned Thoreau’s sincerity and have accused him of pursuing hype by living two years on the shores of the Concord town pond in what they considered a make-believe hermitage. I consider that kind of hero-toppling overblown and, at times, shallow. You can still find in Thoreau’s book observations that could not arise from any but the person who yearns to peer into life at its core.

Here is one of them: “The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself.”

Here’s another, perhaps over-quoted, but enduring: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and…

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China