Everybody wants to achieve their life goals. Thoreau described how he achieved his, of living a simple life, in “Economy,” the first chapter of his masterpiece. Thoreau wanted to be separated from the “evils” in society, and he did so in a way that many people wouldn’t even think of attempting – he exiled himself in a shack he built for himself, near Walden Pond. He tells the reader that his experiences and thoughts were gathered over the two years and two months he spent at Walden Pond. He writes about his connection with all of nature, and his dislike of the rich.
In “Economy,” Thoreau tries to intimidate the reader with his writing style, to see who is willing to read through his book. He tells us of the process in which he built his house, often in an excruciatingly detailed way. He addresses a great many topics that he clearly feels strongly about in the first chapter, including his views on the necessities of life such as clothing and shelter, his experiment with building his own house, his thoughts on education, money and work, and on the fallacy of philanthropy.
He also ignored many of the conventions of writing such as character development and plot. Occasionally, he slipped back to form, and it actually stuck out in stark contrast to the almost journalistic style of the rest of the chapter.
Even simple topics, such as things we consider necessities of modern life, become topics for debate. For example, what really do clothes do? Some people may say that they’re to keep you warm, justifying their need for different outfits. Thoreau answers this question differently. He makes the point that a person doesn’t need new things, such as new clothes, and that people should rely on the old. This is a very important message because many people believe that they need to the newest thing as soon as possible. He writes about his amusement with people who try to keep up with fashion trends and how they are wasting their money away.
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.
Thoreau tells us that he has experienced this lifestyle and has benefitted from it mentally and physically from the amount of work required by his circumstances. He felt that possessions can weigh you down; that a simple life can be more fulfilling than a life filled with the things that money buys.
Thoreau continues with his thoughts about the nature of the citizens of nearby Concord by saying:
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?
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 traveler with their travelling and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?
In one of the more significant departures from typical literary form, Thoreau becomes very journalistic in the next section. He writes about the experiences he had leading up to buying the materials to build his house, and his experiences when he bought the materials themselves. Thoreau wrote this not to amuse the reader, but to give us an idea of what every single step in building his house was; buying the materials just so happened to be one of the necessary steps.
He also talked about the people that he encountered, but in doing so, he didn’t really evolve their characters much. An example is “Mrs. C,” who just showed up out of the blue. It almost felt like we needed some type of transition from the story about borrowing the axe from his friend to meeting “Mrs. C.”
On the subject of education, Thoreau explored the subject of where we learn more, the classroom or the playing field. He tells readers of Walden that he believed we learn more from life experience than from school. He also believed that you don’t need to go to school to learn how to live and succeed; you only need to go out and teach yourself. He tells us of his experience of going to Harvard, how he “learned more about navigation on Walden Pond,” and how useless he thought his Harvard education was. He continues by explaining how we can’t plan our future.
It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.
It’s here and in the section that follows on the values of money and work that Thoreau switches styles again, adopting a more traditional writing style. Thoreau talks about his prior experiences, rather than current ones at Walden Pond. This may be a turn for the best, because these two sections seem a bit less “preachy.”
This is also why the sections also may fall behind a couple of others in some ways as well. Thoreau wasn’t known for being a proper author; he was a controversial, provocative, and thoughtful writer. This is what made Thoreau famous.
These sections got good points across and tell some extremely interesting stories. For example, Thoreau says that it was an extremely dull and unsatisfying job to work in the pencil factory, and that doing regular work wasn’t the way he was going to spend his life.
Spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy 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.
After talking about his past in the last two sections, Thoreau switches styles yet again, returning to writing about his present. Once again, he is criticizing the rich, and shares his views on philanthropy. Some people believe that helping others is better than helping others to help themselves. Thoreau was not one of them. He tells us that he has tried to give to the poor and help the needy, but he noticed a trend. The people that were also giving were not doing these acts of kindness for the person they were helping, but for themselves. Thoreau described his feelings this way: "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.”
He believed that people of his common era didn’t donate for the good of it all, but for their own benefit. In her commentary of “Economy” for the literary analysis Classic Note, author Carrie-Anne Dedeo said, “As for the poor, [Thoreau] believes their problem is not necessarily a lack of possessions since he has shown he can live without them but a lack of ‘taste,’ in deciding how to spend the money they have.”
Thoreau believed that this is hopeless and it is why he “indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises.” He didn’t want to give to the poor because he believed that the poor are able to survive just fine on their own, if someone were to teach others to know how to spend their scarce resources wisely.
It’s easy to see why Thoreau’s Walden has become a literary classic. This first chapter alone touches on so many subjects, and in ways that create controversy among readers. If it were written today, it would easily still be noticed for its commentary and its unique literary style. Perhaps it would be an “indie” classic, because of the volume of material we have, both in print and on line. In the mid-1800’s, without all that competition, Thoreau’s transcendental reflection was unquestionably a “must read” that has remained that to this day.