We consider Thoreau a naturalist, poet, and philosopher, not an economist. So why in the world does he begin with a chapter on economy? Whenever I wonder what he was doing, I remember that he revised Walden SEVEN times. If something made it all the way to version Eight, it’s important.
The Greek word for house is Oikos or Eco. So oikonomia is household management, or economy.
So he begins with an account of building his house and setting up housekeeping. This expands into a long discourse on the nature of economy. What does it mean to economize? Think of it as a budget. When we establish a personal budget, or personal economy, we consider our income and expenses. What expenses are truly necessary for living a deliberate life? If you merge the invitation to live deliberately with economizing, chapter 1 will make more sense.
Remember also the context of the times. Elaborate architecture and furnishings are a popular style. They indicate good taste and prosperity. Your morality is reflected in your home and your housekeeping, your economy. A thrifty and clean home is a good home. Also remember the utopian community and association movement searching for an ideal of how to live together.
Thoreau rejects all of this, choosing to up-cycle an Irish shanty into a simple and basic house where he would find his own ideal way of living. Economizing.
So, much of this chapter is commentary and satire on the times. His lists of expenses contain half cents and three-quarter cents. Although half-cent coins did exist in 1845, it is more likely Thoreau is having fun with us.
Walden contains countless jokes, including hundreds of puns and double entendres, many of them in this first chapter.
If you live in the mountains or woods, you’ll know what Thoreau means when he says, I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry, and the nettle (etc)…which might have withered else in dry seasons.
So be alert for the following:
A pun is a joke playing with different meanings of a word. Or a pun can play with words that sound alike yet have different meanings. For example:
This was not the light in which I hoed them (the beans): referring to sunlight and knowledge.
…what are the grossest groceries. Gross can mean without deductions, vulgar, or obviously wrong.
Thoreau is notorious for being contrary and ironic, where he may be suggesting the opposite of what he states. Consider, I will only hint at some of the enterprises which I have cherished, smack dab in the middle of this lengthy chapter on his enterprises. The entire chapter is an exercise in meta, or overall irony.
If you can see Thoreau’s humor, this chapter becomes a lot more fun.
A few more notes to help you read:
The word Fain means gladly
I would fain say something : I would gladly say something.
A peck of dirt: a peck is the size of a typical farm. This also alludes to the proverb “We must all eat a peck of dirt before we die.”
Laying up treasures is a nod to the New Testament book of Matthew. One scholar has identified 287 ‘uses’ of the Bible in Walden.
Look for poetic devices such as metaphor, rhetorical questions that have no answer, alliteration, analogy, oxymoron, personification, and hyperbole, or exaggeration.
There are parables, or little instructive stories. One of the most mysterious and pondered by scholars is in Economy: I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail.
There are ample allusions to more proverbs and aphorisms, classical and contemporary literature, Hindu sacred texts, and popular notions of the day. If you want to know what any of these mean, just ask. We can easily look up an obscure word or reference in one of the annotated editions.
It may help to consider Walden as a work of poetry, where we surrender literal meaning, welcome the jumble of paradox and layers of rhetoric, and simply allow meaning to seep in. Remember, this is an account of an individual performing an experiment in living and choosing what to believe. We are invited to do the same.
Cramer, J. 2004. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Harding, W. 1995. Walden, an Annotated Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Long, L. 1979. “The Bible and the Composition of Walden.” Studies in the American Renaissance. 309-54.
Sullivan, Robert. 2009. The Thoreau You Don’t Know. Harper Collins.
Van Doren Stern, Philip. 1970. The Annotated Walden. New York: Bramhall House.
West, M. 1996. “Reclaiming Thoreau’s Humor for the Classroom.” Approaches to Teaching Thoreau’s Walden and Other Works. Schneider, ed.