In the opening paragraphs of Walden, Thoreau writes:
In most books, the I, or first person, is ommitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. . . . 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 . . . .
This being the case, it might be useful to see if you can piece together a biographical sketch of Thoreau. In particular, think about whether any of the biographical information you have collected can provide the basis for a better understanding of Thoreau's Walden.
In essays such as "Slavery in Massachussetts," "Civil Disobedience," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau was taking part in the often heated conversation on slavery in nineteenth century America. Read one or more of the above essays and select quotations which illustrate Thoreau's arguments. Consider the ways in which these arguments are like or unlike the positions Thoreau constructs in Walden when discussing subjects other than slavery. On-line versions of these and other essays by Thoreau are available at the following sites: Hanover College's Henry David Thoreau page; and the Henry David Thoreau page at Enviro-Link.
Thoreau was associated with a number of other writers and thinkers who were known as Transcendentalists. See what you can find out about this group of writers, their philosophies, writing, and reputations. Elizabeth Hall Witherell of the Thoreau Project has a special section on the Transcendentalists on her page: The Life and Times of Henry D.Thoreau. Another good starting point is the American Rennaisance and Transcendentalism page which is part of the PBS site.
You may also want to investigate the work of specific transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (you can also read the selection of quotes posted at this Ralph Waldo Emerson page at the University of Arizona), and William Ellery Channing (see the William Ellery Channing Web Center for texts and background information). A wonderful collection of links to resources on the topic of transcendentalism if provided by Elizabeth Hall Witherell at The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Related Sites.
Thoreau was not the only American thinking about nature during the nineteenth century. See what you can learn about the ways other writers and artists were using nature in their work in the same period. You may want to begin by learning something about American artists like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and the Hudson River School Painters. You can do a web search to collect additional information about these and other American painters of the period.
If you wish to work with writers instead of, or in addition to, painters, do a key-word search of The Making of America Archive.
What kinds of questions does Thoreau raise about the nature of labor, wealth, and possessions, and are his positions outside the normal boundaries of the nineteenth century American conversation? Begin by thinking abou the ways in which the arguments raised by Thoreau are like or unlike those we've encountered earlier this semester, and then go on to explore attitudes towards these subjects by using resources available at the Lyceum. Here are a few of the archives you may wish to consult: The Douglass Archives of Public Address; Gilded Age Documents; The Making of America Archive, The University of Michigan. And don't forget the "Acres of Diamonds" speech we discussed in the first weeks of the course.