Paul Richardson in More Intelligent Life:
It is one of the great American sententiae, as sonorous and moving as the Gettysburg Address. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau went to the woods in 1845, living for two years and two months in a cabin he had built on the north shore of Walden Pond. The book resulting from his experiment in simplicity was published in 1854, to lukewarm reviews. A century and a half later, however, “Walden” is a fundamental text of the ecological movement, and the pond, a crucial topos of American history, has become a place of pilgrimage. I come to the woods in a taxi from Logan Airport, leaving Boston on Route 2. My taxi driver is a young Ethiopian woman with a printed headscarf wound around her head, nervous on her first day of work. We leave the highway at the turn-off for Lincoln, and up there on the exit sign I see the name in big letters: Walden Pond. It has become a destination in itself.
…Thoreau went to Walden out of conviction, but also out of necessity. In March 1845 the poet William Ellery Channing, his companion on the week-long boating trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers that would form the basis for his first book, wrote to him, “I see nothing for you on this earth but that field which I once christened ‘Briars’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive.” At 27, Thoreau’s published writings had been limited to essays in the Dial, the in-house magazine of the Transcendentalists, and the Democratic Review. He was close to penniless, with no immediate prospects. Helping out in the pencil-making workshop alongside his father was far from a dream job. He was comfortable enough but feared the effects of his too easeful life. More than anything, he realised, he needed to strike out on his own. In the autumn of 1844 he had helped to raise the family’s new house on Texas Street. Now that he knew something about foundations, rafters and roofing, perhaps he would be able to build something much smaller by and for himself.