Walden was published around 1854, during the reign of the transcendentalists; in fact, Henry David Thoreau, the book's author, was a member of the movement. If transcendentalism were around today, we would probably call its followers: new-age folk, hippies, or nonconformists. In fact, much of what transcendentalism stood for back then is still alive and well today.
Many people know Thoreau from his 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government," better known as "Civil Disobedience." During the 1840s, Thoreau was imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes for a cause he didn’t agree with. (In those days, taxes were collected separately by tax collectors who came to your door, as opposed to the modern income tax.) Although a friend of his paid the tax for him, enabling him to be released from jail, Thoreau maintained in his essay that he had no obligation to support an action of government that he did not agree with.
Walden is written in much the same spirit. Thoreau cared as little for society's ills as he did for the government. He firmly believed that most of life's expenses were unnecessary, and therefore so too was the labor a man put into earning enough money to buy them. In order to prove his claims, he "went into the woods" and lived as simply and as inexpensively as he encouraged others to do. Walden is the written record of his experiment.
The Experiment: Walden
The first several chapters of Walden are the most interesting, as it is in these that Thoreau lays out his case. His sarcasm and wit amuses the reader as he rails against the frivolity of new clothes, expensive houses, polite company, and meaty diets.
One of Thoreau's chief arguments in Walden is that men wouldn't have to work for a living (and Thoreau clearly detests work) if they lived more simply. To that end, Thoreau built a house for under thirty dollars during a time when the average house (according to the first chapter of Walden) cost around $800, bought one cheap suit of clothes, and planted a crop of beans.
For two years Thoreau lived in that house. He spend time cultivating his beans and other crops, making bread, and fishing. With his house paid for and his food in good supply, he swam in Walden Pond, walked in the adjoining woods, wrote, daydreamed, reflected, and – rarely – visited the town.
The Real Story: Walden
Of course, Thoreau fails to point out an important element of his situation. He moved to Walden Pond because Ralph Waldo Emerson (one of his good friends and fellow transcendentalist writers) owned Walden Pond and the surrounding land. In a different situation, Thoreau's experiment might have been cut short.
Even so, Walden is a valuable lesson for readers. If you are anything like me, you'll read the book while sitting in a comfortable chair, and wearing fashionable clothes. You probably have a job to pay for all these things, and you may even complain about said job from time to time. If that sounds like you, you'll probably drink up Thoreau's words. You may wish that you could free yourself from society's constraints.