Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, or, A Life in the Woods is required reading in many classrooms today. But when it was first published—on this day in 1854—it sold just around 300 copies a year.
The American transcendentalist writer’s work is a first-person account of his experimental time of simple living at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, starting in 1845, for two years and two months. The book explores Thoreau’s views on nature, politics and philosophy.
Thoreau was a 27-year-old Harvard graduate when he moved to Walden. He built the simple 10-by-15-foot cabin along the shore of the 62-acre pond, a mile from the nearest neighbor, on land owned by his friend, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“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,” he wrote.
His only income came from the labor of his own hands. Thoreau farmed the land, eating and selling his crops, which included beans, potatoes, corn, peas and turnips, made frequent trips into town (including to see his mother, who lived up the road) and entertained visitors.
The initial print run was 2,000 copies, with each book priced at $1, and took five years to sell out. Later shortened to Walden, per Thoreau’s request, it was one of just two full-length books published by the author (though he published shorter works including the notable essay “Civil Disobedience”). His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, released in 1849, was also written during his time at Walden, as a memorial to his late brother John.