The literary and historical stature of Henry David Thoreau grows with every passing year, it seems, and no episode in his career is more celebrated than his construction in 1845 of a little frame house for himself at Walden Pond, a mile and a half outside his native Concord, Massachusetts. For all its fame, however, this house has seldom been examined in the full context of contemporary architectural thought. This is not altogether surprising, as broadly contextual studies of Thoreau - long mythologized as a uniquely brilliant and self-sufficient figure - have been somewhat slow to appear. In particular, his decision to move to Walden, seemingly a bold rejection of society, has usually been ascribed to narrowly personal motivations - notwithstanding the fact that a number of British and American contemporaries made similar moves in the 1840s. Thoreau's Walden sojourn needs to be reevaluated in light of ideas current in his day, especially those concerning rural and suburban retirement put forth in dozens of "villa books" published in England and America between 1780 and 1850, including those by James Malton (d. 1803), William Fuller Pocock (1779-1849), John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), and, in America, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). Building on pastoral conventions popularized by eighteenth-century poetry, these men advocated the habit of retirement and the reform of domestic architecture along the lines of the humble English cottage, a model of integrity, fitness, and the rustic Picturesque. Their ideas were enormously influential, being taken up as themes in general literature and ultimately becoming broadly assimilated into popular thought, providing the philosophical underpinnings for the early suburbanization of the landscape in England and America, a phenomenon in full swing outside Boston during Thoreau's young adulthood.
Viewed in the context of contemporary architectural thought, Thoreau's lakeshore experiment at Walden appears in a new light. Far from abandoning societal conventions, Thoreau in moving to the pond instead participated enthusiastically in the general cultural conversation regarding retirement and the villa. He relocated not to the wilderness but to a recently logged clearing in an intensively used landscape just minutes' walk from town. Here he erected a dwelling he described in terms of economy, sturdiness, and rusticity [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The way he sited the structure and his descriptions of its arrangements suggest an awareness of specific dictates derived from villa books, as if he meant to offer a small-scale exemplar for the "villas which will one day be built here" (180). His country house recalled several rustic types then popular - summerhouses, hermitages, and wilderness retreats - and seems to have been initially suggested by a Catskills "mountain house" he had recently admired. His Catskills trip (1844) has been virtually overlooked as an essential source of inspiration for Walden. In its wake, Thoreau creatively translated wilderness values to a suburban location as part of his desire "to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization" (11). Following, in part, the lead of the villa books, he published his house design in Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), urging it as a model both intellectual and practical, stressing its complete opposition to all that was false and pretentious in the architecture of the day and highlighting its affinities to the so-called primitive hut, thereby joining the many contemporaries concerned with the origins of architecture and the promise, by return to "first principles," of true architectural reform. Viewed in context, the Walden experiment no longer seems, as it is so often portrayed, anomalous, antisocial, and escapist; instead, it may be understood as an intelligent and ambitious attempt to engage in current dialogues on the villa, the rustic, and the reform of domestic architecture, as Thoreau sought to participate in a popular new kind of lifestyle, suburban retirement.(1)
The villa books have received increased scholarly attention in recent years, from John Archer's catalogue of period writings to several new studies on Downing. The villa books comprised a diverse body of work, touching on many themes, but their basic purpose was to showcase models for progress in domestic architecture, and so they offer illustrated examples ranging from the humble summerhouse to sprawling neoclassical mansions. A frequent focus, however, is the suburban home of the gentleman of moderate means, which might more or less interchangeably bear the names "cottage," "villa," "country house," or "country seat" [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. These books were texts addressed to members of an emerging middle class, economically tied to the burgeoning cities, who sought a return to traditional ways of living through retirement. The design of the dwellings they illustrate is highly varied, but the authors - usually practicing architects - tended to favor recognized historical styles of architecture for elaborate mansions and, more radically, astylar or rustic approaches for modest homes.
The books are more sophisticated intellectually than is sometimes warranted; far from being mere grab bags of eclectic ornament, the best of them offer in their prefaces serious-minded advice on domestic economy and architectural fitness, subjects inherited from eighteenth-century thought. As models of fitness, authors pointed to the vernacular architecture of the English countryside and specifically to the lowly cottage, stressing its intimacy with nature, its employment of locally available materials, and its lack of pretension. Thoreau frequently shows his understanding of such virtues, writing, for example, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) that "humble dwellings, homely and sincere" are "more pleasing to our eyes than palaces or castles." In the villa books, a specifically "rustic" mode, Picturesque in its irregularity and resonating with theories of the primitive hut, was put forward as an alternative to the more pretentious architectural styles [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 4 OMITTED]), and it was this mode that particularly appealed to Thoreau. The villa movement these books promoted was far more than a literary exercise; it was a cultural phenomenon of wide scope, fostered by the print explosion of the day. By Thoreau's time, the essential tenets of suburban thought as promulgated by the villa books - architectural fitness and humility, sensitivity to the landscape, the cult of the rustic - had been widely disseminated in journals and newspapers, poems and novels, letters and conversation, and would have been readily available to the young Concord writer(.2)
From July 4, 1845, until September 6, 1847, Thoreau (18171862) emulated the simple life of a classical philosopher in a house of his own fashioning on the shores of Walden. As early as 1841, he hoped to build a "clean seat" or a 'lodge," and about that time he very briefly owned the Hollowell farm outside Concord (82-83) - evidence, perhaps, that he had already fallen under the spell of the villa-retirement craze that seized many contemporaries.(3) When this scheme failed, he mused in his journal, "I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds." He was boarding with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when Emerson bought thirteen and a half acres at Walden on September 21, 1844, with the intent to build "a cabin or a turret there."(4) Nothing came of these plans, but it was on Emerson's tract that Thoreau would erect his own house the following year [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED] - tiny, inexpensive, but achieving for its impecunious builder his long-standing dream of inhabiting a country house. Thoreau's decision to move to the pond likely owed in part to his growing awareness of the retirement idea, through exposure to the villa books or other sources. Crucial, too, was a conjunction of events in 1844 that together convinced Thoreau of the practicability of his dreams: his experience of helping build a house for his parents in the newly opened western (or "Texas") district of Concord; Emerson's enviable purchase of land; and the Catskills trip. That trip (see below) offered a vivid, experiential revelation of rustic ideas Thoreau had previously encountered in his reading.
Thoreau lived at Walden for two years, two months, and two days, his return to town life being tied to the completion of the manuscript he had been writing at the pond (A Week) and to an invitation to manage Emerson's household while the older writer toured Europe. It is not surprising that Thoreau chose to return to "civilized life again" (3), for rustic retirement, as contemporaries conceived of it, was frequently short-term. William Wordsworth, for example, in escaping "the busy world" had allowed himself but "an allotted interval of ease,/Under my cottage-roof," and in this spirit Malton in 1802 had devoted a section of his Collection of Designs for Rural Retreats to "Reflections on the Necessity and Advantage of Temporary Retirement." To see Thoreau's sojourn in the context of the retirement phenomenon helps resolve a number of problems that have long troubled readers of Walden, including the apparent hypocrisy of the "solitary" author's frequent visits to town. In the course of retirement - always a genteel habit - one was expected to maintain close ties with friends and relatives. Downing recommended that persons planning to retire should by no means forsake the "charms of good society" and "should, in settling in the country, never let go the cord that binds them to their fellows. "(5)
Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, Thoreau did not live in a "hut" or a "cabin" but in a tidy, one-room "house" - so he nearly always called it, with pride in its design and significance as a miniature country house. Nor was it a log house; he had not yet explored the Maine wilderness, where he would discover that logs provided "a very rich and picturesque look, far removed from the meanness of weatherboards."(6) As described in Walden (40-49, 240-46), his dwelling measured 10 by 15 feet, with two windows and a door. With his own hands he fashioned the frame of main timbers, floor timbers, studs, rafters, and king and queen posts. Certain parts he frugally recycled: boards from an Irishman's shanty (42-44), bricks from a 1790s chimney (240-41). Some have expressed surprise at his use of traditional framing rather than the innovative balloon frame, but in fact it took decades for the new technology, developed in Chicago in 1833, to supplant mortise-and-tenon construction countrywide, and R. G. Hatfield's The American House-Carpenter (1844) makes no mention of the method.(7)
The Walden house existed in two distinct phases: the breezy shelter of the summer of 1845, which Thoreau glowingly described in the language of the rustic, and the well-built, winterized home completed late that fall, with a chimney, plastered interior walls, and siding of shingles. That financial distress may have contributed to his departure from Walden is suggested by the fact that he sold the house to Emerson in 1847; eventually it was moved to a farm where it served as a grain storehouse until being dismantled in 1868. No photograph was taken of it, nor is there a fully reliable sketch; Thoreau complained of slight inaccuracies in its depiction on the frontispiece of Walden [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]: "I would suggest a little alteration, chiefly in the door, in the wide projection of the roof at the front; and that the bank more immediately about the house be brought out more distinctly."(8) The remains of its foundations at the pond were discovered in the course of a 1945-46 archaeological investigation by Roland Wells Robbins (1908-1987). Several replicas of the house stand in the Concord area today [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED], and the actual site, on a gentle hillside in the wooded Walden Pond State Reservation, is marked by granite posts.(9)
Thoreau's extensive accounts of his house in Walden demonstrate a lively appreciation of issues in current architectural thought. Pinning down his intellectual sources, however, often proves difficult, and it is uncertain whether or not he knew the villa books firsthand. There is some evidence that he was familiar with Downing, albeit at a later date than the Walden experiment. He mentions Downing's A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) and The Fruits and Fruit Trees of North America (1845) in a brief enumeration of books on a friend's shelf in 1857, and in a journal entry of 1852, he critiques the notion that one should "take up a handful of the earth at your feet & paint your house that color," a conceit that had appeared in Downing's writings in 1846 and 1850. Joseph J. Moldenhauer argues, however, that Thoreau's source was instead William Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes (1810), a copy of which Thoreau owned (the fifth edition, of 1835, is an American compilation), in which the "handful of the earth" conceit is attributed to Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) in conversation. Moldenhauer stresses that Thoreau's knowledge of Downing "is circumstantial rather than documentary"; nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence seems strong, given that Downing was at the height of his popularity and influence at the very moment of Thoreau's 1852 remarks.(10)
In any case, the substance of Thoreau's writings as early as the 1840s demonstrates his familiarity with Downingesque thought, from whatever sources he may have had it. In fact, a complex of ideas singled out by Moldenhauer as being notions that Thoreau held independently of Wordsworth - "the organic union of indweller and dwelling place," "concern with expense," and an "understanding of the dwelling as a point of mediation between the freedom and wildness of nature and the refinements and confinements of the social world"(11) - are all themes from the villa books. So, too, is Thoreau's call for the rejection of "luxury and heedless expense" in favor of "a rigid economy" (92), his famous cry of "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" (91), and his observation that "when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him"; "we are often imprisoned" in our dwellings (33-34). Although Thoreau's sources for these ideas are unknown, Downing had derived similar notions from the English villa books. For example, he deplored in 1849 "the extravagance of Americans! ... Large estates, large houses, large establishments, only make slaves of their possessors. . . . It is so hard to be content with simplicity!"(12)
Acknowledging Thoreau's evident awareness of the villa books and their thought, Richard N. and Jean Carwile Masteller have portrayed Walden as "a subversive parody of the house pattern book genre," one that intends to demolish "the overdomesticated designs and specious harmonies of pattern book writers," specifically those of Downing. They are right to recognize Thoreau's impatience with those pages of the villa books that celebrate ornament and the conventions of tasteful decoration, but they go too far in their depiction of Thoreau's attitude as hostile, by failing to follow up on their own insight that "some of Downing's assumptions and rhetoric are strikingly similar to Thoreau's."(13) These telling similarities point to a shared, positive commitment to the more rigorous aspects of villa-book theory, including an espousal of the rustic and a concern for architectural fitness and reform. When Thoreau censures the superficiality of some current-day reform efforts, mocking, for example, "An enterprise to improve the style of cottage architecture!" (48), his vehemence actually reveals his essential sympathy for an important part of what Downing and other writers meant to accomplish - to strip away the frivolous and the false and to make architecture more authentic.
Affinities disguised within criticism are likewise evident in Thoreau's remarks on Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), whom he chastised in 1852 as a "sentimental reformer in architecture" who failed to go far enough in promoting "truth" (46). He had encountered the sculptor's ideas in a brief report from Emerson.(14) As with Downing, Thoreau does not disagree with Greenough so much as fault him for stopping short of the goal; he is even more passionate about fitness and truth in architecture than is Greenough himself, a noted polemicist for these causes. His response to Greenough, voiced in Walden, is a measure of the depth of his understanding of current issues in …