||American transcendentalism, which was dominant mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century, emphasizes emancipation from the mundane world, men’s close relationship with nature, and an ideal life of self-reliance as well as spiritual abundance. Among the transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau is worth much of our attention, not merely for his great transcendental thoughts but also for his empirical spirit and personal practice of his ideals. Unlike many of the transcendentalists who merely propose grand ideals but scarcely attempt to carry them out, Thoreau not only demonstrates in person to the world how to lead an ideal life but also presents in detail his practice of it in his works, particularly Walden.
Despite Thoreau’s endeavor to promote his transcendental ideals, evidence shows their low practicability as well as low applicability. In fact, through an in-depth analysis, we will find that the infeasibility of Thoreau’s ideals results largely from his problematic conception of them, which, more specifically, refers to the austerity in Thoreau’s ideal mode of simple life and his neglect of people’s common needs and tendencies. While he emphasizes so much the necessity of men’s interaction with nature and the enrichment of spiritual life, he misses certain values in psychological, economic and social life. Thoreau’s neglect makes people reluctant to take up the ideal life. We may even say that the low applicability of Thoreau’s ideal life, actually, has something to do with his inability to make some compromise between his ideals and realities. Thus, this thesis aims to discuss the feasibility of Thoreau’s ideal life by examining the latent problems and weaknesses in his proposal.
Chapter one introduces Thoreau’s practice of his ideal life and elucidates the process of his transcribing his experimental experience into literary works. By comparing his real experience with his literary presentation, the discrepancy and the contradiction between them are made manifest. Chapter two clarifies Thoreau’s attitudes toward social, natural and spiritual life in his ideal proposal. In his view, to lead a simple life, one should keep a certain distance from society, develop intimacy with nature and cultivate one’s spiritual life. Chapter three points out the negligence of men’s emotional needs, especially the comfort and support from friends, lovers and family, in Thoreau’s ideal life and discusses how it might greatly limit the realization of the kind of life. Chapter four analyzes the feasibility of Thoreau’s ideal life. It reveals the problems and limits in the ideal life and examines the unsatisfactory results of both Thoreau’s and other followers’ actual practices of it, which may lower its practicability. In the end, chapter five concludes that the discrepancies between ideals and realities are often ignored by transcendentalists like Thoreau and usually make transcendental ideals unfeasible in our real world. Furthermore, Thoreau’s change of attitude in his late years, which implies his gradual estrangement from transcendental thoughts, challenges the feasibility of his own ideals. Thus, as some transcendental ideas remain very valuable yet get quite far away from reality, it is necessary for us to have more flexibility and keep on balancing ideals and realities so as to make our life dynamic.