Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden and Civil Disobedience: Authoritative Texts, Background, Reviews, and Essays in Criticism.  Either the 1st edition (1966, Ed. Owen Thomas) or the 2nd edition (1992, Ed. William John Rossi).  Their contents are nearly identical and the pagination hardly varies in Walden.  ISBN: 0393959058  Also available online from University of Virginia.  If you elect to read this version, print a copy you can annotate and correct the pagination to the syllabus pages.

Thoreau's reading in Emerson and Asian religious texts deeply influenced his decision to voluntarily separate himself from his culture as much as he could while remaining on land.  What kinds of values does he promote in his criticism of New England life as most people live it?  Are his criticisms universally applicable--that is, should everyone do as he says?  What might be the consequences if we adopted Thoreau's various maxims as what Kant would call a "categorical imperative," something everyone in the culture must do?  Or are his opinions effective and valuable only for a special kind of readers?  What characteristics might identify those readers and what might account for those characteristics, either in the nineteenth century or in the twenty-first?

Much has been made of the fact that Thoreau was not really so isolated in his Walden Pond cabin.  His routine dinners at Emerson's house in Concord, and his visits from friends, seem to keep him in touch.  Nevertheless, compare his daily routine with yours, or those of any of his neighbors, and consider how much less human contact he had than you or they do.  What good are we to each other that we should stay in frequent social contact?  What mental and physical functions do we serve in our interactions?  What harms do we do that might be prevented by more insulation between us, or even Thoreau-like bouts of isolation from all?  What risks does that insulation, or isolation, pose for the isolated ones?

Thoreau's interaction with an Irish immigrant laborer and his family, from whom he purchases the materials for his cabin, gives him an opportunity to comment upon the condition of the working poor in nineteenth-century America.  How would you describe Thoreau's attitudes toward the Irish immigrants?  How do they compare with the attitudes expressed in current debates about immigration policy?  What do you think our current national immigration debate will look like over 150 years in the future?  How does that affect your thinking about your current beliefs?