WebQuest: Henry David Thoreau and Walden: The Great Experiment


Overview: In this WebQuest, you will learn about the ways in which Henry David Thoreau reflects the Transcendentalist emphasis on nature and initiates a long literary tradition of nature writing. Here you can see the growing emphasis on the American landscape and setting as an important focus for American writing. You’ll also learn about the ways in which Thoreau made the grand Transcendentalist experiment by building and living in his cabin at Walden Pond.

Step 1: Learn about the life and work of Henry David Thoreau.
Read a biography of Thoreau. Eserver provides online versions of all of Thoreau’s writings. You can also find photographs and numerous other resources about the famed cabin dweller. Read about the connection between Thoreau and nature writing. Consider Emerson and Thoreau as pioneers in the environmental movement by reading Ann Woodlief’s essay, “Emerson and Thoreau as American Prophets of Eco-Wisdom.” Look at journal entries from Emerson and Thoreau. Read what Thoreau has to say about the art of writing.

Step 2: Consider Emerson’s call for self-reliance.
Read Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.”

And as you get ready to read Walden, keep in mind that it was Emerson’s property on which Thoreau built his cabin!

Step 3: Now walk to Walden Pond for a visit with Thoreau.
Begin by listening to NPR’s “Present at the Creation” feature on Walden.

View the cabin. Learn about Thoreau’s reputation and the public’s response to Walden.

Step 4: Read Walden.
With all of this background in mind, read Walden. Any unabridged edition you can find is acceptable. Online versions can be found at eserver and University of Virginia. If you want help with this text, you might consult the study text version. There’s also a great “Walden Express” page to help you navigate your way through the book. Additional tips for reading the book are also available.

Step 5: Read chapter 3 from Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place.

Journal Prompts
As always, at least one of your journal entries this week should be in response to the WebQuest. Here are some possible prompts to get you started on that task (but you aren’t limited to these starting points!).

Journal Prompt #1: What are the basic tenets of “Self-Reliance”? How are these tenets reflected in Walden?

Journal Prompt #2: Thoreau often starts with an observation of a seemingly insignificant object, animal, plant, or phenomenon in the world around him—but then moves to a fuller, deeper reflection. Find one example of this in Walden. Copy and paste the passage into your bulletin board post and then reflect on it. How does Thoreau make the leap from the “thinginess” of this world to a larger sense of the cosmos?

Essay Question

Discuss the ways in which Thoreau uses his focused experience at Walden Pond to reflect Transcendentalist concerns with nature. You may wish to focus on one particular aspect of the pond, one particular time of day, or one particular season. In what ways does Thoreau bring to life the principles and philosophy Emerson articulated in "Nature,” “The American Scholar,” or “Self-Reliance”?  Be sure to cite resources from the WebQuest as well as from the primary texts (Walden and your chosen Emerson essay). See the Essay Guidelines for more detail about research, sources, length requirements, and documentation. Essay due to Dr. Dwyer via email by Wednesday, February 20, at 3:00 p.m.


“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.