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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing, 1815-1850
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of the Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: Religion
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: Religion
Text 1. Bryant/Freneau
Text 2. John Mayfield
Text 3. Alexis de Tocqueville
Text 4. Frederick Douglass
Text 5. George Fitzhugh
Text 6. Charles Colcock Jones
Text 7. Henry David Thoreau
» Reading Guide
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Text 8. Mormons


RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
7.  Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854; second half of Ch. 2: "Where I Lived and What I Lived For"

In American religious and literary history, Transcendentalism looms large. In part a rejection of organized religion and rationalism, in part an embrace of man's innate nature and capacity for insight, Transcendentalism flourished in the mid 1800s until the Civil War. One of its most famous expressions is Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods. For 2 1/2 years, from 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, determined to live a deliberate and simple life in nature. In this chapter, Thoreau lays out his philosophy and contrasts it with the numbing materialism of American life as he sees it: shallow and mindless, robbing man of his self. Here we have religion as the personal search for meaning, in which "God himself culminates in the present moment," and for which the "chief end of man" is not a heavenly reward for glorifying God. Compare Thoreau's deification of the individual with Emerson's in "Self-Reliance" (in the "Common Man" section). Useful in the classroom, of course, as Walden is required reading in many U.S. secondary schools. 7 pages (with annotations).


Discussion questions
  ·  To what hazards does the human spirit expose itself by remaining in American society, according to Thoreau? Is the only solution to withdraw?
  ·  What ethical philosophy does Thoreau present? What is man's task in life?
  ·  How does Thoreau view mainstream religion? Would he consider his experiment a religious endeavor?
  ·  Would Thoreau have respected or condemned the Mormons who, like him, rejected mainstream Christianity and removed themselves from society?
  ·  How would Thoreau and de Tocqueville have responded to each other's view of religion in American democracy?


Reading highlights
  ·  To discern Thoreau's tone and nuance (and wordplay), read some sections aloud. Where is he sardonic, optimistic, melancholy, intense?


» Link


Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did American Christianity reflect the nation's ideals of democracy, individualism, and progress?
  •  As the nation became more sectionalized, what role did religion play in defining individual and group identity?
  •  How did religion inform the debate over slavery?
  •  How did religious groups outside the mainstream of American Protestantism reflect American culture, even in the act of rejecting it?




Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

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