This essay explores Henry David Thoreau's Walden in relation to the history of sleep, considered as a medical, biological, social, and spiritual phenomenon. Attention to Thoreau's striving for “awakening” and “alertness” has veiled his running rhetoric of dormancy: scenes and tropes of sleeping, nodding off, sleepwalking, snoring, dreaming, napping, exhaustion, and catalepsy recur throughout the text, while factory bells, the shrieks of trains, cries of newsboys, and addiction to caffeine all perturb his slumber or that of his neighbors. The first three sections of this essay situate Thoreau's portrayal of a disrupted sleep-world in relation to the incursions of nineteenth-century patterns of labor and consumption, the spread of psychoactive substances and phenomena, and the rise of neurological science and psychiatry; a fourth considers his efforts to conceive alternative valuations of the sleep-waking continuum as a spiritual and bodily mandate. Using the lens of disability studies to link Thoreau's own private sleep disturbances to his broader critique of modernity, I argue that a reading of Walden can help uncover the origins of how sleep has become a problem in our contemporary world.

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