Thoreau, Henry David (1817–1862)

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Henry David Thoreau once described himself as "a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher." If this description does some justice to the extent of Thoreau's eclecticism, it nevertheless obscures those characteristics that made him important during his lifetime and still remain significant today, for Thoreau was an anarchist and revolutionary who created a highly articulate literature of revolt. Born at Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil maker, Thoreau emerged from Harvard in 1837 with testimonials signed by Dr. George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the president of the university, all of whom attested, in glowing terms, to his moral and intellectual integrity. After a brief skirmish with school teaching, Thoreau became infected with the ideas of the New England transcendentalists, gave up all plans of a regular profession, and devoted himself to literature and the study of nature. His remarkable practical skills and intimate knowledge of the Concord countryside enabled him to earn his living independently, largely through pencil making and surveying, for the rest of his life.

From 1841 to 1843 Thoreau resided with Emerson. This brought his intellectual development roughly into line with the ideas of transcendentalists such as Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Ellery Channing, all of whom he came to know well. Thus, philosophically, Thoreau's reaction against the still fashionable sensationalism of John Locke and the theistic utilitarianism of William Paley was aided by ideas derived from the Scottish philosophers of common sense, who, in turn, formed a bridge to the idealism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and the Germans. Emerson also directed Thoreau to the English metaphysical poets and to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. But despite this deep and undeniable cultural rapprochement it would be a misunderstanding to see Thoreau merely as Emerson's most eccentric disciple. Thoreau's individuality was maintained even at the intellectual level. He also studied New England history and legend, the life of the Indian, and early accounts of American travel and exploration; he probably had a better knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics than Emerson and certainly knew more about Oriental scriptures, of which he possessed an excellent collection. Above all, Thoreau's knowledge of natural history, motivated not so much by a desire for scientific understanding as by a need for concrete communion with nature, marks him off from the rest of Emerson's circle.

Nature and Society

Thoreau's writings everywhere bear the stamp of aboriginal practicality that also made him unique as a person. Society and nature were not for Thoreau, as they were for so many romantic thinkers, dialectical opposites whose inner identity was simply in need of philosophical explication. For him they involved a genuine contrast that he had personally experienced as a professional "saunterer" in and around Concord. Nature represented for Thoreau an "absolute freedom and wildness," whereas society provided "a freedom and culture merely civil." In his writing, as in his life, he attempted to implement the view that man should be regarded "as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." It is only through a sustained involvement with the vast "personality" of nature that man can simplify his existence, clarify his senses, drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, thus achieving in practice a purer and tougher form of that self-reliance extolled, somewhat abstractly, by Emerson.

With these objects in mind, in the spring of 1845 Thoreau began building himself a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, a small lake then about a mile and a half south of Concord village. There he lived alone, with occasional visits to the village and from friends, until September 1847. His mode of life at the pond is described in Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). For Thoreau Walden was an experiment in individualistic anarchism, just as Fruitlands and the Brook Farm community were for other transcendentalists attempts to revert to more "natural" modes of communal existence. But Thoreau had little confidence in collective protests against the existing social order, inspired by the doctrines of François Marie Charles Fourier. For him individual communion with nature was more fundamental than relationships with other men, even in societies where the worse forms of economic alienation have been overcome. For, unlike any social experience, the experience of nature becomes as much a discipline for the moral will as a stimulant to creative imagination. But essentially it is the spontaneity of wildness or nature that is to be favorably contrasted with the politico-economic organization of advanced European and New England societies. For, wrote Thoreau, "all good things are wild and free." The creative spontaneity of nature that is so crucial for man's spiritual well-being is embodied in all enduring products of culturein the Iliad and Hamlet, in religious scriptures, in music, and especially in mythologies of all kinds. Commerce"that incessant business"and its political manifestations are indeed "vital functions of human society," yet a bare minimum of time should be consciously spent on them. They are "infra -human, a kind of vegetation," whose operations, like those of the human body, should be performed for the most part automatically, unconsciously. Far from viewing economic success alone as the sign of achievement or virtue, Thoreau believed that "to have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle, or worse."

Despite the acquisitive basis of New England society, Thoreau saw a vision of true freedom in the expansion of the western frontier. For him the West was identical with the wild, and "wildness is the preservation of the world." These ideas, which constitute Thoreau's most persuasive expressions of revolt against bourgeois society, are best seen in his essays "Walking" (1862) and "Life without Principle" (1863).

Revolution and Reform

Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) has been the most influential of his works because of its overt political implications. It was, for example, a reading of this essay in 1907 that helped Mohandas Gandhi develop his own doctrine of passive resistance. Here Thoreau advocates active rebellion against the state. This involves what he calls "action from principle" on the basis of an intuitive perception of what is right, which is roughly equivalent to acting on the dictates of one's own conscience. He boldly asserts that "the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right." Action thus motivated "changes things and relations" and is therefore "essentially revolutionary." Radical social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery (for which Thoreau agitated throughout his life), can be effected not by petitions to elected representatives of government or by other indirect democratic means but only when each right-minded individual takes direct action on his own part. This would consist in withdrawing his allegiance "in person and property" from the government that supports or permits the abuse in question. Such is the form of "peaceful revolution" Thoreau himself attempted to put into practice by refusing to pay taxes. Despite its localized New England context and its relative lack of theoretical sophistication, it is possible to see Thoreau's doctrine of civil disobedience as historically linked, through the revolutionary element in European idealism, with the larger protest against the established order represented more notably by Søren Kierkegaard's The Present Age (1846) and the Communist Manifesto (1847). Like Karl Marx, Thoreau sought the dismantling of existing institutions in an attempt to discover an economy that would provide full human satisfaction. Yet like Kierkegaard he insisted on maintaining the uniqueness of the individual as the ultimate source of value; he attempted, however, to overcome the isolation his radical views forced upon him by means of a dialogue not with God but with nature.

See also Anarchism; Carlyle, Thomas; Channing, William Ellery; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Common Sense; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Fourier, François Marie Charles; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Locke, John; Marx, Karl; New England Transcendentalism; Paley, William; Sensationalism; Utilitarianism.


primary works

The most complete edition of Thoreau's works is that published by Houghton Mifflin in 20 volumes: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston, 1906). See also The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

secondary works

H. S. Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Bentley, 1890; reissued in an abridged version, 1896), is indispensable for an understanding of Thoreau's personality. For other details see Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, expanded edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Robert Sattelmeyer, Thoreau's Reading: A Study in Intellectual History with Bibliographical Catalogue (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988); Leo Stoller, After Walden: Thoreau's Changing Views on Economic Man (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957); Floyd Stovall, ed., Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1956; reprinted, New York: Norton 1963).

Michael Moran (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)