Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American writer, a dissenter, and, after Emerson, the outstanding transcendentalist. He is best known for his classic book, "Walden."
Though a minority of one, largely ignored in his own day, Henry David Thoreau has since become a world influence. His criticism of living only for money and material values apparently carries more conviction all the time. His advocacy of civil disobedience against an unjust government, though it caused hardly a ripple in his time, later influenced Mohandas Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence and still influences many of today's radicals. But Thoreau was not only a disseminator of major ideas. He was a superb literary craftsman and the most notable American nature writer.
Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Mass., and lived there most of his life; it became, in fact, his universe. His parents were permanently poor. He attended Concord Academy, where his record was good but not outstanding. Nevertheless, he entered Harvard in 1833 as a scholarship student. Young as he was, he established a reputation at Harvard of being an individualist. He was friendly enough with his fellow students, yet he soon saw that many of their values could never become his.
After Thoreau graduated in 1837, he faced the problem of earning a living. He taught briefly in the town school, taught for a longer while at a private school his brother John had started, and also made unsuccessful efforts to find a teaching job away from home. Meanwhile, he was spending a good deal of time writing—he had begun a journal in 1837 which ran to 14 volumes of close-packed print when published after his death. He wanted, he decided, to be a poet.
But America starved its poets as a rule, and Thoreau spent much of his life attempting to do just what he wanted and at the same time to survive. For he wanted to live as a poet as well as to write poetry. He loved nature and could stay indoors only with effort. The beautiful woods, meadows, and waters of the Concord neighborhood attracted him like a drug. He wandered among them by day and by night, observing the world of nature closely and sympathetically. He named himself, half humorously, "inspector of snow-storms and rainstorms."
The town gossiped about this Harvard graduate who sauntered around instead of working 12 hours a day. However, Thoreau made few concessions either to opinion or to his economic needs. He did odd jobs; he helped from time to time in the pencil-making and graphite business his father had started but which barely kept them alive; he developed skill as a surveyor.
Thoreau's struggles were watched with compassion by an older Concord neighbor who was also one of America's great men, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson proved to be his best friend. He assisted Thoreau with all the tact at his command. In 1841 Emerson invited Thoreau to live at his home and to make himself useful there only when it would not interfere with his writing. In 1843 he got Thoreau a job tutoring in Staten Island, N.Y., so that he could be close to the New York City literary market. The idea was a failure, but the fault was not Emerson's. In 1847 he invited Thoreau to stay with his family again while Emerson himself went to Europe.
Most of the time, however, Thoreau lived at home. A small room was all he needed. He never married, and he required little. At one point he built a cabin at Walden Pond just outside Concord, on land owned by Emerson, and lived in it during 1845 and 1846. Here he wrote much of his book Walden.
Through these various expedients Thoreau managed to find time to do a substantial amount of other writing too. Some of his most interesting early work was poetry. But he gradually came to feel that the form of poetry was too confining and that prose was his proper medium. He wrote some philosophical and literary essays, especially for a little magazine Emerson was editing called the Dial. Of the philosophical essays the most famous nowadays is "Civil Disobedience." First printed in 1849 (after the demise of the Dial), it describes Thoreau's taxpayer's rebellion against the Federal government in protest against the war with Mexico, his brief imprisonment, and his rationale for resistance. He urges that conscience must be man's guide and that when one encounters a law he considers unjust he can disobey it if he is willing to accept the consequences.
Thoreau wrote nature essays both early and late in his career. They range from the "Natural History of Massachusetts" (1842), which is supposedly a review but is actually a delightful discussion on the world of nature around him, to the felicitous and poetic "Autumnal Tints" and "Walking" (both 1862), which appeared shortly after his death. He also wrote three rather slender volumes that might be termed travel books. Each was made up of essays and was first serialized in part in a magazine. They were published in book form after Thoreau's death: The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).
Thoreau's two most interesting books defy categorizing. They are not travel books; they are not polemics; they are not reflective essays. The first is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), issued at his own expense. Using as a framework two river excursions he and his brother John had made, Thoreau drew heavily from his journal of that time. He filled out the book with other journalizing, bits of poetry, old college themes, and youthful philosophizing. The result was a book which a few enthusiasts hailed but which the public ignored.
Walden (1854), however, attracted disciples from the beginning, and today editions of it crowd the bookshelves of the world. Though basically it is an account of Thoreau's stay beside Walden Pond, it is also many other things, all combined in a cunning and, indeed, unique synthesis. It is a how-to-do-it book, for it tells how to live one's life with a minimum of distasteful labor. It is an apologia. It is a spiritual (or rather, philosophical) autobiography. It is a book of seasons. And it is a defiant cockcrow to the world, for Thoreau was crowing in triumph at his ability to live as he pleased; in fact, the original title page had a rooster on it.
Involment in Public Affairs
Writing Walden was the high point of Thoreau's life and his main manifesto. Yet there were other important things that involved him. He believed that a writer's work and his life should be one, though he sometimes asserted the opposite. At any rate, he devoted both his writing and his life increasingly to public issues. With word and deed he had fought against the Mexican-American war of the mid-1840s. And in the next decade he became totally involved in the struggle against slavery. In John Brown he found his only hero: he became Brown's friend and ardent defender, and after Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry Thoreau spoke out for him in the most fiery words he ever used.
Thoreau always marched to the sound of his own drum, as he said in one of his most enduring aphorisms, and yet the changing times had some effect on him. In the 1840s he was still advising the abolitionists to free themselves before trying to free the slaves, but by the time he stood up for John Brown, he had become a confirmed abolitionist himself. In the 1840s he still opposed war both in theory and practice. Yet when the Civil War came, he welcomed it. The thing that distinguished him was a matter of degree: he demonstrated, far more than most men, that his actions resulted from a consistent application of his personal philosophy.
Thoreau was, so to speak, a working transcendentalist. He applied the rather vague philosophy of transcendentalism in a concrete and individual way. Transcendentalists believed in principles higher than the mundane ones that actuated the general run of Americans. Thoreau put his personal stamp on those higher principles and translated them into action. For example, when a neighbor wanted to hire him to build a wall, Thoreau asked himself whether this was the best way to use his time and decided it was much better to walk in the woods. Transcendentalists esteemed nature, both as symbol and actuality. Thoreau made Mother Nature into something like a deity, and he spent more time in the world of nature than any other transcendentalist.
As he grew into middle age, Thoreau inevitably made a few concessions. He had to take over the little family business after his father died, since there was no one else to do it. He did some surveying. He became more of a botanist and less of a transcendentalist; his later journal shows fewer references to philosophy and more descriptions of flora and fauna. He also had to make concessions to age itself. His spells of illness increased during the 1850s. By December 1861 he no longer left the Thoreau house; by the next spring he could hardly talk above a whisper. He died of consumption on May 6, 1862. In spite of the contentiousness of his life, his end was peaceful. "Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace, " one of his townsmen observed.
The best analysis of Thoreau's character was Emerson's funeral elegy for him. Emerson was well aware of Thoreau's devotion to his principles and said that he "had a perfect probity." Emerson also realized, perhaps better than anyone else, that Thoreau gave an edge to his probity by his willingness to say no, to dispute, to deny. Thoreau was a born protestant: that was Emerson's way of putting it. He went on to observe that Thoreau had "interrogated every custom, and wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation."
Emerson characterized Thoreau as a hermit and stoic but added that he had a softer side which showed especially when he was with young people he liked. Furthermore, Thoreau was resourceful and ingenious; he had to be, to live the life he wanted. He was patient and tenacious, as a man had to be to get the most out of nature. He could have been a notable leader, given all those qualities, but, Emerson remarked sadly, Thoreau chose instead to be merely the captain of a huckleberry party. Nevertheless, Thoreau was a remarkable man, and Emerson gave him the highest possible praise by calling him wise. "His soul, " said Emerson in conclusion, "was made for the noblest society."
The best biography of Thoreau is Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (1965). It can be supplemented by The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (1958), edited by Harding and Carl Bode. The only book devoted exclusively to Walden is a good one: Charles R. Anderson, The Magic Circle of Walden (1968), which analyzes Thoreau's classic purely as literature. On Thoreau's writing in general there is a fine book by Sherman Paul, The Shores of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration (1958). Thoreau's writing is seen in its literary context in Francis O. Matthiessen's remarkable study of the American literary impulse in the middle of the 19th century, American Renaissance (1941; repr. 1968). □
Thoreau, Henry David
Thoreau, Henry David 1817–1862
Writer, naturalist, theorist of civil disobedience, and anti-slavery activist, Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there most of his life. A graduate of Harvard College, his most formative intellectual experience was his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The central figure of New England transcendentalism, Emerson famously called on individuals to dispense with traditional religious and intellectual authorities and seek truth and divinity for themselves. Thoreau spent his life answering Emerson’s call to establish “an original relation to the universe” (Emerson 1983, p. 7).
Thoreau’s most concerted effort to connect directly with the universe was his two-year sojourn in the woods at Walden Pond. Thoreau lived in a cabin of his own making, sustained himself by his own labor, looked inward, and observed nature. He recounted his experience magisterially in Walden (1854): “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau 2004b, p. 90). Walden urges mental awakening and original perception; it also urges simple living so that one may free oneself from the relentless acquisition of material goods and the unquenchable thirst for riches.
In 1846, Thoreau had a brush with the law that spawned his other great contribution to American letters. Walking through town, he ran into the tax collector, who demanded that he pay his poll tax. Thoreau refused because he did not want his money going to support the Mexican War, which Thoreau saw as an indefensible attempt to extend the reach of American slavery. The tax collector threw Thoreau in jail; the next day an acquaintance paid the tax for Thoreau, much to Thoreau’s irritation. Thoreau’s night in jail became the occasion for “Resistance to Civil Government”—his 1849 essay defending his refusal to pay the tax and arguing that morally unconscionable laws are not binding. Eventually re-titled “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s essay is the foun-dational text of the modern doctrine of civil disobedience: Citizens may justifiably defy laws which break with higher moral laws or with the moral foundations of the polity. In the twentieth century, Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration from Thoreau in formulating their respective theories of nonviolent resistance. Unlike Gandhi and King, however, Thoreau was not a committed pacifist.
Thoreau gave three more noteworthy antislavery addresses before his death. In “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), Thoreau excoriated the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law, which required free states such as Massachusetts to assist slave-owners in the recovery of their property. In “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859) and “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860), Thoreau defended Brown’s failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which was part of Brown’s broader attempt to incite a slave insurrection throughout the South. Despite his hatred of slavery, the carnage of the Civil War greatly disturbed Thoreau. Falling ill just before its outbreak in 1861, he said he “could never recover while the war lasted” (Harding 1992, p. 451). Thoreau never did, dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1983. Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte.
Rosenblum, Nancy L. 1996. Introduction. In Thoreau: Political Writings, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, vii–xxxi. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Thoreau, Henry David. 2004a. The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, ed. Wendell Glick. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thoreau, Henry David.  2004b. Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Thoreau, Henry David
Henry David Thoreau was a writer who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was part of the Transcendentalist movement, which encouraged people to live by their intuition. In his time, Thoreau's work was overshadowed by the work of other transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In retrospect, Thoreau is regarded as one of the United States's best writers on nature and social reform.
Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts , on July 12, 1817. He was the third of four children. His father, John, was a businessman who eventually found success making pencils. His mother, Cynthia, was an abolitionist (antislavery activist) who ran a boardinghouse to supplement the family's income
Thoreau was a quiet child who preferred walks in the woods to childhood games. As an adult he would recall visiting Concord's Walden Pond with his grandmother when he was very young. Thoreau and his older brother, John, were educated at Concord Academy, a private school for boys. Henry and John were close friends.
Thoreau's family could afford to send just one child to college. Because he was the better student, Henry got to attend Harvard College when he was sixteen years old, and he did well enough in his first year to earn a half-scholarship. Although he did not think too highly of his education, Thoreau learned to express himself in writing while at Harvard. After college he began keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities. By the time of his death, his journals amounted to fourteen printed volumes of writing. They are highly regarded by historians and literary scholars.
Finding work and love
After graduating from Harvard in 1837 Thoreau moved back to Concord. There he accepted a job teaching in a school where the administrators required him to discipline students using corporal punishment, or beatings. Thoreau announced that instead of beating children, he would talk morals as punishment. When the administrators insisted that Thoreau beat the students, he resigned after only two weeks.
While looking for a job, Thoreau worked with his father making pencils. It was around this time that he officially changed his name from David Henry to Henry David, apparently preferring the sound. Failing to find a job, Thoreau decided to open his own school with his brother, John, in 1838. They did well, supplementing regular studies with exploration outside.
In summer 1839 a woman named Ellen Sewall came to Concord to visit her aunt, who boarded with the Thoreau family. Henry and his brother John both fell in love with Ellen. John proposed marriage to Ellen in summer 1840, but she rejected him. Henry proposed that November, only to be rejected too. The rejection hurt Henry. He wrote in his journal, found in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, “I did not think so bright a day would issue in so dark a night.”
John died tragically in January 1842. He cut his finger while sharpening his razor, and the cut became infected, leading to lockjaw (tetanus) and then death. Henry mourned the loss of his close brother.
Thoreau read an essay called “Nature” by Emerson in his last year in college. Emerson was a well-regarded writer and thinker with a group of friends that included the writers Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), and Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888). Together they were known as “Transcendentalists.” They promoted social reform, freedom of ideas, and a spiritual way of searching for truth that involved relying on intuition, or instinct, instead of religious teachings.
Thoreau met Emerson shortly after returning to Concord from Harvard, and they formed a friendship that lasted the remainder of Thoreau's life. Thoreau idolized Emerson, and Emerson nurtured Thoreau's thinking and writing. Beginning in 1841, Thoreau spent much time at Emerson's home, often taking care of the family while Emerson went on lecture tours. Emerson's long absences from his family became a source of tension between Emerson and Thoreau.
In 1843 Thoreau moved to New York to live with Emerson's brother, William, and tutor his son. Thoreau hoped to make connections in New York that would help him publish his writing. He learned that publishing is a difficult business in which to succeed, and he returned to Concord in 1844.
In 1845 Thoreau was supporting himself by working as a surveyor, making pencils with his father, and doing odd jobs around town. A friend from New York, the poet Ellery Channing (1818–1901), suggested that Thoreau build a hut in the woods near Walden Pond, 1.5 miles from Concord. There Thoreau could live while writing a book about a river trip he had made with his brother John. Thoreau borrowed an axe, built the hut on land owned by Emerson, and moved in on July 4, 1845.
Thoreau spent two years living at Walden Pond. He was not a complete hermit: Friends visited often, he went to his family's home once a week for Sunday dinner, and he did odd jobs in Concord to earn some income. but otherwise, Thoreau spent the two years thinking deeply, growing crops, and writing books in the quiet of nature.
The books he wrote there, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack (1849) and Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), are among his most famous. In Walden, or Life in the Woods, Thoreau recommended living a simple, self-sufficient life free of social and financial obligations. He encouraged people to counter the effects of industrialization by getting close to nature. Thoreau explained in Walden that he moved to Walden Pond “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
During his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau spent one night in jail, in summer 1846, for refusing to pay a poll tax, a voting tax levied on all men over twenty. Thoreau had refused to pay the tax for years in protest against slavery and, in 1846, against the Mexican-American War (1846–48). The experience of being imprisoned provided material for another of his famous writings, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849). In the essay, Thoreau wrote that people have a duty to obey their consciences when they disagree with what government wants them to do. The essay influenced future great thinkers, including Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847 and spent most of the rest of his life writing books, essays, and poems. After the abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) staged a violent revolt against slavery in 1859, Thoreau wrote an essay called “The Last Days of John Brown” that explored the manner in which northern opinion about slavery changed after Brown's death. Thoreau was an abolitionist who may have worked on the underground railroad to help slaves escape to freedom.
In 1862 he contracted tuberculosis, and he died on May 6. Before his death, when an aunt asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau said, “I did not know we had quarreled.”
Thoreau, Henry David
Born: July 12, 1817
Died: May 6, 1862
Henry David Thoreau was an accomplished American writer, as well as an outstanding transcendentalist, a person who seeks to rise above common thought or ideas. He is best known for his classic book, Walden.
New England childhood
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there most of his life; it became, in fact, his universe. His parents were permanently poor, as his father failed in several business ventures. Thoreau was raised along with three siblings, but his brother's death in 1842 and a sister's death in 1849 deeply affected him. He attended Concord Academy, where his record was good but not outstanding. Nevertheless, he entered Harvard University in 1833 as a scholarship student. Young as he was he established a reputation at Harvard for being an individualist, one who follows his own will. He was friendly enough with his fellow students, yet he soon saw that many of their values could never become his.
After Thoreau graduated in 1837, he faced the problem of earning a living. He taught briefly in the town school, taught for a longer while at a private school his brother John had started, and also made unsuccessful efforts to find a teaching job away from home. Meanwhile, he was spending a good deal of time writing—he had begun a journal in 1837, which ran to fourteen volumes of close-packed print when published after his death. He wanted, he decided, to be a poet.
Enchanted by nature
America was not supportive of its poets as a rule. Thoreau spent much of his life attempting to do just what he wanted while at the same time surviving, for he wanted to live as a poet as well as to write poetry. He loved nature and could stay indoors only with effort. The beautiful woods, meadows, and waters of the Concord neighborhood attracted him like a drug. He wandered among them by day and by night, observing the world of nature closely and sympathetically. He named himself, half humorously, "inspector of snow-storms and rainstorms."
Thoreau's struggles were watched with compassion by an older Concord neighbor, who was also one of America's great men—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). Emerson proved to be Thoreau's best friend. In 1841 Emerson invited Thoreau to live at his home and to make himself useful there only when it would not interfere with his writing. In 1843 he got Thoreau a job tutoring in Staten Island, New York, so that he could be close to the New York City literary market.
Most of the time, however, Thoreau lived at home. A small room was all he needed. He never married, and he required little. At one point he built a cabin at Walden Pond just outside Concord, on land owned by Emerson, and lived in it from 1845 to 1846. There, he wrote much of his book Walden.
Thoreau wrote nature essays both early and late in his career. They range from the "Natural History of Massachusetts" (1842), which is supposedly a review but seems to be a delightful discussion on the world of nature around him, to the poetic "Autumnal Tints" and "Walking" (both 1862), which appeared shortly after his death. He also wrote three rather slender volumes that might be termed travel books: The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866). Each was made up of essays and was first serialized (arranged and distributed at set times by a publisher) in a magazine. They were published in book form after Thoreau's death on May 6, 1862.
Thoreau's two most interesting books are hard to classify, or sort. They are not travel books, nor are they polemics (arguments to oppose an accepted opinion). The first is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), issued at his own expense. As a framework he used two river adventures he and his brother John had made, and he drew heavily from his journal of that time. He filled out the book with other journalizing (keeping a record of), bits of poetry, old college themes, and youthful philosophizing (seeking knowledge). The result was a book that a few enthusiasts (people who follow a special interest) hailed but that the public ignored.
Walden (1854), however, attracted followers from the beginning, and today editions of it crowd the bookshelves of the world. Though basically it is an account of Thoreau's stay beside Walden Pond, it is also many other things. It is a how-to-do-it book, for it tells how to live one's life with a minimum of distasteful labor. It is an apologia, or formal defense. It is a spiritual (or rather, philosophical) autobiography (a book written about oneself). It is a book of seasons. And it is a defiant declaration to the world, for Thoreau was crowing in triumph at his ability to live as he pleased.
Thoreau was, so to speak, a working transcendentalist. Thoreau put his personal stamp on those higher ideals of transcendentalism and translated them into action. For example, when a neighbor wanted to hire him to build a wall, Thoreau asked himself whether this was the best way to use his time and decided it was much better to walk in the woods. Transcendentalists regarded nature, both as symbol and actuality. Thoreau made Mother Nature into something like a deity, or god, and he spent more time in the world of nature than any other transcendentalist.
As Thoreau grew into middle age, he inevitably made a few changes. He had to take over the little family business after his father died, since there was no one else to do it. He did some surveying (mapping out land for development) and he became more of a botanist (one who studies plants) and less of a transcendentalist. His spells of illness increased during the 1850s. By December 1861 he no longer left the Thoreau house. By the next spring he could hardly talk above a whisper. He died on May 6, 1862. In spite of the painful last years of his life, his end was peaceful. "Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace," one of his townsmen observed.
During an elegy (a poem to praise the dead) for Thoreau, Emerson characterized him as a hermit and stoic (unaffected by pleasure or pain), but added that he had a softer side that showed especially when he was with young people he liked. Furthermore, Thoreau was resourceful and ingenious—he had to be, to live the life he wanted. He was patient and had to be to get the most out of nature. He could have been a notable leader, given all of those qualities, but, Emerson remarked sadly, Thoreau chose a different path. Nevertheless, Thoreau was a remarkable man, and Emerson gave him the highest possible praise by calling him wise. "His soul," said Emerson in conclusion, "was made for the noblest society."
For More Information
Anderson, Charles R. The Magic Circle of Walden. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958. Reprint, New York, Russell & Russell, 1971.
Richardson, Robert D. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Salt, Henry Stephens. The Life of Henry David Thoreau. London: R. Bentley & Son, 1890.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862. Multiple reprints.
Thoreau, Henry David
THOREAU, HENRY DAVID
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, and died there of tuberculosis on May 6, two months shy of his forty-fifth birthday. He is best known as the author of Walden (1854), an account of the two years (1845–1847) he spent living in a cabin he built on the shores of Walden Pond (outside Concord), and "Civil Disobedience" (originally delivered as a lecture entitled "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government"), a polemical political essay describing the events surrounding, reasons for, and consequences of his arrest for nonpayment of taxes.
Thoreau is often portrayed as an anti-modern romantic, placing him in strong opposition to the modernizing forces of science and technology. There is good evidence for this portrait scattered throughout his work. He wrote as an advocate of nature, and frequently suggested that the artifacts of civilization violated the goods and principles found in nature. For example, in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), he claimed that he would prefer to destroy the dams on the rivers and free the fishes; in a late essay, "Walking" he famously declared that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World" (Thoreau 1893, p. 275). He wrote in Walden of the need for people to simplify their lives ("Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" [Thoreau 1985, p. 395]), and many have interpreted this as an injunction to turn away from the world of modern science and technology in order to restore a more independent, even primitive lifestyle.
Despite the occasional evidence in support of this understanding of Thoreau's teaching, however, there is good reason to believe it is not a true picture of either his life or his intentions as an author. Any reader of Thoreau's books, essays, or fourteen volume Journal will be struck by his preoccupation with observing the natural world. He was a skilled, committed, and lifelong naturalist, and he provided field reports and specimens to the foremost biologist in the United States at the time, Louis Agassiz of Harvard University. He was also something of an archaeologist, gathering one of the most extensive collections of American Indian artifacts of his generation. Equally important Walden can be read as a philosophical commentary on modern economics, suggesting Thoreau's interest in social science. Thoreau was skilled as a surveyor and a carpenter, and proved his genius as a technologist by developing a new formula and manufacturing process for the graphite in the pencils manufactured by his family's business, which made these the highest quality pencils produced in the United States at the time. Thoreau's biography and writings reveal a man with a much more sophisticated view and knowledge of modern science and technology than is often acknowledged. While it is true that Thoreau often juxtaposed modern science and technology with what he took to be the wisdom or laws of nature, this does not preclude his being a serious natural and social scientist.
In fact Thoreau's complaint was not with science or technology in themselves, both of which he admired (and tried successfully to practice) in their proper place, but with the uncritical exercise and use of both. Although he was a skilled naturalist and technologist, he was most importantly a literary artist and a moralist. The message of Walden is not that modern science and technology are bad, but rather that they are bad as human beings currently practice them. This complaint is inspired by a concern for liberty, and is built on the fear that people are using science and technology to build wealth even if it costs them their freedom. He complained that people "have become the tools of their tools" (Thoreau 1985, p. 352) and that they would be more likely to learn "beautiful housekeeping" and "beautiful living" (p. 353) if they were willing to cultivate a more thoughtful poverty and independence. Ultimately Thoreau was a critic not of science and technology, but of the modern political economy and the way it employed these tools. His fear was that people were becoming morally ignorant about the cultivation of a good human life even as they were becoming scientifically and technically proficient.
As a social critic Thoreau has inspired many in the modern environmental movement who share his fear that society uses science and technology to war against nature rather than to learn to live in peace and harmony with it. Thoreau continues to be one of the most powerful literary voices in America. He is a reminder of the need to continually probe the purposes and ends to which science and technology are employed.
BOB PEPPERMAN TAYLOR
Buell, Lawrence. (1995). The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Harding, Walter. (1966). The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Taylor, Bob Pepperman. (1996). America's Bachelor Uncle: Henry Thoreau and the American Polity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Thoreau, Henry David. (1893). Excursions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Thoreau, Henry David. (1985). A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden, or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod. New York: Library of America.
Thoreau, Henry David
THOREAU, HENRY DAVID
Henry David Thoreau was a nineteenth-century philosopher and writer who denounced materialistic modes of living and encouraged people to act according to their own beliefs of right and wrong, even if doing so required breaking the law. His writings, especially his call for nonviolent resistance to government injustice, have inspired many later reformers.
Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837. During his college years, he was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the
leader of the transcendental movement. Thoreau became a personal friend of the eminent author and spent several years as Emerson's houseguest. Their long friendship was a significant influence on Thoreau's writing and philosophy.
Through Emerson, Thoreau met many other brilliant thinkers and writers of the time, including Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Amos Bronson Alcott. This group of transcendentalists supported a plain and simple lifestyle spent searching for the truth beyond one's taught beliefs. Unlike some of the other transcendentalists, Thoreau lived out many of their beliefs. Thoreau's first work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was published in 1849 and is considered the definitive statement of his transcendalist beliefs.
For several years in the 1830s and 1840s, Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes to the government as a way of protesting slavery, which the government permitted. The poll tax was levied on all men over the age of twenty. Thoreau was finally jailed overnight for this refusal in 1841 but was bailed out by his relatives who paid his back taxes for him.
From July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847, Thoreau lived alone at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, on a plot of land owned by Emerson. There Thoreau devoted his time to studying nature and writing. While at Walden Pond, he wrote Walden, a collection of essays about nature and human nature that was published in 1854.
Later Thoreau became outraged by the Mexican War, which he believed was caused by greed for Mexican land, and by the fugitive slave act, which helped slave owners recover escaped slaves. As a result of this outrage, Thoreau wrote an essay that was published in 1849 under the title Civil Disobedience (Thoreau's original title was Resistance to Civil Government). The essay contended that each person owes a greater duty to his own conscience and belief system than is owed to the government. Thus, Thoreau encouraged people to refuse to obey laws that they believe are unjust.
Civil Disobedience also supported theories of anarchy based upon Thoreau's insistence that people misuse government. He argued that the Mexican War was started by just a few people who used the U.S. government as a tool. Thoreau maintained that because the U.S. system of government was slow to correct itself through the will of the majority, people should immediately withdraw their support from government and act according to their beliefs of what is right.
"I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach."
—Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau did not approve of violent resistance to government, however. He advocated peaceful or passive resistance. In 1859, when john brown staged a violent revolt against
slavery, Thoreau believed that Brown was right in acting according to his beliefs even though his actions were against the law. Although Thoreau did not admire the violent method that Brown used in trying to stop slavery, Thoreau did admire Brown's commitment to doing what he believed was right. In 1859 Thoreau published The Last Days of John Brown, an essay describing how Brown's actions convinced many Northerners that slavery must be totally abolished.
Thoreau's writings and philosophy greatly influenced many important world figures. For example, the reformer Leo Tolstoy of Russia, mohandas gandhi of India, martin luther king jr., and other leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement were inspired by Thoreau's ideas. Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Bennett, Jane. 1994. Thoreau's Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.
Lawry, Robert P. 2002. "Ethics in the Shadow of the Law: The Political Obligation of a Citizen." Case Western Reserve Law Review 52 (spring).
Thoreau, Henry David. 2000. Walden; and, Civil Disobedience: Complete Texts with Introduction, Historical Contexts, Critical Essays. Ed. by Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Thoreau, Henry David
THOREAU, HENRY DAVID
Transcendentalist, essayist, and social critic; b. Concord, Mass., July 12, 1817; d. there, May 6, 1862. To his contemporaries, Thoreau was either the "literary echo" of Ralph Waldo emerson or an advocate of primitivism, intent on nullifying civilization. Yet posterity finds him a creative artist both bold and original, and the just castigator of a society that had neglected its needs to serve its desires.
Thoreau, the son of parents of narrow means was educated at considerable family sacrifice at Concord Academy and Harvard (graduating 1837). For four years after graduation he taught in Concord and, at the same time, became the disciple of Emerson, his fellow townsman. In 1841, he moved into Emerson's house, earning his keep as a man of all work, and eventually helping Emerson to edit the Dial, the organ of the Transcendentalists (see transcendentalism, literary). In 1843, he lived briefly in the home of Emerson's brother William, on Staten Island, N.Y., tutoring his children, while he tried unsuccessfully to win his way in New York City as a professional journalist. On his return to Concord he adopted the mode of life he followed thereafter. Man, he believed, could find true contentment only by obeying higher laws, knowledge of which, while innate, was discerned best by cultivating a nearness to nature. Taking occasional jobs as surveyor, gardener, and carpenter to meet his few needs, he began extended philosophical inquiries into nature. The journal that preserves his account of these inquiries finally grew to 39 volumes, totaling two million words.
In July 1845, Thoreau built a hut at Walden Pond, in Concord; he lived in it for two years. He went to Walden not to escape society but "to drive life into a corner and find out whether it was a mean or a noble thing." Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), the book in which he tells what his sojourn taught him, addresses itself to all mankind. Even as its flawless organization and gracious style attest its merits as literature, its perceptions attest its worth as a spiritual document. Yet his contemporaries gave it scant notice, and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), the only other book he published during his lifetime, actually stirred their disdain. The essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (1849), which the 20th century, following M. K. gandhi's lead, hails as "a key document in the history of individualism," and his noble "Life Without Principle" (1863) did not fare better. During his last years, Thoreau, ravaged by tuberculosis, consoled himself that lack of recognition let his confrontation of self continue unhampered. Publication of his MSS, begun after his death, soon filled 20 volumes.
To a society oppressed by wasteful, aimless, material commitments, Thoreau's works offer both rebuke and challenge. In a famous phrase, he says in Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Convinced that this desperation finds its genesis in man's subservience to possessions, he sought to turn man away from "the inert finite to the resurgent infinite." His negations prefaced affirmatives.
Bibliography: h. d. thoreau, Writings, ed. b. torrey and f.b. sanborn, 20 v. (Boston 1906); Correspondence, ed. w. harding and c. bode (New York 1955); Consciousness in Concord, ed. p. miller (Boston 1958). h. s. canby, Thoreau (Boston 1939). f. o. matthiessen, American Renaissance (New York 1941). j. l. shanley, The Making of Walden (Chicago 1957). w. harding, Days of H. T. (New York 1965).
[j. j. mcaleer]
Thoreau, Henry David
Although Thoreau may well have been the best remembered antiwar dissenter of his time, his protest against the Mexican War had no discernible effect on public opinion, the antiwar effort, or the conduct of the war. In July 1846, Thoreau, who had not paid his Massachusetts poll tax for several years, denounced the war in his annual brush with the tax collector, refused again to pay, and spent one night in jail before one of his friends paid the tax without his consent and Thoreau was released. Though he believed the war an immoral conflict to extend slavery, Thoreau viewed his own dissent as an individual act of protest, not an effort to work with or mobilize others to end the war. To Thoreau, it was the duty of each honest citizen directly to resist his government when it condoned or perpetuated an evil such as slavery or war to extend slavery.
Thoreau immortalized his protest in the essay Resistance to Civil Government, popularly known as “Civil Disobedience,” which was published in 1849. Although his actions attracted only local attention at the time, his essay achieved fame as the clear, well‐reasoned justification of an honest citizen protesting an immoral policy of his government. As such, “Civil Disobedience” became an influential manifesto for subsequent antiwar protesters and freedom fighters such as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
[See also Conscientious Objection; Peace and Antiwar Movements.]
John H. Schroeder , Mr. Polk's War: An American Opposition and Dissent, 1846–1848, 1973.
Richard Lebeaux , Thoreau's Seasons, 1984.
John H. Schroeder
Thoreau, Henry David