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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]

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