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.


Literary Works

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.

The Transcendentalist

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.


Emerson's Assessment

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."

Further Reading on Henry David Thoreau

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).