Henry David Thoreau

 

The Great Conservationist, Visionary, and Humanist

He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the
study of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were
spent living in a shack in the woods near a pond. Who would
choose a life like this? Henry David Thoreau did, and he
enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau, what did he do,
and what did others think of his work?
 
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on
July 12, 1817 ("Thoreau" 96), on his grandmother's farm.
Thoreau, who was of French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker
ancestry, was baptized as David Henry Thoreau, but at the
age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry David.
Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older
brother John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in
genteel poverty (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia
1). It quickly became evident that Thoreau was interested
in literature and writing. He wrote his first essay, "The
Seasons," at the tender age of ten, while attending Concord
Academy (Derleth 4).
 
In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to
Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the
cost of tuition so his sister, Helen, who had begun to
teach, and his aunts offered to help. With the assistance
of his family and the beneficiary funds of Harvard he went
to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on
September first. "He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of
his class, but he went his own way too much to reach the
top" (5).
 
In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and
attempt to earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted
about a month and a half (8). He returned to college in the
fall of 1836 and graduated on August 16, 1837 (12).
Thoreau's years at Harvard University gave him one great
gift, an introduction to the world of books.
 
Upon his return from college, Thoreau's family found him to
be less likely to accept opinions as facts, more
argumentative, and inordinately prone to shock people with
his own independent and unconventional opinions. During
this time he discovered his secret desire to be a poet
(Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with
freedom to think and act as he wished.
 
Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David
applied for a teaching position at the public school in
Concord and was accepted. However, he refused to flog
children as punishment. He opted instead to deliver moral
lectures. This was looked down upon by the community, and a
committee was asked to review the situation. They decided
that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they
ordered Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter
contempt he lined up six children after school that day,
flogged them, and handed in his resignation, because he
felt that physical punishment should have no part in
education (Derleth 15).
 
In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It
started out as a literary notebook, but later developed
into a work of art. In it Thoreau record his thoughts and
discoveries about nature (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia 1).
 
Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to
Lucy Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo
Emerson's sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing
many of the same thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed,
she told Emerson of Thoreau. Emerson asked that Thoreau be
brought to his home for a meeting, and they quickly became
friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after
their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson's help, delivered
his first lecture, "Society" (21).
 
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous
person in Henry David Thoreau's life. From 1841 to 1843 and
again between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of
Emerson's household, and during this time he came to know
Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and many other members of
the "Transcendental Club" ("Thoreau" 696).
 
On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John,
left Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto
the Middlesex Canal, into the Merrimack River and into the
state of New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau's
first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"
(25).
 
Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry's beloved older brother,
became very ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and in
early May a poor and distraught Henry David moved into the
upstairs of Ralph Waldo Emerson's house (35). On March 11,
1842 John died, and Henry's life-long friend and companion
was gone (40).
 
In early 1845 Thoreau decided to make a sojourn to nearby
Walden Pond, where Emerson had recently purchased a plot of
land. He built a small cabin overlooking the pond, and from
July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847 Thoreau lived at Walden
Pond ("Thoreau" 697). When asked why he went to live at
Walden Pond Thoreau replied:
 
"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. I did not wish to
live what was not life, living is dear, nor did I wish to
practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I
wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of
life..."(Thoreau 75- 76).
 
One night in July 1846, during his stay at Walden, Thoreau
was walking into Concord from the pond when he was accosted
by Sam Staples, the Concord jailer, and charged with not
having paid his poll tax. Thoreau had not paid a poll tax
since 1843 when his friend Bronson Alcott spent a night in
jail for not paying his. He didn't see why he should have
to pay the tax, he had never voted, and he knew that such a
purely political tax had to be affiliated with the funding
of the Mexican War and the subsistence of slavery, both of
which he strongly objected to (Derleth 66). The following
morning Thoreau was released because someone, probably his
Aunt Maria Thoreau, had paid his back taxes (68). This
imprisonment compelled Thoreau to write "Civil
Disobedience," one of his most famous essays.
 
On May 6,1862 ("Thoreau" 697), after an unavailing journey
to Minnesota in 1861 in search of better health, Henry
David Thoreau died of tuberculosis. Thoreau was buried in
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord near his friends Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott (The
1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2).
 
Thoreau never earned a livelihood by writing, but his works
fill twenty volumes. His first book, A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers, was a huge failure selling only 219
of the original 1,000 copies ("Thoreau" 697), but his
doctrine of passive resistance impacted many powerful
people such as Mahatma Gahndi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
(The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Thoreau's
essay, "Civil Disobedience," accentuated personal ethics
and responsibility. It urged the individual to follow the
dictates of conscience in any conflict between itself and
civil law, and to violate unjust laws to invoke their
repeal.
 
Throughout his life, Thoreau protested against slavery by
lecturing, by abetting escaped slaves in their decampment
to freedom in Canada, and by outwardly defending John Brown
when he made his hapless attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859
(2).
 
Walden is conceivably Thoreau's most famous work, however,
for nearly a century after it's publication it was
considered to be only a collection of nature essays, as
social criticism, or as a literal autobiography. Walden is
now looked upon as a created work of art ("Thoreau" 697).
 
In Walden, Thoreau expresses his sentiments on varying
subjects such as, the attitudes of society, age, and work.
Thoreau felt that society had no right to judge people on
the basis of their appearance:
 
"No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a
patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater
anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, of at least clean
and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience"
(Thoreau 27).
 
Thoreau believed in relaxation and simplicity, and he said:
"As for work, we haven't any of any consequence" (78).
Thoreau also believed that older people should not tell
younger people how to live because,
 
"Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an
instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it.
Has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has
learned. anything of absolute value by living" (16). Walden
is filled with sarcasm, criticism, and observations of
nature, life, and society, and is written in a very unique
style. The book has been described as an elaborate system
of circular imagery which centers on Walden Pond as a
symbol of heaven, the ideal of perfection that should be
striven for ("Thoreau" 697). 

Thoreau has been called America's greatest prose stylist,
naturalist, pioneer ecologist, conservationist, visionary,
and humanist (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2).
It has also been said that Thoreau's style shows an
unconscious, but very pointed degree of Emerson's
influence. However, there is often a rudeness, and an
inartistic carelessness in Thoreau's style that is not at
all like the style of Emerson.
 
Thoreau possessed an amazing forte for expressing his many
observations in vivid color: His acute powers of
observation, his ability to keep for a long time his
attention upon one thing, and his love of nature and of
solitude, all lend a distinct individuality to his style
(Pattee 226). Thoreau's good friend, Bronson Alcott,
described his style as, "More primitive and Homeric than
any American, his style of thinking was robust, racy, as if
Nature herself had built his sentences and seasoned the
sense of his paragraphs with his own vigor and salubrity.
Nothing can be spared from them; there is nothing
superfluous; all is compact, concrete, as nature is"
(Alcott 16). 

Most of Thoreau's writings had to do with Nature which
caused him to receive both positive and negative criticism.
Paul Elmer More said that Thoreau was: "The greatest by far
of our writers on Nature and the creator of a new sentiment
in literature," but he then does a complete turn around to
say, "Much of his [Thoreau's] writing, perhaps the greater
part, is the mere record of observation and classification,
and has not the slightest claim on our remembrance, --
unless, indeed, it posses some scientific value, which I
doubt" (More 860). 

Thoreau was always very forthright in everything he said.
Examples of this can be found throughout Walden, one of
which being his statement in chapter two,"To a philosopher
all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and
read it are old women over their tea" (Thoreau 79). "There
is certainly no ersatz sentiment, nor simulation of
reverence of benevolence in Walden" (Briggs 445). Thoreau
was a philosopher of individualism, who placed nature above
materialism in private life, and ethics above conformity in
politics (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). His
life was marked by whimsical acts and unusual stands on
public issues ("Thoreau" 697). These peculiar beliefs led
to a lot of criticism of Thoreau and his work. James
Russell Lowell complained that Thoreau exalted the
constraints of his own dispositions and insisted upon
accepting his shortcomings and debilities as virtues and
powers. Lowell considered: "a great deal of the modern
sentimentalism about Nature...a mark of disease"
(Wagenknecht 2).
 
In some ways Walden is deluding. It consists of eighteen
essays in which Thoreau condenses his twenty-six month stay
at Walden Pond into the seasons of a single year. Also, the
idea is expressed in Magill's Survey of American Literature
that: Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a
pioneer; his hut was within two miles of town, and while at
Walden, he made almost daily visits to Concord and to his
family, dined out often, had frequent visitors, and went
off on excursions. 

Walden is a testament to the renewing power of nature, to
the need of respect and preservation of the environment,
and to the belief that: "in wildness is the salvation of
the world" (Magill 1949). Walden is simply an experience
recreated in words for the purpose of getting rid of the
world and discovering the self ("Thoreau" 697).
 
Henry David Thoreau strove for freedom and equality. He was
opinionated and argumentative. He stood up for what he
believed and was willing to fight for it. His teachings and
writings had an amazing effect on people and the world, and
will have for centuries to come.