He had a raptorian nose, a scruffy beard — a face only a mother could love. Henry David Thoreau (pronounced THOR-eau) entered the Halls of the Immortals with his timeless Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), the product of a two-year stay in a handmade cabin on the shore of Walden Pond just outside of rural Concord, Massachusetts. He compressed his memories and observations in the mid 1840s, into a book a single calendar year long.
Though the book initially inspired little fanfare, critics of a different era regard the work as a classic. In the work, Thoreau uses the four seasons to symbolize human development, and to explore Nature’s simplicity, beauty, and harmony as models for social and cultural justice.
The feisty Thoreau also penned On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), after a night in the local pokey, in which he criticized centralized government and argued that the individual should resist the state if it required him to “be an agent of injustice to another [human being].” Thoreau had been arrested for his refusal to pay a poll tax to support the Mexican-American War.
The early years
David Henry, as he was known until after his Harvard years, was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. He came of age in the flourishing years of some of the greatest American writers — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, to name just three whom he met.
Following graduation from Harvard in 1837,* David took a number of small-time jobs, so he could eat every so often. He taught a little school, did a little surveying did a little pencil-making, and a little tutoring.
That year, Emerson persuaded Thoreau to keep a journal of observations, and later saw fit to publish some of them as essays in his Transcendentalist paper, The Dial. Assuming a patriarch/mentor role, Emerson also persuaded Thoreau to reside with him in 1841.
Thoreau managed to publish his first work to murmurings of acclaim with the Natural History of Massachusetts, which was half book review, half natural history, in The Dial (1842).
On a golden pond
As Thoreau matured, his philosophy of Nature engaged his full attention. He concluded that the best way to focus on what secrets Nature would give up, would be to spend time alone, sequestered in a cabin, in a rustic setting. His quest got off on the right foot when Emerson allowed him to build a cabin at the edge of Walden Pond on the former’s property.
Beginning July 4, 1845, Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days in relative isolation, broken only by trips to the cabin by Emerson to provide daily necessities.
Thoreau also made the occasional excursion into Concord. On one trip, he had the dubious pleasure of bumping into the local tax collector; hence, the poll tax issue.
Into the ‘50s
Thoreau’s fascination with botany and natural history increased exponentially with the discovery of the works of William Bartram and, especially, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. In his journals, he noted migrating birds, the interaction among species, places, and seasons, and the life cycle of forests.
He also left his cabin to hike the Mount Katahdin wilderness in Maine, which led to an essay titled Ktaadn. Thoreau made several more trips to the Pine Tree state over 11 years. Those woodsy treks culminated in two more essays, Chesuncook, and Allegash & East Branch. The essays were compiled in a book, The Maine Woods. Though not as well known, the work is stunning in its painstaking detail of the sights, sounds, and scents of Nature.
Mary P. Sherwood wrote, in Thoreau in Our Season, "[The Maine Woods is] one of the most coniferous-pungent books in the English language, a book which a century later remains one of the best written on the woods of Maine." Noted naturalist John Muir was known to have taken a copy of the book on a trip to Alaska.
Other travelogues by Thoreau include Cape Cod and A Yankee in Canada.
His Excursions marks Thoreau as one of the earliest American environmentalists. The essays contained therein cover such subjects as the dispersal of seeds and the autumnal foliage of New England. He was an early advocate of outdoor recreation, including canoeing and hiking, and of preserving the wilderness as public land.
Last years and legacy
Although Thoreau had contracted tuberculosis in 1835 — no doubt abetted by his stint in the family pencil factory — he remained reasonably robust until he slogged through a rain storm to count the rings on a tree stump in 1859.
Thoreau seemed to grasp the gravity of his situation and increased the pace at which he wrote his works. Bedridden during the final months, he continued to dictate to his sister.
When the end was imminent, friends gathered around to say their good-byes. The tranquility that transfixed his aura amazed them, prompting one to ask, “Have you made your peace with God?” To which Thoreau replied, “We’ve never quarreled.”
*One anecdote about Thoreau and his relationship with Harvard is that he refused to pay the $5 fee for his diploma. He also turned down a master's degree that was offered to graduates "who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college." Thoreau’s comment was “Let every sheep keep its own skin.”
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Henry David Thoreau.
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe— "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
From the essay Civil Disobedience, 1849
The frontiers are not east or west, north or south but wherever a man fronts a fact.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, 1849
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Regarding John Brown
I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the good and the brave ever in a majority?
A Plea for Captain John Brown, 1859
Men's capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.
Quotes regarding Henry David Thoreau.
By William Ellery Channing
Thoreau believed that one of the arts of life was to make the most of it. He loved the multum in parvo, or pot-luck; to boil up the little into the big. Thus, he was in the habit of saying, — Give me healthy senses, let me be thoroughly alive, and breathe freely in the very flood-tide of the living world. But this should have availed him little, if he had not been at the same time copiously endowed with the power of recording what he imbibed. His senses truly lived twice.
"Thoreau, the Poet Naturalist", 1873
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