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Henry David Thoreau is one of the key figures of the American Transcendentalist movement. His works embody the tenets of American Transcendentalism as articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. His aphoristic, yet lyrical, prose style and intense moral and political convictions have secured his place beside Emerson as the most representative and influential of the New England Transcendentalists. He is considered, along with such figures as Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, as a major nineteenth-century American author.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty. Although his father, a businessman with a history of failure, ultimately succeeded in pencil manufacturing, Thor-eau’s mother kept a boarding house to supplement the family’s income. The only child in the family to receive a college education, Thoreau graduated in 1837 from Harvard, where he became interested in natural history, religious studies, the classics, and English, French, and German literature.
Two important influences at Harvard were the famous naturalist, Louis Agassiz, and the rhetoric’s professor, Edward Tyrrel Channing. Following his commencement, Thoreau taught at the Concord Academy but was soon dismissed because of his opposition to corporal punishment. He and his brother, John, founded their own school in 1838, and became renowned for utilizing the progressive educational methods of the American Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott.
Living with Emerson
Thoreau aspired to be a poet, and when Ralph Waldo Emerson invited him in 1841 to live with him and his family in Concord, where he could write and earn his keep by acting as a general handyman, he accepted. The Concord community, already scandalized by Thoreau’s unconventional way of life, ridiculed his lack of ambition and material success. However, Thoreau flourished with Emerson as his mentor. He kept an extensive journal and became an avid reader of Hindu scripture. He had ample time after his chores to write and think, and in Emerson’s home he met many of the greatest figures of American Transcendentalism, including Sarah Margaret Fuller and George Ripley.
Emerson and Fuller had recently founded a journal, the Dial, as the literary organ of the New England Transcendentalists, and there they published Thoreau’s first efforts in prose and poetry. Thoreau also worked as an assistant on the Dial and regularly lectured at the Concord Lyceum during this period. He briefly lived in New York during 1843 and 1844 as a tutor to Emerson’s brother’s children. When he returned to Concord, he supported himself by working as a surveyor, managing his father’s pencil factory, and securing odd jobs around town. Thoreau and Emerson had grown distant due to differences of opinion and temperament and were no longer on close terms.
Walden and Political Activism
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, located on Emerson’s property, where he remained for almost two years. Though he was actually near Concord and had many visitors daily, Thoreau was regarded as a hermit, mystic, and eccentric, an image that was enhanced by a night he spent in jail in Concord in 1846. Thoreau was incarcerated for refusing to pay taxes to the commonwealth of Massachusetts because of its endorsements of slavery and the Mexican War; Thoreau was morally opposed to both. In his later political essays, he explored the individual’s right to dissent from a government’s policies in accordance with his or her own conscience and also treated the issue of slavery.
Thoreau was an active abolitionist in his later years, and he lectured widely and publicly spoke against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In keeping with his interest in naturalism, much of his writing and lecturing in the 1850s also concerned the conservation of natural resources. In 1854, he published Walden, or a Life in the Woods, an account of his two years living at Walden Pond.
Thoreau had suffered from poor health most of his life and was stricken in 1860 with tuberculosis, from which he never recovered. Thoreau died in 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts. Although he was considered cold, misanthropic, and disagreeable by some, he was much respected and admired by his circle of friends.
Works in Literary Context
Thoreau’s writings can be generally divided into two groups— travel essays and political essays. His travel narratives—most of which were published after his death—combine perceptive observations about flora and fauna with Thoreau’s philosophical musings. The political essays—”Resistance to Civil Government,” later published as ”Civil Disobedience,” ”Slavery in Massachusetts,” ”A Plea for Captain John Brown,” and ”Life without Principle”—are impassioned rhetorical essays laying out Thoreau’s fundamental beliefs; these were written in response to important political issues of the time, but they are widely regarded as universal statements about individual choice and responsibility. Thoreau’s poems, mostly celebrations of nature, are most often considered banal, whereas his prose is usually seen by critics to be especially poetic. His Journal, because of its completeness and intensity, is sometimes named as his greatest literary achievement.
A Transcendental Philosopher
Though not a professional philosopher, Thoreau is recognized as an important contributor to the American literary and philosophical movement known as New England Transcendentalism. His essays, books, and poems weave together two central themes over the course of his intellectual career: nature and the conduct of life. In his moral and political work, Thoreau aligned himself with the post-Socratic schools of Greek philosophy—in particular, the Cynics and Stoics— that used philosophy as a means of addressing ordinary human experience.
Thoreau’s importance as a philosophical writer was little appreciated during his lifetime, but his Walden, or a Life in the Woods and ”Civil Disobedience” gradually developed a following and by the latter half of the twentieth century had become classic texts in American thought. ”Civil Disobedience,” which works out Thor-eau’s conception of the self-reliant individual’s relationship to the state and suggests that one can resist a government without resorting to violence, has influenced such diverse writers and leaders as Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jack Kerouac, Mohandas Gandhi, and Allen Ginsberg. Walden, or a Life in the Woods, the work of a man who spent almost his entire life in his native town of Concord, has been translated into virtually every modern language and is today known all over the world.
Not only have these texts been used widely to address issues in political philosophy, moral theory, and, more recently, environmentalism, but they have also been of central importance to those who see philosophy as an engagement with ordinary experience and not as an abstract deductive exercise. In this vein, Thoreau’s work has been recognized as having foreshadowed central insights of later philosophical movements such as existentialism and pragmatism.
Nature and Self-Sufficiency
Thoreau’s naturalistic writing integrated straightforward observation and cataloguing with Transcendentalist interpretations of nature and the wilderness. In many of his works, Thoreau brought these interpretations of nature to bear on how people live or ought to live. In Walden, or a Life in the Woods, Thoreau makes a record of two years that he spent living alone in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Part autobiography, part fiction, part social criticism, Walden, or a Life in the Woods advocates a simple, self-sufficient way of life in order to free the individual from
self-imposed social and financial obligations. Thoreau pleads for a more intimate relationship between human beings and nature as an antidote to the deadening influence of an increasingly industrialized society.
Toward the end of his life, Thoreau’s naturalistic interests took a more scientific turn; he pursued a close examination of local fauna and kept detailed records of his observations. Nevertheless, he kept one eye on the moral and political developments of his time, often expressing his positions with rhetorical fire as in his ”A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1860). He achieved an elegant integration of his naturalism and his moral interests in several late essays that were published posthumously, among them ”Walking” and ”Wild Apples” (both in 1862).
Works in Critical Context
During the nineteenth century, Thoreau was generally considered an obscure, second-rate imitator of Emerson. Though Thoreau was not well known during his lifetime outside the circle of New England Transcendentalists, his reputation has gradually grown. Assessment of his literary merits was long hampered by James Russell Lowell’s disparagement of his early work. An extremely influential critic, Lowell accused Thoreau of being an imitator of Emerson and attacked what he saw as his egocentrism and lack of humor. Robert Louis Stevenson deemed Thoreau a “prig,” a “skulker,” and an idler, but he valued his ”singularly eccentric and independent mind.” Ironically, Emerson’s funeral elegy on Thoreau served to reinforce the image of Thoreau as a cold, reclusive man. Thoreau’s admirers, however, came to his defense: John Burroughs praised his dedication as a naturalist and Amos Bronson Alcott and Ellery Channing offered testimonials to his personal warmth and charm.
There had been a Thoreau critical revival at the hundredth anniversary of his birth, but Thoreau’s critical reputation did not really blossom until the 1930s when the depressed American economy imposed a radically frugal, Thoreauvian lifestyle on many people. At that time, Thor-eau’s ideas about individual freedom and responsibility stood out in stark relief against the growing threat of fascism. In the 1940s, encouraged by F. O. Matthiessen’s landmark study of sense imagery in Walden, or a Life in the Woods, scholars turned their attention to more particular matters of Thoreau’s style and diction. Critics now almost universally admire Thoreau’s prose style for its directness, pithiness, and variety. Though Lowell termed his poetry ”worsification,” modern critics praise Thor-eau’s vivid use of imagery and irregular rhythms and suggest that his poetry anticipated the experimental verse of the twentieth century. Many of the most recent studies of Thoreau, aided by closer examination of his journals and letters, are psychological in approach. There is now no dispute that Thoreau ranks as one of the greatest figures in American literature.
Walden, or a Life in the Woods
Walden, or a Life in the Woods, regarded by most critics as Thoreau’s masterpiece, comprises a group of loosely connected essays that are organized in a seasonal sequence so that the narrative concludes in spring, a time of spiritual as well as natural rebirth. Thoreau telescoped his two years’ experience at Walden Pond into the span of one year in order to fit his essays into his chosen time frame. Contemporary critics who had greeted his earlier work with mixed reviews reacted to Walden, or a Life in the Woods with measured praise and also some cries of ”humbug.” Modern critics especially praise his playful, witty prose style in Walden, or a Life in the Woods, as well as the sense of humor manifested in his use of paradox, puns, and satire. Critics also appreciate the philosophic depth of Walden, or a Life in the Woods. As Perry Miller puts it, the book ”tells us of some Eden of the soul in which at least one American held off the pressures of materiality and mediocrity. The more harassing these confinements became . . . the more Thoreau’s report takes on qualities of a symbolic eternity.”
- Adams, Stephen, and Donald Ross Jr. Revising Mythologies: The Composition of Thoreau’s Major Works. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.
- Atkinson, Brooks. Henry Thoreau: The Cosmic Yankee. New York: Knopf, 1927.
- Borst, Raymond R. The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
- Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
- Cain, William, ed. The Oxford Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Emerson, Edward. Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
- Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry David Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965.
- Lebeaux, Richard. Thoreau’s Seasons. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
- McGregor, Robert Kuhn. A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
- Meltzer, Milton and Walter Harding. A Thoreau Profile. New York: Crowell, 1962.
- Miller, Perry. “Afterword.” Walden or Life in the Woods and ”On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. New York: New American Library, 1980.
- Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
- Salt, Henry S. The Life of Henry David Thoreau. London: Bentley, 1890.
- Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin. The Life of Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
- Scharnhorst, Gary. Henry David Thoreau: A Case Study in Canonization. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.
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