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Born: 1817, Concord, Massachusetts

Died: 1862, Concord, Massachusetts

Major Works: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), "Civil Disobedience" (1849), Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)

Major Ideas

The search for ultimate reality begins with simplification and the dispelling of the superfluities of life, and with the desire for clarity of vision and spiritual alertness.

There exists within each human being a moral sense and an intuitive capacity for the apprehension of spiritual truths.

Transcendental spiritual truths are revealed through nature.

The divine source of all things exists in nature, yet divine reality is not exhausted by nature.

Reformation, even the reformation of society, begins with the reforming of the individual.

Action from principle brings about change in institutions and governments.

Thoreau had not yet graduated from Harvard when he read Emerson's "Nature," and it would be three more years before he became an intimate of that essay's author and a member of Emerson's circle. Yet the young Thoreau seemed destined for that loosely knit group of New England intellectuals, poets, and reformers over whom Emerson presided and who went by the name transcendentalists. With this group, whose number included Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, and Ellery Channing, among others, he was influenced by the sentiments of European romanticism and the epistemology of German idealism. From philosophers like Kant and Hegel the transcendentalists took the view that knowledge comes not from experience but rather through the intuition of the mind itself. Emerson said it summarily when he observed that whatever belongs to intuitive thought is transcendental. From poets like Goethe Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, these representatives of America's romanticism inherited an exalted conception of the human spirit and imagination, a confidence in the authority of experience and the individual conscience, and an appreciation of nature as a medium of spiritual truths

Yet long before Thoreau himself became a transcendentalist, he was already inclined by a natural disposition to accept the opinions that Emerson's "Nature" more clarified for him than introduced. He wrote in his Journal, for example, of the early attraction that nature held for him and of a trip to Walden Pond when he was four years of age. As he remembered that visit to the pond, it was for him a spiritual awakening, in many ways akin to the awakening that is the subject of the first book of Wordsworth's The Prelude. In a related vein, his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, related that Henry would sometimes be found awake at night gazing at the stars. He told her that he had been looking through them to see if God could be seen behind them.

For the most part, however, Thoreau's public life was not remarkable from the perspective of his contemporaries or ours. He showed promise as a student at Concord Academy and at some financial sacrifice to the family was sent to Harvard College. There he would have encountered Scottish "common sense" philosophy with its un-Lockean emphasis on innate ideas. As we have already remarked, he read Emerson's "Nature" during his senior year; it is possible, though not probable, that he heard Emerson give the Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar." Following his commencement in 1837, he experienced the usual crisis of new baccalaureates: He needed to decide on a career and employment. His stint as schoolmaster of the Concord Center School concluded after only two weeks and a disagreement with the school board. More promising was his decision to reopen the Concord Academy with his elder brother John in 1839, and the two proved to be innovative educators supplementing the traditional curriculum with practical application and field trips.

During this same period, he commenced his real life's work with the first entry in the Journal in 1837, and before he died, this record of his interior life would swell to fourteen printed volumes. Here he prepared the material that later appeared in his lectures, essays, and books. Emerson too was certain that his young protege would be a writer of distinction and encouraged his talent. He arranged for Thoreau's invitation to speak at the Concord Lyceum in 1838; he used his influence in getting Thoreau's poetry and essays published in the transcendentalist periodical, The Dial; he sent Thoreau off to Staten Island to his brother's house in the hope that Henry would make valuable contacts in the publishing world. In the end, however, Emerson was disappointed with Thoreau's prospects as a writer and concluded that Henry was content to remain "the captain of the huckleberry party."

Perhaps because of his discouragement with the public life that Emerson hoped for him, in part certainly because of the tragic death of his beloved brother John in 1842, but principally because he wished to write and to put into practice his theories, Thoreau decided to withdraw to Walden Pond a mile and a half south of Concord for a period that would be the most productive of his short life. He moved into his cabin by the pond on Independence Day 1845 and stayed there in the woods for two years. He passed his famous night in the Concord jail for not paying poll taxes in July of 1846 and so laid the foundation for his most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience." In that same year, he took his first trip to the Maine woods, which adventure provided material for the essay "Ktaadn and the Maine Woods" and later for his best travel book, published posthumously as The Maine Woods. He continued such travels until within a year of his death from tuberculosis in May--making two more trips to Maine, an excursion to Canad a, four visits to Cape Cod, and a last visit with Horace Mann, Jr. to Minnesota in 1861. His most famous trip, however, was the outing that he had with his brother John during the summer following their first year as teachers at the Concord Academy. It was a two-week boating and hiking expedition on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to New Hampshire's Mount Washington, and the memorializing of that adventure just three years before his brother's death was the work Thoreau set himself to during his first year at Walden. The second year by the pond produced a draft of one of the greatest books in world literature, his Walden (1854).

Perhaps because it was culled from the journals of the period most dominated by Emerson's influence, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) was more derivative in its transcendentalism than any of Thoreau's later writing. Familiar transcendental sentiments about nature are voiced; transcendental themes are the topics of the lengthy digressions that interrupt the narrative; a transcendental persona of the hero-poet is developed. Typically, nature, like the river on which the two brothers sail, is seen as constant, harmonious, and permanent; and the river, itself a symbol of nature's laws and time, offers the hero-poet of this adventure a unique vantage for seeing both nature and society on the shore. And, while others slumber on the bank, the poet in a kind of waking dream floats serenely on the bosom of the water, content to drift "to whither it will bear me." Or again, the boat on which the brothers sail is said to be painted green below with a blue ribbon around the top--a kind of amphibious ani mal of two elements, presumably akin to the poet and to the narrator himself, who seeks an equipoise between the substantial material world below and the world of spirit and thought. The tendency to view the world as an extension of the human mind, so characteristic of Emerson, threads its way through the Week. The reader is reminded at frequent junctures that the river on which the narrator travels is the river of his own thoughts. Even the digression on the river's fish in the opening chapter, "Saturday," becomes in the words of one Thoreau interpreter a mere "catalog of thoughts," which it would seem the author was out to make his catch. The shiners--to take but one of the kinds of fish in this digressive meditation--are suspended between elements, like the boat itself and the voyagers in 'the boat, "half in the water, half in the air."

Such Emersonian emphasis on symbol, thought, and spirit, however, is never allowed to subvert Thoreau's commitment to the facts of nature and to what might be called his pantheism. For Thoreau, nature's reality and substantiality are never in doubt as they are in Emerson nature is never simply the medium of spiritual truths. Even in this most transcendental of Thoreau s writing, the conviction central especially to Walden-that the divine penetrates the whole of the natural world (though it is not exhausted by nature, as in pantheism)-is apparent and is perhaps the cause for much of the Week's tentativeness Even as he reaches for the symbolic and universal in nature, he remarks on nature's particularity wildness, and impenetrability. Early in "Friday," for example, he observes that the landscape is something solid and real and then remarks with a characteristic matter-of-factness-"and I have not put my foot through it yet."

In the Week the voyager's resolve to submit himself to wherever the currents may carry meets with resistance from nature it is also tested by the society of farmers and merchants and prudent citizens who busy themselves with commerce and government and place obstacles in the poet's and in nature's path: The shad so the narrator discovers, are not free to follow their destinies because Billerica's dam blocks their passage up the Concord. But the narrator is conscious too that the voyager in following his destiny encounters difficulty as well when society crowds around nature's boundaries. It would be of interest to the people of Wayland, Sudbury, and Concord, the narrator remarks, to demand the leveling of the dam.

Thoreau may have had in mind at this period the leveling of other dams as well, for in the summer of 1846 he went to jail for refusing to pay the poll tax. He had for several years withheld payment of the tax on the ground that it was used exclusively for the benefit of a government of which he disapproved, but the precipitating cause of his arrest may have been the commencement of the Mexican War. In 1848, he presented before the Concord Lyceum the lecture "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government," which would be published the next year as "Civil Disobedience."

Thoreau's journals also reveal that the horror of slavery was very much on his mind, and he may have acted as a "conductor" on the underground railroad even during his Walden stay. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and the capture of Anthony Burns in Boston and his return to slavery, however, galvanized Thoreau's social protest and nudged him toward the sanctioning of the more violent means of social resistance practiced by Captain John Brown. Before an abolitionist meeting in Framingham, he delivered an angry denunciation of slavery in a lecture published the same year in The Liberator as "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854). As the circumstances in the country changed and more drastic measures were called for, Thoreau moved beyond his call for noncompliance with social injustice. At the end of the decade, he wrote his "Plea for Captain John Brown" immediately on the heels of Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, and the following year his "Last Days of John Brown" was read at the memorial service for the burial of Brown's body in North Elba, New York. The seer of Walden and the exemplar of nonviolent resistance ended an angry prophet at last, yet he never relinquished his conviction that "action from principle" changes persons and society.


There is a variety of opinion about the kind of book Walden is and what models may have been used in its writing. It has been described as autobiography, pastoral, extended familiar essay, and literary excursion. The influence of Asian and especially Indian religious scripture on Thoreau's thinking, together with its original title, Walden, or Life in the Woods, prompted one critic to speculate that it might be "a forest treatise" or a soul's journey popular in Hindu literature. Critics have cast about as well for a possible exemplar for Thoreau's masterpiece. Among the proposed candidates have been Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, The Prelude and, farther afield, the Bhagavad-Gita. In fundamental respects, however, this book is like its author, singular and a kind unto itself. In a sense, of course, it is a pilgrim's progress, a story about solitude and the fronting of the unembellished facts of life, a social satire, a saga of the poet's formation, a religious epic. Yet its themes ar e more basic still, its scope more embracing. Though its immediate subject was ordinary enough, Walden locates the commonplace in relation to the exceptional, the universal, and the cosmic.

Within the cyclic rhythm of ordinary time, of the day and of the year, it evokes a time-out-of-time, the time of the beginning; it alerts the reader to a mythic time that can also be experienced as present tense. It was, the narrator reports, on long winter evenings that he received visits "from an old and original proprietor" (God) and from "an elderly dame" (Nature) who resides in the neighborhood, though "invisible to most persons." The water of Walden, we are told elsewhere, is unchanged and perennially young, and Walden Pond was in existence perhaps on that spring morning when Adam and Eve were driven from Eden. The change, says the narrator, is in "me," and so the theme of the Fall is added to that of creation and paradise.

The narrator thus understands himself to be poised not so much between a material and a spiritual world as between a sacred one and one that humans defile. The higher laws, which in the Week indicated a truth beyond the phenomenal world, are in Walden associated with the undefiled purity of Walden's springtime and the world's. The question is here no longer one of getting beyond nature and materiality. Thoreau's experiment, which is more like the Bay Colony Puritan's holy experiment than the utopian adventures at Fruitland and Brooks Farm, concentrates on strategies for crossing over "an invisible boundary" to a world where "new, universal, and more liberal laws" establish them- selves not only "within" but significantly also around the self.

Walden then is about the crossing of a threshold, an invisible boundary, into an aboriginal world of purity and sanctity, a world Thoreau thought contemporary American society with its devotion to commerce was incapable of seeing or even imagining. The book is also about the spiritual discipline necessary for coming into the presence and possession of the sacred world that had been "bleared, smeared with trade." What Thoreau proposes is an ascetic life of deliberateness, voluntary poverty, and simplicity. What he seeks is the dispelling of delusion and all that is false, a deliberate wakefulness, and, above all, a fronting of the essential facts of life. To use his language and the language of mysticism, his purpose was the attainment of an inner clarity of vision. It was also to achieve an appreciation of and participation in the pure and purifying world of nature that can fairly be described as sacramental. He thus begins the morning--that auroral hour of reawakening--with a sacramental rite of purificatio n, a bathing in Walden, whose waters, he says, are as pure and sacred as those of the Ganges. He regrets that the only use his neighbors make of Walden's water is to pipe it to the village for the washing of dishes. Bathing in the pond is often followed by a morning of uninterrupted meditation and periods of "rapt revelry." Yet, even the journey inward that meditation initiates carries the mediator once more back into the world and delivers him into the fullness of the present moment and the world around of sight and sound.

Thoreau's holy experiment was for him an act of moral reform, and it began, as he believed it should, with himself. Walden, however, enlarges the circle of reform to include the neighbor as well--an intention that the narrator makes clear in its first chapter. It is thus in the part of chanticleer, the rooster of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, that the narrator announces his intention to "brag lustily" and so to wake others at the first dawn. It is as the practical Yankee that the narrator calls into doubt the common sense of the economic principles on which the lives of his fellow New Englanders are built.

Though Thoreau believed that Christianity had long since hung its harp on a willow branch and ceased to. herald the dawn of a new day, he evoked the language and frequently the phrasing of the New Testament to question the soundness of life built on the nineteenth century's 'reigning social and economic philosophies. Even more arresting, however, is Thoreau's fresh appropriation of the New Testament's language in the last two chapters, "Spring" and "Conclusion." Having passed from autumn through winter into spring, the cycle of the seasons rounds on itself and is complete, and the pattern of death and rebirth that nature represents' and the story of the "beautiful bug" confirm a resurrection (if not Christian) faith that there is "more day to dawn."

"Civil Disobedience"

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote from Jerusalem that there was something about "Civil Disobedience" that spoke directly and persuasively to him. He said that it was the essay's personal element and its rootedness in concrete historical circumstance, in the "here and now," that won him over and gave to Thoreau's words a validity for all history Others like Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered the genuinely revolutionary character of the principles Thoreau sets forth in his little essay. Ironically, however, the genesis of the essay was not in an event so momentous as those of Gandhi's South Africa or King's Alabama As circumstances would have it, one July evening in 1846, Thoreau walked to Concord from Walden Pond intent on retrieving a pair of shoes at the cobbler's shop when he was arrested by the local constable Sam Staples and asked to pay his poll tax. Staples even offered to pay it for him but Thoreau refused in what was largely a symbolic protest against slavery. Yet, like s o much that Thoreau wrote, his night's experience in the Concord jail became the touchstone for ideas elaborated later on, first as a lecture in 1848 before the Concord' Lyceum and then as a published essay the following year.

It is noteworthy, however, that Thoreau 'thought of this direct personal act of disobedience as essentially revolutionary, as an act cut from the same pattern and in the same spirit as the American Revolution. As he thought of it, the principle of civil disobedience was to serve neither the cause of anarchy or reform. Resting it on the right of individuals to refuse allegiance to and to resist governments, Thoreau believed the principle of civil disobedience was essentially revolutionary and in the revolutionary tradition of 1775. To be sure, Thoreau begins the essay with the famous statement that the best government "governs not at all." He reinforced the impression of his anarchism when he declared that governments did not concern him much. The individual has no duty to make governments better or even to eradicate the worst injustice, though he confesses that no one should follow private pursuits at the expense of others or on another's shoulders. On the surface, that seems as far as Thoreau is willing to go. Yet he did go farther in the Week in criticizing the textile industry in New Hampshire, and in Walden he excoriated America's consumerism and materialism. In "Slavery in Massachusetts" and in 'A Plea for Captain John Brown," he approved the use of violence in the cause of abolition. So also in "Civil Disobedience," for all his disclaimers, he proposed a principle for dealing with social evil and effecting social change.

Without becoming what he called "a no-government man," Thoreau expressed in this essay the conviction that conscience and the moral sense resides not in institutions but in individuals and that change in governments comes about when the individual person acts on the basis of conscience. Social change is brought about when the individual directly confronts the state and performs the right. Nor is it important that this action from principle be a part of a reform program or that it be a grand gesture. Taking his own case, he said that he met the American government "face to face" each year in the person of Sam Staples, his neighbor and the tax collector, and that the simplest way of dealing with his grievance with the state was not to pay his poll tax. He did pay the highway tax and supported schooling "after his own fashion." In spite of his quiet declaration of war on the state, he acknowledged the "use" and "advantage" the state might bring, though he makes plain that the state is never an end in itself. Ye t the pilgrim's journey, as Thoreau writes near the conclusion of the essay, indicates a higher destiny where truth is undefiled and where there exists "a more perfect and glorious State," and from his journeying there Thoreau refused to be deflected.

Further Reading

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. A standard biography giving a detailed account of Thoreau's life.

Hick, John, editor. Thoreau in Our Season. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1966. An valuable collection of essays emphasizing the political character of Thoreau's thought.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. Henry David Thoreau. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1948. An admiring biography and a good introduction to Thoreau's thought, with frequent quotation from Thoreau's writing.

Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America. Thoreau's Inward Exploration. Urbana, Ill.: University of illinois Press, 1958. An examination of Thoreau's intellectual development with an emphasis on the relation of Thoreau's life and writing.

____, ed. Thoreau: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Previously published essays giving a wide sampling of views on Thoreau and his writing.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man?. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Valuable among other things for its exploration of the religious themes in Thoreau's writing.

Wolf, William J. Thoreau: Mystic, Prophet, Ecologist. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1974. A look at Thoreau's religious attitudes and their relation to his ecological concerns.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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