Henry David Thoreau was a complex man of many talents who worked hard to shape his craft and his life, seeing little difference between them. Born in 1817, one of his first memories was of staying awake at night “looking through the stars to see if I could see God behind them.” One might say he never stopped looking into nature for ultimate Truth.
Thoreau is sometimes cited as an individualist anarchist as well as an inspiration to anarchists. Though Civil Disobedience calls for improving rather than abolishing government — “I ask for, not at
once no government, but at once a better government” — the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: “‘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.”
Henry read a small book by his Concord neighbor in his childhood, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, and in a sense he never finished exploring its ideas — although always definitely on his own terms, just as he explored everything!
He worked for several years as a surveyor and making pencils with his father, but at the age of 28 in 1845, wanting to write his first book, he went to Walden pond and built his cabin on land owned by Emerson.
Thoreau did an incredible amount of reading and writing at Walden, yet he also spent much time “sauntering” in nature. He gave a lecture and was imprisoned briefly for not paying his poll tax, but mostly he wrote a book as a memorial to a river trip he had taken with his brother, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
After two years (and two months), Thoreau returned to Concord — a bare two miles away which he had visited frequently during his stay at the pond, having completed his experiment in living and his book. Unfortunately, few people were interested in purchasing his book, so he spent the next nine years, surveying and making pencils at times but primarily writing and rewriting (creating seven full drafts) Walden before trying to publish it. He supported himself by surveying and making a few lectures, often on his experience at Walden pond.
He traveled often, to the Maine woods and to Cape Cod several times, and was particularly interested in the frontier and Indians. He opposed the government for waging the Mexican war (to extend slavery) eloquently in Resistance to Civil Government, based on his brief experience in jail; he lectured against slavery in an abolitionist lecture, Slavery in Massachusetts. He even supported John Brown’s efforts to end slavery after meeting him in Concord, as in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 44. His last words were said to be “Moose” and “Indian.” Not only did he leave his two books and numerous essays, but he also left a huge Journal , published later in 20 volumes, which may have been his major work-in-progress. Many memorials were penned by his friends, including Emerson’s eulogy and Louisa May Alcott’s poem, “Thoreau’s Flute.”
Over the years, Thoreau’s reputation has been strong, although he is often cast into roles — the hermit in the wilderness, the prophet of passive resistance (so dear to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King) — that he would have surely seen as somewhat alien. His work is so rich, and so full of the complex contradictions that he explored, that his readers keep reshaping his image to fit their own needs. Perhaps he would have
appreciated that, for he seems to have wanted most to use words to force his readers to rethink their own lives creatively, different though they may be, even as he spent his life rethinking his, always asking questions, always looking to nature for greater intensity and meaning for his life.
Links and References :
- The Life and Times of Henry D. Thoreau by Elizabeth Witherell, with Elizabeth Dubrulle
- Profile of Henry Thoreau by Thomas Hampson
- Introduction to Thoreau by Bradley Dean
- Henry David Thoreau. Wendell Glick, from the Heath Anthology Site.
- Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend by Edward Emerson
- Three Thoreaus by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Louis Stevenson & John Burroughs
- Nathaniel Hawthorne on Thoreau
Major Thoreau Sites and other sites
- Thoreau Institute Site Extensive materials on Thoreau’s Life and Writings.
- The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. This valuable resource includes the Online Journal Transcript. . See also the Princeton Editon Archives at the Thoreau Institute .
- The Writings of Thoreau On-line
- Print your own Walden. [WORD format, 276 pages]
- Thoreau, Walden, and the Environment (The Thoreau Institute) Most of Thoreau’s writings are here
- Selected Poems.
- Walden Web Study Text.
- Walking See also the Web Study Text [Meg Brulatour]
- On Resistance to Civil Government. See also the Web Study Text. [Jessica Gordon and Ann Woodlief]
- “Ktaadn” passage from The Maine Woods [Web Study Text]
- The Thoreau Reader. [Richard Lenat]
- Analysis and Notes on Walden.[the late Ken Kifer]
- Henry David Thoreau: A Guide to Resources. Excellent links [Jone Johnson Lewis]
- Thoreau’s Lecturing Activities
- Resources for the Study of Henry David Thoreau. Bibliography of biographies and bibliographies.
- “Man Thinking About Nature: The Evolution of the Poet’s Form and Function in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau 1837-1852”, Honors thesis by S. H. Bagley
- Bibliography of Selected Literary Criticism on Thoreau
- Bibliography of Selected Literary Criticism on Walden
- Introduction to the structure of Walden. A 15-minute audio file by Ann Woodlief, VCU. (Requires Real Player)