Henry David Thoreau Essay - Critical Essays

Joseph Wood Krutch


Krutch’s study, although not written for young adults, remains one of the most cogent interpretations of Thoreau’s life and work. Dealing with his subject holistically, he avoids the technicality and tedium of the overintellectualized studies that philosophers and thinkers so often invite. Thoreau emerges as an imperfect—that is, human—philosopher of life, striving with better success than most to reconcile the physical, mental, and spiritual impulses common to all people. Thus, although he briefly falls prey to sexuality while professing a higher calling, engages in polite society while theoretically disdaining it, and actively involves himself in abolitionism despite his contempt for movements, Thoreau’s impulse is always to regard the individual will as the thing most needing reform.

For Krutch, Thoreau’s reputation rests largely upon his individualism, rather than upon the Transcendentalism by which he is more frequently identified. Like Emerson, Thoreau preached one’s responsibility for self, but unlike his mentor he argued that specific actions alone could validate the inner commitment. Thus, his life on Walden Pond became notable for its demonstration of a willingness to act according to the conventions of society. It did not matter that life there was less hazardous, according to Krutch, than a weekend camping trip. If all people would seize even the small initiative of living more simply in some way—and Thoreau had shown a way in which it could be done—then no movements or government assistance would be necessary to bring...

(The entire section is 639 words.)