Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
As Sterling North’s Thoreau of Walden Pond reveals, the stoic New Englander Henry David Thoreau was truly unique, both as a philosopher in his age and as a historical figure in modern times. The true measure of Thoreau’s success is seen through the considerable influence that he has had on scores of American scholars and leaders, from poet Walt Whitman to civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. To that end, North liberally incorporates into the biography Thoreau’s own lively and vivid prose, primarily from Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854) but also from such lesser-known but equally valuable works as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and The Maine Woods (1864). This technique gives young readers a personal view of Thoreau’s philosophy and encourages them to delve into the author’s original works. Without such lively and stimulating prose examples, it would perhaps be difficult to justify a biography on an individual who, at least according to modern standards, accomplished little in his life. North shows through Thoreau’s prose, however, that Thoreau actually was living according to his (and all of humankind’s) true nature, which gives “a sense of peace and well-being.”
Thoreau lived in one of American history’s most intellectual communities: nineteenth century Concord, Massachusetts. He was friends with many of the authors and philosophers associated with the movement called...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Born on July 12, 1817, Thoreau lived in one of the most intellectual communities of any era in American history, mid-nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts. He was friends with many of the authors and philosophers associated with the movement called New England transcendentalism, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Charming, and Margaret Fuller.
Emerson, Thoreau's friend and mentor, is considered the father of New England transcendentalism, which championed nature over the city, the individual over the masses, and intuition over reason. Although Thoreau's literary philosophy is distinctly his own, it reflects the ideas of the transcendentalists. North emphasizes the influence of nature on Thoreau, describing the beauty and splendor of the region surrounding Concord, specifically Walden Pond. North also provides vivid descriptions of the Maine wilderness, where Thoreau developed into an ardent naturalist and conservationist.
(The entire section is 133 words.)
Perhaps the greatest literary value of Thoreau of Walden Pond is that it covers Thoreau's entire life. The biography does not concentrate on the circumstances surrounding the composition of Thoreau's greatest work, Walden, but instead devotes considerable space to Thoreau's journey up the Concord and Merrimack rivers, his Harvard education, and his journeys to the Maine wilderness toward the end of his relatively short life. Such an overview of Thoreau's life is vital to an understanding of his work, for Thoreau's personal beliefs and experiences have a particularly profound effect on his writing.
In Thoreau of Walden Pond, North incorporates lively, crisp prose and succinct paragraphs that make even relatively complex ideas or situations easy to grasp. To further liven the narrative, North makes frequent use of quotations from Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Thoreau's fascinating journals.
The life and works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's friend, occasional employer, and frequent philosophical model, play an important part in North's biography. From the prefatory poem to the excerpt from the transcendentalist's great funeral oration for his friend, simply entitled Thoreau," the biography takes great pains to depict the influence that Emerson has on Thoreau.
(The entire section is 198 words.)
A few of North's remarks in the book seem directed exclusively to young males, but this does not occur so frequently that readers of both sexes cannot relate to Thoreau's life and philosophy. Thoreau was a man of great conscience who was deeply concerned with the ills that plagued the society of his day, and North objectively and thoroughly recounts his subject's responses to social problems, particularly Thoreau's involvement in the abolitionist movement. North portrays Thoreau's love of solitude not so much as antisocial behavior but as evidence of his strong bond with the natural world. Overall, readers should find a positive example in Thoreau's strong principles and abiding respect for the worth of the individual.
(The entire section is 116 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Why do you think that Thoreau is considered not merely a great American writer, but also a great American?
2. Describe Thoreau's personality. Is he an outcast? An introvert? Antisocial? How does Thoreau's personality match his ideas concerning humankind's relationship with nature?
3. Is Thoreau wrong in not paying the poll tax? Is such "civil disobedience" justified and perhaps even necessary in certain situations? Explain. Can you think of any individuals in more recent history who have taken similar stances against what they felt was the infringement of government on their personal lives?
4. Why does Thoreau "abandon" civilization for almost two years and live at Walden Pond? What does he learn from the experience? What does he propose in Walden concerning nature? Economy? Materialism? Individualism?
5. Thoreau's attitude toward the killing of wild animals is unique for his time. Why does he object to such activity? Does Thoreau believe that there are situations in which hunting is justified? Explain.
(The entire section is 156 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What was Thoreau's philosophy toward humankind's interaction with nature? Was nature a resource to be used to benefit humankind or was it something to be left alone, spared of all human intervention?
2. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a short philosophical book entitled Nature. Emerson and Thoreau shared many similar ideas concerning human interaction with nature. What examples of Emersonian philosophy as depicted in Nature can you find in Thoreau's own life?
3. Prepare a short biography on one or two of Thoreau's Concord friends, such as Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. How did they differ from Thoreau in their attitudes and way of life? How were they similar?
4. Thoreau wrote poetry as well as prose. Select a few of his poems, decide on the main idea in each, and find similar ideas in Walden or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Suggested poems: "My Prayer," "The Inward Morning," "The Summer Rain," "Inspiration," and "The Fall of the Leaf."
5. Read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and compare King's and Thoreau's ideas on civil disobedience.
(The entire section is 180 words.)
For Further Reference
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965. Harding's biography remains the most accurate and representative treatment of Thoreau.
Harding, Walter, ed. Thoreau: Man of Concord. New York: Holt, Rinehartand Winston, 1962. Harding has compiled a selection of assessments of Thoreau by his Concord contemporaries. An excellent source for a good picture of this enigmatic individual.
Thoreau, Henry D. The Illustrated Wdlden. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973. This edition of Thoreau's greatest work contains photographs by Herbert Wendell Gleason, a nineteenth-century photographer who journeyed to Walden Pond and Concord a few short decades after Thoreau lived there. His photographic journal, reproduced in the pages of this popular edition, gives the student a wonderful pictorial view of Walden as Thoreau might have seen it.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Edited by Carl Bove, et al. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. A marvelously reproduced facsimile of the original edition.
(The entire section is 156 words.)