The Essays of Henry David Thoreau

by Henry David Thoreau

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1797

First published: From 1842 to after Thoreau's death

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Critical Evaluation:

To the nonspecialist Thoreau's significant works could be numbered on the fingers of both hands. Of these undoubtedly the first to come to mind would be WALDEN, his most famous book, and perhaps A WEEK ON THE CONCORD AND MERIMACK RIVERS. But almost as famous and perhaps even more influential have been several of his essays, which were written on various occasions for different purposes, and generally on rather widely ranging subjects. More than his two famous books, his essays vary in quality from the nearly banal to the profound, from the useless to the useful. To the reader genuinely interested in the life and writings of one of America's greatest and most influential writers—as well as perhaps our most outstanding true Transcendentalist—all his works are fascinating. But since many do concern closely related subjects and treat these topics in a similar manner, a selection of the works can give the heart of the essays.

Thoreau's earliest essay, possibly, is one named "The Seasons," written when he was only eleven or twelve years old. As would be expected, it is of importance only to the close specialist. There are also in existence at least twenty-eight essays and four book reviews that Thoreau wrote while a student at Harvard. These, too, are of greater interest to the student interested in the young Harvardian than to the readers looking for the Thoreau of mature ideas and style.

His first published essay was "Natural History of Massachusetts," printed in 1842. This work does more than promise the later man. It is, in fact, the mature thinker and observer already arrived. Drawn chiefly from entries in his journals, which he had begun to keep after graduation from Harvard in 1837, it reveals his characteristics of Transcendentalism and his keen eye for observation, an eye that was to make him acclaimed by many people as one of America's best early scientists. It reveals Thoreau's pleasure in viewing the world around him and his detachment from the world of men. He believes, for example, that one does not find health in society but in the world of nature. To live and prosper, a person must stand with feet firmly planted in nature. He believes, also, that society is corrupting, is inadequate for man's spiritual needs; when considered as members of a society, especially a political organization, men are "degraded." As a scientist, Thoreau catalogues many aspects of natural phenomena in Massachusetts; he notes, for example, that 280 birds live permanently in that state or summer there or visit it passingly.

Among Thoreau's best essays is another reasonably early one, "A Winter Walk," published in 1843, the material of which was taken mainly from his journal for 1841. As was generally the case with Thoreau, this essay is lyrical and ecstatic, the lyricism being augmented by the inclusion of various bits of Thoreau's own poetry. Thematically the essay is strung on a long walk on a winter's day and the observations and meditations of the author as he progresses. Both his observations and meditations are mature, virtually as vivid and sound as those given in the later WALDEN. His reactions to the physical walk are immediate and sharply detailed. He likes to walk through the "powdery snow," and he feels that man should live closer to nature in order to appreciate life fully. In a Wordsworthian-pantheistic point of view, he feels that plants and animals and men, if they would conform, find in nature only a "constant nurse and friend."

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Thoreau's most famous essay is "Resistance to Civil Government," published in 1849 and renamed, after Thoreau's death, "Civil Disobedience," the title by which it is known today. As is often the case, this essay grew directly from an experience by the author, this time Thoreau's one-night imprisonment for nonpayment of his taxes, taxes which he claimed would go to finance the Mexican War and were therefore, in his mind, immoral. The influence of this essay has been profound and far-reaching and long-lasting. It served Gandhi as a guidebook in his campaign to free India from British rule; it also served the British Labour party in England during its early days; it offered model and hope for the European resistance against Nazi Germany, and it has aided, more recently, the struggle for civil rights by Negroes in the South.

The essay is a bristling and defiant reaffirmation of the individualism of man, of his moral obligation to restate his individualism and to act on it. Government, any government, is at best an expediency. Thoreau heartily accepts the precept "That government is best which governs least," a thesis which logically leads to the conclusion that "That government is best which governs not at all." Government, however, still exists, but it is not unchangeable: "A single man can bend it to his will." Government, in Thoreau's eyes, was far from pure and beneficent. He felt that he could not have as his government those institutions which enslaved certain races and colors. Therefore he felt compelled to resist his government. He felt that ten men—even one—could abolish slavery in America if they would allow themselves to go to prison for their belief and practice. Men of good will must unite. Every good man must constitute a majority of one to resist tyranny and evil. Democracy may not be the ultimate in systems of government, he concludes, in a ringing statement of man's political position: "There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."

One of Thoreau's notable essays is "A Plea for Captain John Brown," published in 1860, one of three on the same person, the other two being "After the Death of John Brown," delivered at the Concord memorial services for Brown, held the day the raider of Harpers Ferry was hanged, and "The Last Days of John Brown," written for a memorial service on July 4, 1860. The earliest essay of the three justifies the actions of Brown because generally he tried to put Thoreau's convictions into action.

"Walking," published in 1862, was taken from his journal written some ten years earlier and used as material for lectures in the early 1850's. It is an enthusiastic reaction to the joys of walking, "for absolute freedom and wildness," in which Thoreau in effect boasts that the course of progress is always westward, drawn probably from the mere fact, as has been pointed out, that around Concord the best walking country was to the southwest. Extremely lyrical, the essay sometimes surfaces into sheer nonsense, as in the statement, for example, that "Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all other mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past." Such comments caused a more deeply dedicated thinker, Herman Melville, to react with great scorn and frequently to satirize Thoreau's easy optimism.

"Life Without Principle," published more than a year after Thoreau's death in 1863, was likewise drawn from the journals during the author's most powerful decade, in the early 1850's. Delivered in 1854 as "Getting a Living," it is a ringing statement on the dignity and real worth of the individual, of the man. It is the voice of the self-reliant man calling all individuals to the assertion of their self-reliance so that they can live like men and live fully. Thoreau feels that most men misspend their lives, especially those who are concerned merely with getting money: "The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse." To be born wealthy is disastrous, as he says in one of his pithy statements, is rather "to be stillborn." The wise man cannot be tempted by money. He must be free, as Thoreau was convinced, feeling that his "connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient."

The world must be composed of individuals and must live not for the moment but for eternity. "Read not the Times. Read the Eternities." America must reform. "Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant." In other ways America has not lived up to her potential. She is not the land of the free. "What is it to be free from King George and continue to be the slaves of King Prejudice? What is it to be born free and not to live free?" The everyday affairs of life, politics, and routine, are necessary aspects of life to be sure, but they should be "unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body" so that the mind—the better parts of men—can rise to the greater and nobler aspects of living so that they will not discover at death that life has been wasted.

This essay is Thoreau at his best. He is characteristically the Transcendentalist, the individualist, voicing his opinion without reserve, pithily and most tellingly. Thoreau was perhaps more than other nineteenth century American writers circumscribed in his subjects for writing. Therefore his essays are repetitious. He liked to brag that he was widely traveled in Concord. But, though perhaps narrow in breadth, Thoreau's writings are shafts reaching to the essence of man's being. And a half dozen essays represent him truthfully and succinctly.


  • Cain, William E. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Dolis, John. Tracking Thoreau: Double-Crossing Nature and Technology. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
  • Hahn, Stephen. On Thoreau. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000.
  • Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
  • Harding, Walter, and Michael Meyer. The New Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
  • Howarth, William. The Book of Concord: Thoreau's Life as a Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
  • Maynard, W. Barksdale. Walden Pond: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Myerson, Joel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Porte, Joel. Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Salt, Henry S. Life of Henry David Thoreau. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.
  • Schneider, Richard J., ed. Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
  • Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

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Critical Essays