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.”
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...
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