Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2039
Article abstract: As essayist, naturalist, social critic, and editor, Thoreau has come to be recognized as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement.
David Henry Thoreau, who, characteristically, chose to reverse the order of his first and middle names, was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Though he traveled widely in his imagination, he spent most of his forty-four years in that remarkable New England town. His mother, née Cynthia Dunbar, was a forceful, socially conscious woman of Scottish ancestry. His father, John Thoreau, came of French Huguenot stock; a reticent man, he was not very successful in business until he became a pioneer manufacturer of lead pencils. Henry was very close to his older brother John, whose death in 1842 affected him deeply. His sister Helen died in 1849, but his other sister, Sophia, survived him to serve as the guardian of his reputation.
After his graduation from Harvard, Thoreau taught briefly in a Concord school, but he resigned rather than be required to flog his pupils. From 1838 to 1841, he ran his own, relatively progressive, school in Concord, teaching Latin, Greek, and science. He spent 1843 in Staten Island, as a tutor in the household of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother William. He also worked at various times as a house painter, carpenter, mason, surveyor, and pencil maker. During the years he lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife, Thoreau served as a kind of handyman. He also helped Emerson edit the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial.
Thoreau gave his first public lecture in the Concord Lyceum in 1838, and he continued intermittently as a lecturer for the remainder of his life. He was uncompromising toward his audience, particularly on the subject of slavery, and the reaction to his presentations was mixed. At Emerson’s instigation, Thoreau began to keep a journal, which, published posthumously, serves as a valuable source for his experiences, observations, and reflections.
At five foot seven, he was slightly taller than average for his time, with longish hair and a prominent nose. He was striking, though not especially handsome, in appearance, and he made no effort to dress stylishly. Thoreau’s only proposal of marriage, to a seventeen-year-old woman in 1840, was rejected, and he recoiled in horror from another woman’s offer to him. He died, an equable bachelor, of the tuberculosis that first struck him in 1836 and that afflicted several members of his family.
From August 31 to September 13, 1839, during a break from their school, Thoreau and his brother John traveled by canoe along the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Over the course of a decade, Thoreau transformed their experiences into A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), one of only two Thoreau books published during his lifetime. A short work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers reshapes a fourteen-day excursion into a Saturday-Friday rhythm. In addition to recording the flora, fauna, and people that Thoreau encountered along the way, the book is a miscellany of poems and essays on a variety of topics, including friendship, local history, fishing, Christianity, Oriental religion, quackery, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Thoreau published one thousand copies of the work at his own expense, and he noted in his journal that 706 of them remained unsold in his attic.
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a cabin which he had built on land belonging to Emerson, along the shores of Walden Pond, two miles from Concord. He lived there, alone, for more than two years, until September 6, 1847, but in his account of his stay, the experience is translated into the natural cycle of a single year. Because of the indifferent response to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau did not rush into print with his second book. Instead, between 1846, when he first began writing it, and 1854, when he finally published it, Thoreau reshaped his material through journal entries, essays, poems, lectures, and more than half a dozen successive manuscript drafts. The result, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), is Thoreau’s supreme achievement and one of the most accomplished works in American literature. Written in a baroque, epigrammatic style, Walden is not simply the record of one man’s eccentric sojourn in a sylvan setting; it is an allegory of the deliberate life, a crafty provocation to its readers to awaken from the torpor and the quiet desperation of their lives. Thoreau describes his solitary existence beside Walden Pond as an experiment, and so, too, is his prose reenactment.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Thoreau is intent on clearing his life of the unnecessary encumbrances that materialism and a lack of self-reliance encourage. His book, which concludes with the exuberance of spring revivifying the pond, would have readers undergo a similar process of purifying enlightenment. Walden demands a careful reader, one alert enough not to dismiss it as a naïve effusion over nature, one sensitive to its author’s extravagant, incendiary wit compounded of puns, paradoxes, and hyperboles.
In July, 1846, Thoreau spent one night in the Concord jail because of his refusal to pay a local poll tax. In a lecture first delivered in January, 1848, he explained his actions as a refusal to collaborate in the injustices of a government whose conduct of the Mexican War and whose perpetuation of the institution of slavery he stubbornly opposed. First published under the title “Resistance to Civil Government,” the essay into which it evolved is best known as “Civil Disobedience” and is Thoreau’s best-known essay. It proclaims the primacy of the individual and insists that if governmental policy cannot pass the muster of conscience, it ought to be resisted.
In 1857, Thoreau met abolitionist John Brown and was enormously impressed. He had earlier lectured in opposition to slavery, but Brown’s arrest, following his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to incite a slave insurrection, inspired Thoreau to write his impassioned “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Though Thoreau’s strenuous defense of Brown’s actions did not save Brown from execution, the essay was probably the most widely read Thoreau work during his lifetime. “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which he had written in 1854, calls for the state to secede from the nation and the individual from the state rather than acquiesce in an oppressive system. Published in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, “Slavery in Massachusetts” also had a relatively large readership.
Though he was more closely tied to Concord than were any of its other major authors, Thoreau undertook a few brief excursions elsewhere—to Maine, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, Quebec, and Minnesota. These trips provided material for several works that were not published in their entireties until after his death. Cape Cod (1865), for example, is a cheerful report on the environment and the local lore of what was then an exotic region. The Maine Woods (1864) is a fairly straightforward and perceptive description of the people, plants, and animals in the northeastern frontier of the United States. Thoreau’s final excursion came on May 6, 1862, in the family home in Concord; according to his sister Sophia, his last sentence was: “Now comes good sailing.”
Thoreau was a friend of several of the most important New England authors of the mid-nineteenth century, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott. He was not widely known outside the Concord circle, however, and within it he was generally condescended to as someone who had never accomplished anything beyond a local interest. Both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden were out of print by the time of his final illness. Yet those two books were reprinted within weeks of his death, and five volumes of Thoreau’s unpublished writings were brought out during the early 1860’s. His reputation began to expand, first as a nature writer. Despite his crusty insistence, in Walden and in the pugnacious essay “Life Without Principle,” that he refused to be exemplary of anything but fierce independence, he even attracted disciples.
Late in the nineteenth century, Thoreau attracted the admiration of British critics, particularly Laborites, as a social critic. Early in the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi was so impressed by “Civil Disobedience” that he published it as a pamphlet. Gandhi credited Thoreau’s ideas on nonviolent resistance to illegitimate authority as being a principal inspiration behind the movement for Indian independence. In the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fervent champion of Thoreau’s political ideas. “Civil Disobedience” has continued to be invoked not only by opponents of racism but also by those objecting to nuclear armaments and nuclear power. More than one protestor has spent more than one night in jail, convinced that he or she was a genuine Thoreauvian.
The ascendancy of Thoreau’s literary reputation was more gradual, but, with more than two hundred editions of Walden in existence and his face on a postage stamp, the recluse of Walden Pond is now one of the foremost celebrities of American literature, as widely studied, read, and respected as any other author of his time. He has even eclipsed his Transcendentalist mentor Emerson in popularity. Walden is acknowledged as Thoreau’s masterpiece, and it is read not as a series of naïve nature descriptions but as a complex and sophisticated literary performance. The delights of its dazzling style have drawn attention to the craftsmanship of many of his other writings.
Despite Thoreau’s posthumous apotheosis as master of observation, of political principles, and of the English language, he remains a difficult writer. His rich prose is elusively allusive and often deliberately abrasive. Those who would keep pace with the brisk movement of his prickly mind are those who have learned, and earned, the serenity of self-reliance.
Glick, Wendell, ed. The Recognition of Henry David Thoreau: Selected Criticism Since 1848. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969. An anthology of historical commentaries documenting the growth in Thoreau’s reputation—from obscurity and condescension to veneration.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. The standard full-scale biography by the most respected specialist in the field.
Harding, Walter, ed. Thoreau: Man of Concord. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960. A compilation of recollections of Thoreau by dozens of his contemporaries, it provides testimony to the life within its nineteenth century contexts.
Lebeaux, Richard. Thoreau’s Seasons. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. An application of psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of personality development to Thoreau’s life from his Walden Pond experiment until his death.
Matthiessen, Francis O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. With extensive chapters on each of its major figures, this is the pioneering study of the Transcendentalist movement, the one that set the agenda for future studies of the period.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. A recent biography, concentrating on Thoreau’s intellectual development from age twenty until his death.
Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of Walden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. A fascinating analysis of the stages in the composition of Thoreau’s most celebrated work; it demonstrates that, far from a spontaneous record of actual experiences, Walden was in fact a carefully contrived work of art.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man? Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. A brief, literate overview of the life and its major themes. Wagenknecht proceeds topically rather than chronologically.