Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Thoreau is a major figure in the American Transcendental movement and in what F. O. Matthiessen calls the American Renaissance of the 1840’s and 1850’s, when American literature came of age. Undogmatic and unsystematic, Transcendentalism was in part a heritage from Puritanism but in larger part a rebellion against it. Its American leader was Emerson, who resigned from his Unitarian ministry because even it was too dogmatic for him.

Transcendentalism rejected organized religion, biblical authority, and the concept of Original Sin in favor of pantheism and a belief in the daily rebirth of God in the individual soul. An eclectic faith rather than a systematic philosophy, it derived in part from platonic idealism, German mysticism, French utopianism, and the Hindu scriptures. Part of the Romantic movement’s reaction against the Age of Reason, it stressed the instinct rather than the intellect. As Thoreau wrote, “We do not learn by inference and deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy.”

At first Emerson’s disciple, Thoreau soon he became his own man. Emerson complained that Thoreau had no new ideas: “I am very familiar with all his thoughts,” Emerson wrote, “they are my own quite originally drest.” Formulating new ideas did not interest Thoreau. Emerson wrote largely in abstractions, but Thoreau did not care for abstract ideas and theorizing, stating, “Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth.” His friend Ellery Channing said that “metaphysics was his aversion.” Thus F. O. Matthiessen observes that “Thoreau does not disappear into the usual transcendental vapour.”

Thoreau had to test his ideas by living them and then communicating his experiences instead of declaiming abstractions. “How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed time of character?” he asked. His actions were not entirely original; Bronson Alcott had earlier refused to pay his poll tax, and Stearns Wheeler had lived in a shanty on Flint’s Pond, but they did not write about these experiences in the pithy way Thoreau did, nor did they offer his profound criticism of materialism, which prevented people from realizing their own potential. Thoreau insisted that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” and will thus transcend his lower self and his society. Doing so requires what Emerson called self-reliance, which Thoreau exemplified in his own life, writing that “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Thoreau is the United States’ first and best major writer on nature as well as one of its most trenchant social critics. His vivid, pithy prose is ultimately richer than Emerson’s abstractions, and although his verse is usually second-rate, his prose poetry has made him one of the great artists of American literature.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

First published: 1849

Type of work: Essay

The contemplation of nature reveals the unity of nature and humankind and provides a health not found in diseased society.

Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is the account of a two-week boat and hiking trip he made with his brother John in 1839. Shortly thereafter, Thoreau sold the boat to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thoreau worked on the manuscript for ten years, intending it, after John’s death in 1842, to be a tribute to him. Thoreau wrote most of the work while living at Walden (writing it was part of the “private business” he planned to transact there) but continued revising it for two more years.

Despite its being promoted by Emerson, publishers would not print it unless the author underwrote the cost. James Munroe & Co. printed a...

(The entire section is 3,638 words.)