Henry David Thoreau Critical Essays

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 thousand copies but bound only 450. Despite generally favorable reviews at home and in England, the book did not sell, and Thoreau, stuck with the unsold copies, lamented in 1853, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” A second edition came out posthumously in 1867, with additions and corrections, and the book has remained in print ever since.

In part, the work is an elegy to Thoreau’s brother, who, in the elegiac tradition, is never named. Following an introductory essay, there are seven chapters—one for claiming each day of the week. About 40 percent consists of travel narrative; the rest is a combination of essays, poems, anecdotes, quotations, translations, philosophical observations on life and nature, and numerous digressions. James Russell Lowell complained that so little of it is about the trip itself, noting, “We were bid to a river party—not to be preached at.”

Carl Bode somewhat agrees with Lowell, noting that “[t]he scholar is much more apparent than the traveler, for the original narrative has been weighted down with learned allusions and quotations.” While the book does contain many of Thoreau’s philosophical musings, however, it is by no means all preaching. Thoreau celebrates the sounds and silences, the light and shadows, of the natural world. Drifting along in their boat, he and his brother find a freedom like that of Huckleberry Finn on his raft. There are word paintings of the river and the landscape through which it flows that make it a verbal correspondence to some of the landscape paintings of the time. Thoreau celebrates the variety and vitality of nature and wildlife, “such healthy natural tumult as proves the last day is not yet at hand.”

He presents part of what he calls “The Natural History of Massachusetts” in his picture of river birds, fish and fishermen, trees and wildflowers. As Robert Frost would later, Thoreau often details a scene of nature and then draws a moral or philosophical reflection from it. A neo-Platonist, he sometimes sees “objects as through a thin haze, in their eternal relations,” wondering “who set them up, and for what purpose.” At times, “he becomes immortal with her [nature’s] immortality.” Yet he also has a Darwinian awareness of the suffering in nature, the tragic end of creatures of the wild. Sometimes he recounts historical vignettes called to mind by passing locations. The book lacks the unity of Walden but anticipates it in many of Thoreau’s concerns—a mystical relationship with nature and the life spirit, a love for wildness in nature and independence in people, and the belief that people can redirect their lives in simpler and more fulfilling ways.


First published: 1854

Type of work: Essay

By living alone in the woods, Thoreau set an example of how to simplify and enrich one’s life.

In 1845, when he was twenty-seven years old, Thoreau built a one-room cabin on Emerson’s land in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, less than two miles from Concord. He borrowed an axe, bought the boards from an Irish railroad worker’s shanty, and erected a ten-by-fifteen-foot building. He moved into his new abode on the symbolic date of Independence Day.

There he lived austerely, growing beans and doing odd jobs, living on a simple diet, and spending less than nine dollars for food during the first eight months. His plan was to simplify his life, to “live free and uncommitted,” working about six weeks a year in order to have the remaining forty-six weeks free to read, write, live in intimate relationship to nature, “affect the quality of the day,” and demonstrate the Transcendental belief in “the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” He summed up his experiment by writing: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 . . . 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.

Feeling that most people live hurried, complicated “lives of quiet desperation,” “frittered away by detail,” he urged them to simplify. Citing the case of an Indian craftsman whose baskets people would no longer buy, Thoreau set an example for poor...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)