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Portrait of H.D. Thoreau
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HENRY DAVID THOREAU
(1817-1862)


"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."
With these words Henry David Thoreau declared the purpose of his Walden experiment, the two years he spent in the Concord woods testing his belief in the ability of man to transcend his senses and attain a higher understanding of life. By the shores of Walden Pond where Thoreau lived from the land, he meditated, wrote poetry, and developed a philosophy of pacifism and a reverence for all living things that profoundly influenced 19th and 20th century thought.

Thoreau's cabin
A rendering of Thoreau's cabin as it stood by Walden Pond from 1845-1847.
Concord-born poet, philosopher, naturalist, essayist and educator, Thoreau represents one of the most authentic and individualist voices in all American thought. "No truer American ever lived," wrote Emerson of his friend. Thoreau was graduated from Harvard in 1837 and returned to his hometown in search of an occupation. Befriended by Emerson, who appreciated his purity and originality of thought and deed, Thoreau gave his first lecture before the Concord Lyceum in 1838, embarked with his brother John in 1839 on his first fluvial excursion along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, gathering material for his later book, and published poetry and essayis in THE DIAL in 1840-1842.

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Thomas Hampson on Thoreau's work
In the same period Thoreau also launched his career as a teacher. He began a brief tenure at Concord's elementary school before he resigned his post after refusing to administer corporal punishment to his students. Rebelling against the repressive educational system, he and his brother John founded their own academy in 1838, where they taught not only classical literature and languages, but also mathematics, physics, natural science, and natural philosophy. Like Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, Thoreau preferred to teach by conversation, and he also stressed exploratory field trips. John's weakening health forced the brothers to close the school in 1841. Thoreau spent the subsequent year as a handyman, friend and protector to Lidian Emerson while her husband traveled abroad. After John's death in 1842 from lock jaw, Thoreau resumed teaching, this time as a tutor to William Emerson's children in Staten Island in 1843.

Go Next Walden Pond

Walden Pond
On Walden Pond in Concord, MA.
In 1845 Thoreau accepted Emerson's invitation to build a cabin on the Emerson property at the northwest end of Walden Pond. On July 4th of that year, friends held a roof-raising for the one-room hut that measured 10 feet by 15 feet. For the next two years, he planted his bean field, chopped his wood, wandered the woods studying the flora and fauna, and received a steady stream of visitors, among them Alcott (who came every Sunday evening), Emerson, and Ellery Channing.

Thoreau also made regular forays from Walden; not only did he walk into town frequently to visit his family or purchase supplies, but he took an extended study trip to the Maine woods in 1846, and he even spent a night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to support what he considered the immoral Spanish-American War. When he left Walden in 1847, it was not because the experiment had failed or because he had tired of the simple life, but rather because, for Thoreau, it had been a completely fulfilling success, and it was now time to move on: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one," he wrote in the conclusion of Walden, which he published in 1854. And, assessing the value of what he had accomplished, added: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; 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 success in uncommon hours."

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Thomas Hampson on Thoreau at Walden Pond
For the remainder of his days, those lives remained rich and varied.
He published with intensified vigor: THE MAINE WOODS in 1848, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE in 1849, A YANKEE IN CANADA in 1853, WALDEN in 1854, CAPE COD in 1855, and a final group of essays in 1861.

Go Next CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

In addition to his ongoing passions and pursuits: boating, hiking, gardening, pencil-making, handiwork, surveying, studying Native American culture, wandering the woods like Pan with his flute, reading, conversing, and lecturing, Thoreau devoted himself increasingly to activist social concerns. The philosophical stance he articulated in CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE--that of passive resistance--was to have far-reaching repercussions on world thought, profoundly influencing both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. From his Walden days, when he offered his cabin as a stop on the Underground Railway, to 1851, when he publically aligned himself with the Anti-Slavery Movement, Thoreau became a passionate advocate for abolition and one of the most outspoken defenders of John Brown.

Charles Ives's song, inspired by a passage in WALDEN
Charles Ives's song, inspired by a passage in WALDEN.
The outbreak of the Civil War, however, found Thoreau's own health failing. He managed one more journey to Minnesota in hopes of finding cleaner air and better health, but he was already enfeebled by the same disease which had claimed his brother. On May 6, 1862 he died of tuberculosis at home in Concord. Bronson Alcott dismissed the schools so that 300 children could join the cortege that laid Henry David Thoreau to rest on Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. One year later the aging Alcott would again spearhead a memorial for Thoreau. Leading a contingent of townsfolk to Walden Pond, they gathered stones from the water and climbed the ridge to the site of Thoreau's cabin, where in ancient tradition, they began a cairn, to which pilgrims from Walt Whitman to the present have continued to contribute.

Go Next Passages From
Thoreau's Writings

PASSAGES FROM HENRY DAVID THOREAU'S WRITINGS

From WALDEN
(1854)

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. To be awake is to be alive. Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. Every man is a builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."

From CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
(1849)

"The government is best that governs least...That government is best which governs not at all--and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward.....The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right. All men recognize the right of revolution; that is the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever."

From A SUCCESSION OF FOREST TREES

"Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed... Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."

From THE JOURNALS

"There comes up with a deafening crash to these rocks, advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushes to embrace the earth, and mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more and forever, both to eye and ear....Why does not the village bell sound a knell?" (DEATH OF A PINE TREE, December 30, 1851)

"My advice to the State is simply this: to dissolve her union with the slaveholder instantly. She can find no respectable law or precedent which sanctions its continuance. And to each inhabitant of Massachusetts, to dissolve his union with the State, as long as she hesitates to do her duty." (SLAVERY IN MASSACHUSETTS, June 18, 1854)

"The Indian's earthly life was as far off from us as heaven is." (LANGUAGE OF INDIANS, March 5, 1858)


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