*Thoreau, Henry David

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau



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Thoreau, Henry David

American, 1817–1862
Henry David Thoreau, best known to modern readers for Walden (1854), was better known to his contemporaries as a political activist and naturalist whose essays were often outgrowths of his public lectures. Modern readers have the advantage of access to his journals, which also shed light on his development as an essayist. The journals, in a wooden box made by Thoreau, are stored in the J.Pierpont Morgan Library, and reveal the seeds of all of his published essays.
The essay was Thoreau’s primary genre. Even Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) include separately composed essays inserted within the narrative. His posthumously published The Maine Woods (1864) and Cape Cod (1865) are likewise essays stitched together to form book-length studies. His early training as an essayist began at Harvard in the rhetoric classes of Edward Tyrrel Channing. Twentythree essays and the text of six speeches submitted to Channing survive, ranging in subject from the joys of wandering in the woods to an attempt at defining moral excellence, subjects that would continue to interest Thoreau.
Three general subjects provide the focus for most of Thoreau’s essays: a scientifically precise examination of nature; the relationship between government and individual citizens; and the joy of traveling, particularly by foot or canoe. There are occasional forays into other areas, such as his appreciative examination of “Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1847), or his matrimonial advice to his friend H.G.O.Blake in “Love” (1865) and “Chastity and Sensuality” (1865). But nature, individual freedom and responsibility, and the joy of perambulation remain his focal points. In the longer works, Thoreau often addresses all three.
Nature provided the subject for his first published essay, “Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842), ostensibly a book review of a study of the flora and fauna of the state. Only the last five paragraphs of the essay actually deal with the study under review, the rest of the essay being Thoreau’s own observations. He includes poetry, describes the Merrimack River, and discusses the best technique for spear-fishing, among other diverse subjects, concluding that the study he is reviewing lacks detail and accuracy.
Thoreau’s fascination with his natural surroundings is reflected in many of his essays dealing primarily with other subjects. Toward the end of his life he returned to examining the woods and wildlife around Concord. “The Succession of Forest Trees” (1860) explains why an oak forest grows up whenever a pine forest is cut down, and that a pine forest will return when the hardwoods are cut. His theories, based on his own observations while wandering around Concord, and contradicting theories of the time, would be proven correct by researchers nearly a century later. He rhapsodizes about the colors of Fall foliage in “Autumnal Tints” (1862), the variations found in “Wild Apples” (1862), and the tranquillity found in “Night and Moonlight” (1863), the last essay left unrevised for publication when Thoreau died. “Autumnal Tints” began as art work. Thoreau intended to trace a leaf from various hardwoods growing around Concord.
He would then paint each tracery with the tints he observed in the Fall. Discovering the process to be slow and tedious, he decided to paint the leaves with words.
Thoreau was also noted by his contemporaries for his speeches and essays concerning the relationship between an individual and the demands of government. The Mexican War and the institution of slavery precipitated “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), often reprinted with the title “Civil Disobedience.” The war ended before the publication of the essay, but Thoreau left in the references to imperialism because, for him, they represent a type of misgoverning that calls for resistance. He recommends disobeying unjust laws, and then drawing attention to the injustice by accepting the punishment.
Honest citizens, seeing someone punished unjustly, would then be motivated to change the laws. Thoreau’s concept of passive resistance to injustice later inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. among other activists.
The issue of slavery precipitated other essays as well. Thoreau argues in “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) that local abolitionists were misguided when they condemned slavery in the South while living in and paying taxes to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where the Fugitive Slave Act was being enforced, returning escaped slaves to their owners. Most controversial, though, are his three essays supporting and defending John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry in an attempt to provide arms and impetus for a slave rebellion. No uprising occurred, and the fighting led to the deaths not only of several of Brown’s followers, but also of U.S. Marines and innocent civilians, including a free Negro living in the town. Many readers have pointed out that Thoreau’s defense of Brown appears to contradict his earlier advocacy of passive resistance.
Thoreau apparently felt no contradiction, arguing that separating slaves from slaveholders through force was a form of self-defense for people unable to protect themselves.
In “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1860), delivered as a speech three times before publication, Thoreau defends Brown as a man living by principle rather than by public opinion. Brown’s unyielding commitment to a personal ideal is apparently the trait that motivated Thoreau’s admiration. He continues that much of the harsh public reaction was the result of hypocritical coverage by the newspapers, which called for an end to slavery but then objected to direct means of achieving that end. The essays “Martyrdom of John Brown” (1860) and “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860) were also aimed at swaying public opinion, the latter essay primarily a eulogy following Brown’s execution.
Thoreau’s final essay, “Life Without Principle” (1863), published posthumously, returns to a less immediate but more enduring vision of how individuals must resist conformity, rejecting conventional wisdom in order to search for truth. He warns that working for money alone will never bring happiness, and advocates following pursuits that are selfimproving, using the gold rushes in California and Australia to illustrate the mindless pursuit of wealth. He attacks his contemporaries’ fascination with news and gossip, suggesting that this compulsion masks an inner vacuum. Thoreau argues that taking an interest in one’s own life eliminates the need to live vicariously through gossip.
His attempt to separate himself from society and find “higher laws” through self- awareness is recounted in Walden, and his final essay quietly demands that others follow this example.
A third area that drew Thoreau’s attention was leisure traveling. For him, travel and sightseeing were synonymous, the goal generally much less significant than the path. His essays “A Walk to Wachusett” (1843), “A Winter Walk” (1843), and “Walking” (1862.) all deal with his favorite means of locomotion and his favorite area, the countryside around Concord. Carefully observed natural details fill the essays. In “Walking” Thoreau notes that thinking about anything other than your immediate surroundings as you walk defeats the purpose of the exercise, adding that a minimum of four hours walking was a daily requirement for his physical and emotional health.
Thoreau’s posthumous longer works describing his travels resulted from editors tying several essays together. The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada (1866) were compiled in this manner. The first two sections of The Maine Woods were published earlier, “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods” in Union Magazine (1848), and “Chesuncook” in the Atlantic Monthly (1858). He was revising “The Allegash and the East Branch” when he died. The three essays describe three separate camping trips into the Maine woods, noting how this area was changing as the woods were cut to provide farmland. Sophia Thoreau, his sister, and Ellery Channing, a close friend, made the decision to combine the two previously published essays with the unfinished essay as a single volume. They made the same decision concerning three related essays dealing with three separate visits to Cape Cod. The first three of the five essays that make up A Yankee in Canada were published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. When the editor, George William Curtis, changed parts of the essays without Thoreau’s consent, the author refused to provide the final two essays.
The travel essays and nature essays combine prose and poetry. Thoreau often quoted Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and other English poets, but more often, the poetry was Thoreau’s own. The political writing, polemical in tone and intent, only occasionally includes verse. Allusions to other works, including Hindu writings and works by his fellow transcendentalists, are frequent. Latin phrases and quotations are generally followed by Thoreau’s translation.
In “Walking” Thoreau attempts to explain the derivation of “sauntering,” suggesting that the word comes either from beggars claiming they needed alms to go to the Holy Land, Sainte Terre, or from sans terre, people who wandered because they were without land. In any case, sauntering is an apt description for the organization of most of Thoreau’s essays. Occasionally he attempts to impose an order on his thoughts. In “A Winter Walk” he divides the essay into sections corresponding to the different parts of the day on which the walk occurred. The second halves of “Wild Apples” and “Autumnal Tints” are divided by types of trees, but no true pattern is imposed throughout these essays. Thoreau liked to allow his thoughts to saunter, and his pen followed behind, recording, adjusting, and adding commentary. This style is a reflection of his journal, where the primary pattern is simply chronological; he recorded his thoughts as they came to him, each thought provoked by an earlier experience or expression, and leading into whichever new direction seemed, at the moment, to be promising. His essays were carefully, and often significantly revised, but this meandering organization usually remained.
In “Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1847) Thoreau laments that too many readers treat Carlyle’s thoughts with such seriousness that they miss his humor. The same might be said for Thoreau’s readers, though the Concord writer’s style is more accessible. With the exception of the John Brown essays, Thoreau’s wry sense of humor permeates his writing, through the use of wordplay, understatement, and mild ironies. In Cape Cod, for example, he notes that stages, in order to cross the sand, had tires five inches wide: “The more tired the wheels, the less tired the horses.” Thoreau describes in The Maine Woods attempting to discover if moose shed their antlers annually. The only antlers he found, though, had “a head attached to them, and I knew they did not shed their heads more than once in their lives.” In “The Succession of Forest Trees” he notes that he has trespassed on his neighbors’ property so regularly that he could often tell them shortcuts across their property unknown to them. In A Yankee in Canada, he points out that the only thing he brought back from Canada was a cold.
Finally, his writing often relies on hyperbole. When he writes in “Resistance to Civil Government” that “any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already,” he uses extremes to provoke thought and reaction. His journals as well as his published essays exploit this technique frequently, though as he grew older he tended more toward description and less toward dialectic.
Thoreau found the essay to be the most compatible genre for his thoughts. Even Walden, ostensibly a book-length study of a year living in the woods, contains within it several set pieces from Thoreau’s journals on subjects such as “Reading” and “The Pond in Winter.” A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers has a well-known essay on friendship inserted in the description of the canoe trip. Thoreau preferred to record and test his ideas in his journal, and then carefully develop and revise them. A short form such as an essay allowed him to focus more directly, seeing his entire work through a narrower lens. Longer works could always be created by combining several shorter works. Thoreau often found poetry a compatible genre for the same reasons, but his talents were more suited to essays. Among 19th-century American essayists, only Emerson has received comparable attention. Thoreau’s published essays, combined with his multivolume journals, show a rich and detailed understanding of nature, a commitment to individual freedom and independence of thought, an optimistic evaluation of human nature, and a clarity of expression few writers can approach.


Born David Henry Thoreau, 12 July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. Studied at Concord Academy, 1828–33; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1833–35 and 1836– 37, graduated 1837. Teacher in Canton, Massachusetts, 1835–36, and at Center School, 1837 (resigned after two weeks). Contracted tuberculosis, 1835, suffering from recurring bouts throughout his life. Worked in his father’s pencil factory, 1837–38, 1844, and 1849–50. Ran Concord Academy and taught there, 1838–41; curator, 1838–43, and regular lecturer, from 1848, Concord Lyceum. Contributor, the Dial, 1840–44. Lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841–43, and with Emerson’s family, 1847; tutor to William Emerson’s sons, Staten Island, New York, 1843. Lived in a cabin at Walden Pond, near Concord, 1845–47. Jailed for refusing to pay poll tax (in protest against slavery), 1846. Land surveyor, from 1848. Died in Concord, 6 May 1862.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849; edited by Walter Harding, 1963
“Resistance to Civil Government,” in Aesthetic Papers (journal), 1849; as “Civil Disobedience,” in A Yankee in Canada, 1866; edited by Walter Harding, 1967,
William Rossi, 1983, revised edition, as Resistance to Civil Government, 1992
Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854; edited by Walter Harding, 1968, Philip Van Doren Stern, 1970, William Rossi, 1983, revised edition, 1992, and Christopher Bigsby, 1995
Excursions, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1863
The Maine Woods, edited by Sophia E.Thoreau and William Ellery Channing, 1864; edited by Dudley C.Lunt, 1950
Cape Cod, edited by Sophia E.Thoreau and William Ellery Channing, 1865; edited by Thea Wheelright, 1971
A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by Sophia E.Thoreau and William Ellery Channing, 1866
Walden, and Other Writings, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, 1962
The Portable Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode, 1964
Thoreau’s Vision: The Major Essays, edited by Charles R. Anderson, 1973
Civil Disobedience, and Other Essays, 1993
Political Writings, edited by Nancy L.Rosenblum, 1996

Other writings: journals, poetry, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Complete Works (Concord Edition), edited by H.G.O.Blake, 5 vols., 1929; Writings (Princeton Edition), edited by William L.Howarth, 7 vols., 1971– 93 (in progress).

Borst, Raymond R., Henry David Thoreau: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982
Boswell, Jeanetta, and Sarah Crouch, Thoreau and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism 1900–1978, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1981
Harding, Walter, and Jean Cameron Advena, editors, A Bibliography of the Thoreau Society Bulletin Bibliographies, 1941–1969: A Cumulation and Index, Troy, New York: Whitston, 1971
Howarth, William L., The Literary Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974
Scharnhorst, Gary, Henry David Thoreau: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism Before 1900, New York: Garland, 1992

Further Reading
Borst, Raymond R., editor, Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817–1862, New York: Macmillan, 1992
Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995
Canby, Henry S., Thoreau, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939
Harding, Walter, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992 (original edition, 1965)
Harding, Walter, “Adventures in the Thoreau Trade,” American Scholar 61 (Spring 1992): 277–89
Harding, Walter, and Michael Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook, New York: New York University Press, 1980
Krutch, Joseph Wood, Henry David Thoreau, New York: Dell, 1965 (original edition, 1948)
Leary, Lewis, “Henry David Thoreau,” in Eight American Authors, edited by James Woodress, New York: Norton, 1971
Matthiessen, F.O., American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, London: Oxford University Press, 1968 (original edition, 1941)
Meyers, Michael, Several More Lives to Live: Thoreau’s Political Reputation in America, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1977
Myerson, Joel, editor, Emerson and Thoreau: The Contemporary Reviews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992,
Richardson, Robert D., Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986
Salt, Henry S., The Life of Henry David Thoreau, Fontwell: Centaur, 1993 (original edition, 1890)
Sattelmeyer, Robert, Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History with
Bibliographical Catalogue, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988
Sayre, Robert F., Thoreau and the American Indians, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977
Schofield, Edmund A., and Robert C.Baron, Thoreau’s World and Ours: A Natural Legacy, Golden, Colorado: North American Press, 1993
Shanley, J.Lyndon, The Making of Walden, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957

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