Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism
Paul P. Reuben
Page Links: | Primary Works | The Reputation of HDT | Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi | Thoreau's Poetry | Thoreau and Hinduism |
| Selected Bibliography 2000 to Present |
| A Brief Biography |
| Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |
Site Links: | Chap 4: Index | Authors Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents Home Page |
Source: Shaping of the Modern World - HDT
Primary Works - Selected
Excursions. Moldenhauer, Joseph J. (ed. and notes). Princeton, NJ : Princeton UP, 2006.
I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Cramer, Jeffrey S. (ed. and annotation). New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007.
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal, 6: 1853. Ed. Princeton, NJ: Robert Sattelmeyer. Princeton UP, 2000.
The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal, 8: 1854. Ed. Princeton, NJ: Sandra H. Petrulionis. Princeton UP, 2002.
I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Cramer, Jeffrey S. (ed. and annotation). New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2007.
Journal: Volume 7: 1853-1854. Simmons, Nancy Craig (ed.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009.
A Week on the Concord And Merrimac Rivers, 1849
This is a beautiful account of Thoreau's boat trip with his brother, John, from August 31 to September 13, 1839. The book is carefully organized with one chapter given to each day of a week - experiences of two weeks condensed in one. It is an excellent celebration of nature.
"Resistance to Civil Government" also known as "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
For failing to pay poll tax, Thoreau was sent to jail. The famous and influential essay is the result of that gesture. Its message is simple and daring - he advocates "actions through principles." If the demands of a government or a society are contrary to an individual's conscience, it is his/her duty to reject them. Upholding moral law as opposed to social law "divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine." Inspired by Thoreau's message, Mahatma Gandhi organized a massive resistance of Indians against the British occupation of India. Thoreau's words have also inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peace marchers and the numerous conscientious-objectors to the Vietnam war.
The Variorum "Civil Disobedience". Ed. Walter Harding. NY: Twayne, 1967. JC328 T5
Considered one of the all-time great books, Walden is a record of Thoreau's two year experiment of living at Walden Pond. The writer's chief emphasis is on the simplifications and enjoyment of life now. In one of the most useful studies of the book, Walter Harding ("Five Ways of Looking at Walden," in Thoreau in Our Season, edited by John Hicks, 1962, 44-57) discusses the broad appeal of this masterpiece in terms of at least the following five approaches:1. As a nature book.
2. As a do-it-yourself guide to simple life.
3. As a satirical criticism of modern life and living.
4. As a belletristic achievement.
5. As a spiritual book.
The Variorum Walden. Ed. Walter Harding. NY: Twayne, 1962. PS3048 A1
Top Selected Bibliography 2000-Present
Barbour, John D. The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004.
Beck, Janet K. Creating the John Brown Legend: Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Child and Higginson in Defense of the Raid on Harpers Ferry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
Bellis, Peter J. Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003.
Bennett, Michael. Democratic Discourses: The Radical Abolition Movement and Antebellum American Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005.
Berger, Michael B. Thoreau's Late Career and "The Dispersion of Seeds': The Saunterer's Synoptic Vision. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000.
Cafaro, Philip. Thoreau's Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2004.
Cain, William E. ed. A Historical Guide to HDT. NY: Oxford UP, 2000.
Chura, Patrick. Thoreau the Land Surveyor. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2010.
Dean, Bradley P. ed. Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. NY: Norton, 2004.
Dillman, Richard. The Major Essays of Henry David Thoureau. Albany, NY: Whitston, 2001.
Dolis, John. Tracking Thoreau: Double-Crossing Nature and Technology. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2005.
Friedrich, Paul. The Gita within Walden. Albany, NY: SU of NY Press, 2008. (Google Books)
Goto, Shoji and Cole, Phyllis. The Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau: Orientals Meet Occidentals. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2007.
Guthrie, James R. Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 2001.
Hourihan, Paul. Mysticism in American Literature: Thoreau's Quest and Whitman's Self. Redding, CA: Vedantic Shores Press, 2004.
Johnson, Rochelle L. Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2009.
Lemire, Elise. Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2009.
McMurry, Andrew. Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2003.
McTier, Rosemary S. 'An Insect View of Its Plain': Insects, Nature and God in Thoreau, Dickinson and Muir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.
Meehan, Sean R. Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2008.
Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Paryz, Marek. The Postcolonial and Imperial Experience in American Transcendentalism. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Petrulionis, Sandra H. ed. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal, 8: 1854. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.
- - -. To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord. NY: Cornell UP, 2006.
Ray, Robert B. Walden x 40: Essays on Thoreau. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2012.
Robinson, David M. Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004.
Rossi, William. ed. Wild Apples and Other Natural History Essays. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.
Schneider, Richard J. ed. Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. U of Iowa P, 2000.
Sims, Michael. The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond. NY: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Sperber, Michael. Henry David Thoreau: Cycles and Psyche. Higganum, CT: Higganum Hill, 2004.
Worley, Sam M. Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2001.
Top The Reputation of Henry David Thoreau
Emerson: "He was bred to no profession; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun."
Ellery Channing (poet, friend, and biographer): "Thoreau was the Poet-Naturalist, a sweet singer of woodland beauty."
Frank Sanborn (young Abolitionist friend and biographer): He was a Concord warrior, a later embattled farmer."
James Russell Lowell: "He was a Transcendentalist crackpot and phony who insisted on going back to flint and steel when he had a matchbox in his pocket; a fellow to the loonies who thought bran or wearing of the substitution of hooks and eyes for buttons would save the world."
Paul Elmer More: "He was one of Rousseau's wild men, but moving toward the higher self-restraint of neo-humanism's inner-check."
John Macy (early Socialist critic): "A powerful literary radical, but a little too selfish and aloof to be a good Socialist."
Lewis Mumford: "He was the Father of our National & State Parks."
Top Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi
Hendrick, George. "Influence of Thoreau and Emerson on Gandhi's Satyagraha." Gandhi Marg 3 (1959): 165-178.
- - -. "Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience in Gandhi's Indian Opinion." Emerson Society Quarterly 14 (1959): 19-20.
- - -. "The influence of Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience on Gandhi's Satyagraha." New England Quarterly 24: 462-71.
Kline, Don W. "'Civil Disobedience': The Way to Walden." Modern Language Notes 75: 297-304.
Polak, Henry S. L. "Gandhi and Thoreau." Thoreau Society Bulletin 45: 3-4.
While living at Walden, Thoreau had been a "conscientious objector."
For a number of years he had refused to pay any poll tax on the ground that it was exclusively for the benefit of a government he did not approve of.
On a July evening in 1846, Thoreau was put under house arrest and sent to jail. Before the night in jail was over, his Aunt Maria had paid the tax, and by morning Henry was free.
Brief as his prison hours were, they led to his best known and most influential essay "Civil Disobedience".
Early in 1848 Thoreau delivered a lecture twice at the Concord Lyceum entitled " The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government."
In 1849 Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers (a magazine) made its first and only appearance, and included, along with pieces by Emerson and Hawthorne, Thoreau's lecture, retitled "Resistance to Civil Government."
It was ignored until four years after Thoreau's death when, as "Civil Disobedience," it was included in his A Yankee in Canada, With Antislavery and Reform Papers.
"Civil Disobedience" is the most complete theoretical statement of Thoreau's basic assumptions. He attacked democracy, because it was weak. The American Government he wrote, "has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will" and "under a government which imprisons any man unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."
Thoreau's expression of the doctrine of civil disobedience moved people around the world to practice it against local and national tyrannies .
"Civil Disobedience" has had a universal appeal because it dealt with the issue of moral law in conflict government law.
Thoreau argued that "it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."
The law is not to be respected merely because it is the law, but only because it is right and just. If unjust laws exist, civil disobedience is an effective way to oppose and change them.
It is a mistake to judge Thoreau's political philosophy by present-day standards. His whole political philosophy was based on the theoretical premise individual conscience is the only true criterion of what is politically right and just.
Thoreau believed in action from principle and made the prophetic statement:
"It not only divides states and churches it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine."
Thoreau's personality and ideas were complex. Within the span of ten years, he preached passive resistance and violent action.
It was in October 1908 while Gandhi was in South Africa that he refused to pay the tax of twenty-five pounds imposed on all Indians by the South African Govt. This led to the arrest of Gandhi. Like Gandhi seventy-five other Indians preferred the prison to taxes.
It was a remarkable coincidence that Gandhi found Thoreau's essay on "Civil Disobedience" while he himself was undergoing a jail term.
Top (Note: E-Mail from Thomas Carpenter, 10/5/98: " According to The Western Thoreau Centenary: Selected Papers (published as Thoreau Society Bulletin 19)in an article entitled "The Influence of Civil Disobedience" by Walter Harding, he found that Ghandi did not find "Civil Disobedience" while in jail in South Africa. He was introduced to Thoreau by Henry Stephens Salt while attending Oxford University about 1900. Ghandi contacted Salt regarding vegetarian issues and Salt had written a biography of Thoreau. He read "Civil Disobedience" and later translated in South Africa in the newspaper "Indian Opinion". Ghandi is believed to have read "Walden" while in jail in South Africa.")
He at once took a liking for it. Gandhi's account of life and reflections in jail has many things similar to Thoreau's reflections during brief hours in jail.
According to Gandhi jail has its good sides: there is only one warden, whereas in the free life there are many; there is no worry about food; work keeps the body healthy; no "vicious habits"; "the prisoner's soul is thus free" and he has time to pray to God.
"The real road to happiness," Gandhi said, "lies in going to jail and undergoing sufferings and privations there in the interest of one's country and religion."
Gandhi's reflections in jail ends with a quotation from Thoreau's essay on "Civil Disobedience":
"I saw", Thoreau wrote, "that if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar...."
"As they could not reach me," Thoreau continued, "they had resolved to punish my body... I saw that the state was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it and pitied it."
Gandhi cherished this excerpt from Thoreau. He studied the entire essay. He called it a 'masterly treatise'.
"it left a deep impression on me", Gandhi said; there is a Thoreau imprint on much that Gandhi did.
Thoreau had read the Bhagavad-Gita and some of the sacred Hindu Upanishads.
"Thoreau the New England, rebel, borrowed from distant India and repaid the debt by throwing ideas into the world pool of thought; ripples reached the Indian lawyer-politician in South Africa."
There is however a difference between the "Civil Disobedience" of Thoreau and that of Gandhi.
"The only obligation Which I have a right to assume," Thoreau declared, "is to do at any time what I think right." To be right, he insisted, is more honorable than to be law-abiding.
Democracy for Thoreau was the cult of the minority. "Why does (the government) not cherish its wise minority" he cried, "why does it always crucify Christ?"
It was l848. Thoreau was thinking of the slavery and the invasion of Mexico. The majority which tolerated these measures was wrong, and he was right. Could he obey a government that committed such sins?
Thoreau described civil disobedience in exact terms, as Gandhi understood it:
"I know this well," Thoreau wrote, "that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men, whom I could name ... if ten honest men only - ay, if one honest man, in this state of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it... "
Top Gandhi, however, was not satisfied with the term civil disobedience. He first called it civil resistance and finally coined the famous Sanskrit name of Satyagraha.
Satya is truth, which equals love; and agraha is firmness of force.
Satyagraha therefore means truth-force or love-force. Truth and love are attributes of the soul. This then became Gandhi's target: to be strong not with the strength of the brute but with the strength of the spark of god.
Satyagraha, Gandhi said, is "the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one's self." This requires self-control. The weapons of the Satyagrahi are within him.
Satyagraha is peaceful. If words fail to convince the adversary perhaps purity, humility, and honesty will. The opponent must be "weaned from error by patience and sympathy' weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated,
Satyagraha is the exact opposite of the policy of an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye which ends in making every one blind.
You cannot inject new ideas into a man's head by chopping it off; neither will you infuse a new spirit into his heart by piercing it with a dagger.
Gandhi derived his doctrine of Satyagraha from many sources. It can be traced essentially to the Bhagvat-Gita, but also to Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and recently to the writings of Thoreau, Ruskin and more especially Tolstoy.
But his practical application of it in the social and political spheres was entirely his own.
The difference, then between Thoreau and Gandhi, is that Gandhi made Satyagraha a vehicle of he masses. It was no longer an individual force as Thoreau saw it, but it became a force in which the majority could participate.
As a majority activity, Satyagraha may take various forms: It may take the form of noncooperation; when it does, it is not noncooperation with the evildoer but with his evil deed. Satyagraha may take the form of fasting; fasting should be undertaken, according to Gandhi, only when one is thoroughly convinced of the rightness of one's stand, when all the other methods have failed. It should be in the nature of prayer for purity and strength and power from God. Satyagraha may also take the form of mass resistance on a nonviolent basis against the Government when negotiations and constitutional methods have failed.
There can be no doubt that in developing Satyagraha in its various forms as a practical means of overcoming violence, more especially in group life, Gandhi established a new milestone in the history of the human race in its march towards peace on earth and goodwill among men.
Gandhi's message of peace and nonviolence becomes especially important to the modern world torn with strife, bloodshed, hatred and war.
Tolstoy in Russia, Gandhi in South Africa and India, the resistance movement against Nazi-occupied Europe, the freedom riders and sit- downers from New York to Mississippi, the Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr., the antinuclear war pickets in England have all responded to the words uttered in Concord about a hundred and fifty years ago.
Although Thoreau wrote a considerable number of poems, very few are regarded as excellent. Among those which are well-known are "Light-Winged Smoke, Icarian Bird," "I am a parcel of Vain Strivings Tied," "The Virgin," "A Winter and Spring Scene," and "Low in the Eastern Sky." The common themes of Thoreau's poetry are nature, impressions of life, and transcendental philosophy. It appears that Thoreau's temperament was more suited to writing prose or, more appropriately, poetic prose.
Top Thoreau and Hinduism
Some of the Hindu scriptures in Emerson's library:
The Vedas, The Bhagavat Geeta (Gita), The Upnishads, The Laws of Manu, The Dharma Sastra
Christy, Arthur. The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. 1932.
Friedrich, Paul. The Gita within Walden. Albany, NY: SU of NY Press, 2008. (Google Books)
MacShane, Frank. "Walden and Yoga." New England Quarterly 37: 322-342.
Miller, Barbara S. "Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond? Parabola 12.1 (Spring 1986): 58-63.
Stein, W. B. "Thoreau's First Book, a Spoor of Yoga: The Orient in A Week." Emerson Society Quarterly 41:3-25.
- - -. "Thoreau's Walden and the Bhagvad Gita." Topic 6 (Fall 1963): 38-55.
Top (Given below is a summary of MacShane's article)
Various theories have been advanced to explain Thoreau's living in a hermit's solitude for over two years (at Walden Pond). Some have argued that it was disappointed love; others have advanced the theory that Walden was a retreat from the smoke and noise of an encroaching industrialism; others say that he bore a grudge against society and withdrew like a snail, into his shell.
The retreat, however, was a very natural gesture on the part of a man who was temperamentally an ascetic, particularly one so imbued with Orientalism. He was at all times conscious of an affinity between his own conduct and that of a yogi. There is a self-revealing passage in his Journal:
"One may discover the root of a Hindoo religion in his own private history, when, in the silent intervals of the day or night, he does some times inflict on himself like austerities with a stern satisfaction."
Moncure Conway, who knew Thoreau well writes: "Like the pious Yogi, so long motionless whilst gazing on the sun that knotty plants encircled his neck and the cast snake-skin his loins, and the birds built their nests on his shoulders, this poet and naturalist, by equal consecration a part of the field and the forest." Conway was writing specifically of his friend at Walden. The word of a contemporary observer bears out Thoreau's confession.
When Thoreau applied the name of Yogi to himself he was in no transient or whimsical mood. This is seen in the manner in which he spent a day at the Walden hut:
"Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, while the birds sang or flitted noiseless through the house until by sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller' s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any of the work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works." - "Sounds," Walden
The words "even I am a yogi" are found in Thoreau's letter to H. G. 0. Blake in 1849. The complete passage adds to their meaning:
"Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruit of their works. ... Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. ... The yogi, absorbed in Contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and, united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating Original matter. ... To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi."
Thoreau probably contracted the enthusiasm for Orientalism from Emerson. It was during the residence in his friend's home in the year 1841 that Thoreau's extravagant outpouring of praise for the Eastern books commenced. His Journal of 1841 marks that as a red letter year in his reading. On May 31. 1841 after reading Manu, he wrote:
"That title, The Laws of Menu with the Gloss of Culluca, comes to me with such a volume of sound as if it had swept unobstructed over the plains of Hindostan (India). ... When my imagination travels eastward and backward to those remote years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place. I remember the book as an hour before sunrise." Journal I, 264
And on August 6 of the same year, Thoreau was still reading the Hindu scriptures:
"I cannot read a sentence in the book of the Hindoos without being elevated.... It has such a rhythm as the winds of the desert, such a tide as the Ganges (the "holy" river in India), and seems as superior to criticism as the Himmaleh Mounts. Even at this late hour unworn by time, with a native and inherent dignity, it wears the English dress as indifferently as the Sanskrit. The great tome or the book is or such fiber and such severe tension that no time nor accident can relax it. The great thought is never found in mean dress, but is of virtue to ennoble any language." Journal I, 266.
Top What the book was that could not be read without elevating him is disclosed in the diary of the next day, August 7, 1841:
"The impression which those sublime sentences made on me last night has awakened me before any cock crowing. Their influence lingers around me like a fragrance, or as the fog hangs over the earth late into the day. The very locusts and crickets of a summer day are but later or older glosses on the Dharma Sastra of the Hindoos, a continuation of the sacred code." Journal I, 267.
Two days later the spell was still on him. He wrote:
"Any book of great authority seemed to permeate and pervade all space. Its spirit, like a more subtle ether, sweeps along with the prevailing winds of the country. Its influence conveys a new gloss to the meadows and the depths of the wood, and bathes the huckleberries on the the hills, as sometimes a new influence in the sky washes in waves over the fields and seems to break on some invisible beach in the air. All things confirm it. It spends the mornings and the evenings." Journal I, 268.
And so one could go through Thoreau's Journal illustrating passage after passage showing his fondness for Oriental books.
The main point to remember is that Thoreau's interests began later than Emerson's... there seems no evidence of his having read from the Hindu scriptures during his college years at Harvard. It may have been that he did not discover the Orientals before his friend introduced him to them because he had no aunt like Mary Moody Emerson.
In Emerson's library, Thoreau was like a thirst-tortured man who had found an oasis in the desert. For the rest of his life Thoreau kept on reading these books.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Thoreau was greatly influenced by these Hindu scriptures. The Journal of 1850 has this entry:
"What extracts from The Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum - free from particulars, simple, universal. It rises on me like the full moon after the stars have come out, wading through some far summer stratum of the sky." Journal II, 4.
In the same manner there are such sentences: "The Vedas contain a sensible account of GOD". "One wise sentence (from The Vedas ) is worth the state of Massachusetts many times over."
When he compared the religion and philosophy of the Jews with that of the Hindus, he declared that the former represented a "wilder and ruder tribe" while the Hindus reflected "civility and intellectual refinements and subtlety".
With the Hindus virtue is an intellectual exercise, not a social and practical one. It is a knowing, not a doing.
Such sentences suggest the reasons why the East appealed to Thoreau.
The life of a yogi is austere and simple. Thoreau never thought of the simplicity of his manner of living as a virtue in itself. It was for him a path leading towards spiritual self-knowledge and realization. He insisted on living by his beliefs and carrying them to their logical conclusion. In this fact he comes nearest to the true philosopher. If Thoreau was a yogi it was necessary for him to retreat from society. This explains Walden.
Thoreau translated from the French one of the Hindu scriptures called The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans. He did this more because of the Yoga philosophy it contained than because of the story itself.
This work, discovered by Arthur Christy in 1930 in the Widener Memorial Collection at the Harvard College Library, throws new light on the Walden episode of Thoreau's life.
A Student Project by James Leonard & Allison Lindstrom
Henry David Thoreau (born David Henry) entered our world in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817. His father, John Thoreau, was a soft-spoken man fond of books and music. He failed numerous times at different business ventures, until he found his calling as a pioneer in the field of making lead pencils. His mother, Cynthia Dunbar, was disliked by some apparently because she talked too much. It was she who persuaded Ralph Waldo Emerson to write his scathing letter to President Van Buren on the removal of the Cherokee Indians. She loved nature, and was a committed abolitionist. Thoreau entered Harvard in 1833, but was not without a certain level of disdain for this institution. He declared that Harvard "taught all the branches of learning but none of the roots." (Wagenknecht, 10) Thoreau and several of his classmates protested Harvard's emphasis on memory work and recitation. He graduated in 1837, the same year Emerson delivered "The American Scholar." It is uncertain whether or not Thoreau heard the oration, but it is certain that he was influenced by Emerson's Nature. After graduation, Thoreau began teaching in Concord, but quit when he learned of the custom of flogging his pupils that he would be forced to comply with. He opened his own school in 1838. He continued teaching and tutoring, along with numerous other ventures, such as gardening, farming, house-painting, carpentry, and masonry. The majority of his writing was done in the 1840's and 50's. After a long battle with tuberculosis, Thoreau died peacefully on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44 (Wagenknecht, 9-15).
In July of 1846, Thoreau was arrested and thrown in jail for repeatedly refusing to pay a poll tax. He spent one night in jail before being bailed out by his aunt. Thoreau presented no resistance to his capture, and in fact did show resistance only in his removal from prison. After being asked incessantly by neighbors why he wanted to go to jail, Thoreau wrote an explanation of his position. It was published under the title "Resistance to Civil Government," which would be changed to "Civil Disobedience" four years after his death. Thoreau believed that the punishment of spending time in jail was not nearly as undesirable as the shame of succumbing to the governmental policies with which he disagreed so wholeheartedly. He saw the others in his town, those who obeyed so blindly, as being prisoners themselves. "I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was." (Norton, 783)
Between 1845 and 1847, Thoreau lived alone in a cabin he built himself on Emerson's property at Walden Pond. It is from the experiences of these two years that Thoreau wrote his masterpiece, Walden. Walden is, at its surface, simply an account of the events of these two years. But it contains much deeper and broader implications. Many see it as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life, a sort of handbook for those looking to get away from it all. Thoreau saw this simple life not as an end in itself, but as a means to living more fully the life he really wanted, a life of writing and observing nature. Walden is also a biting criticism of the follies of mankind. There are few popular fashions or customs that he does not question. Because of his cryptic sense of humor, many of his contemporaries thought him misanthropic. But it is only with a reading that recognizes this sense of humor that Walden can be appreciated fully (Norton, 771).
In recent years, critics have become particularly interested in Thoreau's style. Walden is often considered to be the earliest example of modern American prose. But it is as a document of American Transcendentalism that Walden truly flourishes. It is a plea for the higher life, and its central chapter is entitled "Higher Laws." Walden is a book about spiritual rebirth. It is based upon the cycle of the year, coming to a climax with the rebirth of nature in the spring. Thoreau is convinced that if we only tried, we could reach a higher life here on Earth than we ever dreamed of. It is truly a work which encompasses the essence of Thoreau and of Transcendentalism while at the same time conveying a love of nature and the earth and the simple life.
Late in the summer of 1847, Thoreau went to live with the Emerson family while the more famous Emerson was giving a series of lectures in England. Thoreau stayed there for a year, then went back to living with his parents, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He continued writing in his journal every day. More and more, this became the center of his creative interest. Forty years after his death, Houghton Mifflin of Boston would publish the journal in fourteen volumes. Followers of Thoreau consider this to be his true masterpiece, and it remains one of the great monuments in American literature. Throughout the 1850's, Thoreau also wrote and presented a number of anti-slavery lectures, directed not so much at the South for practicing slavery, but at the North for allowing it to remain.
In early December of 1860, Thoreau caught a bad cold, which worsened into bronchitis. This brought on a recurrence of his tuberculosis, which would ultimately lead to his death in 1862. In his own lifetime, Thoreau was constantly overshadowed by his friend and mentor Emerson, and achieved very little recognition of his own. Since his death, however, Thoreau has been discovered and rediscovered numerous times, eventually carrying him past Emerson in the eyes of many literary scholars. Thoreau remains, as the Norton Anthology puts it, "the most challenging major writer America has produced. No good reader will ever be entirely pleased with himself or herself or with the current state of culture and civilization while reading any of Thoreau's best works." (Norton, 773)
Baym, Nina, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995.
Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Lebeaux, Richard. Young Man Thoreau. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.
Schneider, Richard J. Henry David Thoreau. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Company, 1987.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
1. After reading Walden consider the feasibility of Thoreau's notions about individualism and self-reliance in terms of modern life. Would he simply be considered weird? Is there anyone who even attempts to embody his philosophy? Read Skinner's Walden II and make comparisons.
2. Why did Thoreau undertake the experiment at Walden Pond? Consider all the reasons he gives for his move to the pond in the first two chapters. Are they consistent? Can they all be true? Which of them seems most important in the light of the book as a whole?
3. How tenable is the case for "Civil Disobedience"? Is Thoreau arguing that we should break the law whenever we think it unjust? What safeguards against such arbitrary and individualistic politics does he assert or imply?
4. Explain specific ways in which Thoreau's Walden may be considered "practice" to Emerson's theory.
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Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Henry David Thoreau." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap4/thoreau.html (provide page date or date of your login).