Henry David Thoreau

Article

October 17, 2021

Henry David Thoreau, born David Henry Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862 in Concord, Massachusetts), was an American essayist, teacher, social philosopher, naturalist, and poet. During Thoreau's lifetime, his writings were known only to a small group of people. Today, however, he is a big name in 19th-century American literature. With two symbolic actions—a two-year retreat in the cabin at Walden Pond and a night in jail for civil disobedience—Thoreau put into practice his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's teachings of transcendentalism. Thoreau was a prolific writer: his articles, essays, diaries and poems make up more than twenty books. He was also an enthusiastic nature observer. This combination earned him the nickname "The Poet-Naturalist" from his friend William Ellery Channing. Especially in his later years, Thoreau studied phenomena such as the flowering period of the plants and the distribution of tree species in detail. With his commitment to nature conservation and his pursuit of living in harmony with nature, he became a forerunner and inspirer of ecology as a science. In his masterpiece Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1854, he described how to live a simple life in the woods, secluded from "civilized" society. The theme of Civil Disobedience of 1849 is an individual's well-founded resistance to an unjust government; this book became an inspiration for later forms of nonviolent resistance. Thoreau opposed slavery on principle, lecturing against the laws for escaped slaves and convicts as an activist, and praising the work of the abolitionists—particularly that of John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of nonviolent resistance would later influence political, spiritual and literary figures such as Lev Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Personality

Thoreau reveals little autobiographical information in his works. Nevertheless, one can form a good picture of him after reading his writings, all the more so because he was one of very strong opinions. Thoreau's personal diary was not published until 1906. In addition, there are also testimonies from relatives and friends such as William Ellery Channing, who published the first biography of Thoreau (Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist) in 1873. Another source of interest to biographers on Thoreau is Harrison Blake, a former Worcester Unitarian minister who had regular correspondence with Thoreau from March 1848 to May 1861. Equally valuable to biographers is the testimony of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a biographical sketch of him as a preface to Thoreau's Excursions (1863): "He was not trained for any profession, he never married, lived alone, never went to church, never voted, refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no meat, drank no wine, and drank no tobacco". Thoreau was not interested in wealth at all: "A beautiful house, clothes, the manners and conversation of highly cultured people, he was all cold." [...] "He chose to be rich by limiting his needs, and by providing for himself as much as possible. He only used the railway to bridge stretches of land that did not serve his purpose of travel. He walked rather hundreds of miles, avoided inns, and took shelter in peasant and fishermen's cottages, which he found cheaper and more pleasant to lodge in." Emerson admires Thoreau's stoic and spartan nature, but also reveals that Thoreau could be very warm and comradely: "As much a hermit and stoic as he was, he was really fond of sympathy, and threw himself into the company enthusiastically and like a child.

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