Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
From The Oxford Companion to American Literature, by Hart and Leininger:
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), born in Concord of a family whose French, Scottish, Quaker, and Puritan stock helps to account for his temper of mind. Just as his heritage was mixed, so his philosophy of life combined diverse strains, and he called himself "a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot." At heart, he was predominantly individualistic, and his great interest was "to observe what transpires, not in the street, but in the mind and heart of me!" Although his reading carried him far afield, he could truthfully say "I have travelled a good deal in Concord." in addition to his natural education in the woods near Concord, and the ordinary preparatory schooling, he graduated from Harvard (1817), where he was primarily influenced by E[dward] T[yrrell] Channing's teaching of composition, and the knowledge of Greek and the metaphysical poets that he derived from Jones Very. His temporary residence in the home of Orestes Brownson, from whom he learned German, was also influential. Above all he fell under the sway of Emerson, and it has been frequently said that he was the answer to Emerson's plea for an "American Scholar."
After graduation he taught school in his native town, for a time in collaboration with his brother John, following the principles of Bronson Alcott. With his brother he also made a trip to the Concord and Merrimack rivers (1839), of which he wrote during his residence at Walden in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). After closing his school, he lived with Emerson (1841-43), serving him as a general handyman, although their relation was also one of master and disciple. At this time he became an intimate of the members of the Transcendental Club and a contributor to The Dial and other magazines. During 1843 he was a tutor in the Staten Island home of William Emerson where he made the acquaintance of Horace Greeley, Lucretia Mott, and the elder Henry James.
After his return to Concord, Thoreau built himself a hut at nearby Walden Pond, where he lived from July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847, a period of which he wrote in his most famous book, Walden (1854). While other Transcendentalists sought a retreat at Brook Farm, Thoreau, ever an individualist, having no use for cooperative plans, found his solution at Walden. He wanted to go back to the naked simplicity of life, where he might "subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh," chew the cud of his thoughts, and get to the very core of the universe, by living deep and sucking out all the "marrow of life." His desire was "so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust . . . to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." He wanted neither to be interfered with nor to interfere with others, and he declared, "I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living, each should find out his own way, not his neighbor's or his parents'."
His residence at the Pond was interrupted by a day's imprisonment for refusal to pay a poll tax to a government that supported the Mexican War, a war he considered merely a land-grabbing scheme of the Southern slaveholders. This action was in accord with his belief in passive resistance, a means of protest he explained in his essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849). It was a means of accentuating his belief, expressed in Walden, that each man should save himself and all would be saved. He not only believed with Jefferson that that government is best which governs least, but he also contended that "they are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it." His belief in the individual and in a moral law superior to statutes and constitutions was also expressed in "Life Without Principle" (1863).
After his return to Concord, he lived for a year in Emerson's home while the essayist was abroad, and during this period formed his close friendship with the younger W. E. Channing, who in writing the first biography of Thoreau aptly called him "the poet-naturalist." His observation of nature were distinguished not merely by his scientific knowledge, which was occasionally erroneous, but by his all-inclusive love of life, expressed now in an earthly manner with a Yankee twang, now with a sweet, pure English, having, as Lowell said, "an antique purity like wine grown colorless with age." Though he enjoyed the scientific view of nature, he was also a Transcendentalist, defining his attitude when he said he wanted more the wideness of heaven than the limit of the microscope. His statement that he liked "better the surliness with which the wood chopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature" shows him as an observer who wanted his answers concerning nature not only in facts but in terms of faith.
He made several brief trips (1849-53) which supplied the material for his posthumously published books Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864) Cape Cod (1865) and A Yankee in Canada (1866). Meanwhile he continued his outwardly parochial life in Concord, where he wrote his journals, containing some two million words, the basis of all his books. During these years he became increasingly involved in the antislavery movement and deliverd such speeches as "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854). He was profoundly stirred by his meeting with John Brown at Emerson's home (1857) and praised Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry, for here was a man who was carrying out the principles that he himself championed. He eulogized him in three lectures, "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859), "The Last Days of John Brown" (1860), and "After the Death of John Brown" (1860). During his last years, Thoreau made further trips to Cape Cod and Maine, and to New York City, where he met Whitman, but he was a victim of tuberculosis, which gradually weakened him and finally caused his death. He worked indefatigably, in spite of this handicap, on a long, unpublished ethnological study of the Indians and continued to make scientific observations and to carry on his own way of life both privately and as lyceum lecturer. An invalid, he made an attempt to recapture health by journeying to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi (1861), but returned home, knowing that he was shortly to die, to engage in a last attempt to edit his journals for publication. He published two books and a few articles and speeches during his lifetime, but it was not until after his death that selections from his journals were edited by his friend Harrison G.O. Blake as Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881), Summer (1884), Winter (1888) and Autumn (1892). The complete Journal was issued (14 vols.) in 1906 and the text of a lost journal (1840-41) was edited by Perry Miller as Consciousness in Concord (1958). Other miscellaneous work was published in his collected Writings (20 vols., 1906), and Emerson's edition of the Letters (1865) was enlarged (1894) and further amplified and edited as Correspondence (1958). His Poems of Nature appeared in 1895 and Carl Bode edited the Collected Poems in 1943. A scholarly edition of his Writings, which will supersede that of 1906, began publication in 1971. In 1993 appeared Faith in a Seed: "The Dispersion of Seeds" and Other Late Natural History Writings, edited by Bradley Dean, proto-chapters from the journals, not shaped by Thoreau for publication, but pioneering notes on processes of plant succession and dispersal in the Concord environs.
Walden, or Life in the Woods, narrative by Thoreau, published in 1854. Between the end of March 1845 and July 4, when he began occupation, the author constructed a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord. There he lived alone until September 1847, supplying his needs by his own labor and developing and testing his transcendental philosophy of individualism, self-reliance, and material economy for the sake of spiritual wealth. He sought to reduce his physical needs to a minimum, in order to free himself for study, thought, and observation of nature and himself; therefore his cabin was a simple room and he wore the cheapest essential clothing and restricted his diet to what he found growing wild and the beans and vegetables he himself raised. Whan not engaged in domestic and agricultural labors, or in fishing, swimming, and rowing, Thoreau devoted himself enthusiastically to careful observation and recording of the flora and fauna of the locality, to writing his voluminous journals, and to reading ancient and modern poetry and philosophy. His thought about this experience was developed in the journals over a period of years, and the result is Walden, a series of 18 essays describing Thoreau's idealistic creed as affected by and expressed in his life at the Pond. The chapter on "Economy" asserts that the only standard of value is in vital experience, and that the complexities of civilization stand in the way of significant living. To escape the demands of society and to realize the best powers of mind and body, Thoreau decides for an ascetic withdrawal from organized society, since in his desire "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," he found that the essential necessity was to "simplify, simplify." Among the matters described in subsequent chapters are the practical operation of this economy; Thoreau's intimacy with such different neighbors as the moles in his cellar, an educated Canadian woodcutter, and the pickerel in Walden Pond; his temporary imprisonmente for refusing to pay a poll tax because he would not support a state that returned fugitive slaves to the South; the music of the wind in the telegraph wires, and the distant railroad whistle; the varied seasonal aspects of the woods, and the joys of outdoor labor and solitary study. From this many-sided discussion, expressed in an agile, compact, lucid, and often poetic style, emerges Thoreau's philosophy of individualism brought almost to the point of anarchy, and his idealistic exaltation of art and ideas balanced by a vital appreciation of the life of the senses.