Henry David Thoreau Essay Research Paper Henry

Henry David Thoreau Essay, Research Paper

Henry David Thoreau was a man who expressed his beliefs of society, government, and

mankind while living under his own self-criticism. Thoreau believed he had many

weaknesses which made him a failure. This strong disapproval of himself contrasted with

his powerful words and strong actions. These contradictions led to some of Thoreau’s

greatest pieces of literature.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, in his

grandmother’s house. Thoreau believed that Concord was, “the most estimable place in all

the world, and in the very nick of time, too” (Harding 4). Though Thoreau was born in

“the era of good feeling,” his family experienced many misfortunes, politically, physically,

and financially (4). Thoreau’s father, John, was a small, quiet, man who got along with

Henry on the surface, but it seems that the two never quite understood each other’s

desires. He had weakening health and this caused the family’s financial strain (11). As for

John and Henry’s relationship, Harding says, “Their relationship was one based more on

toleration than on enthusiasm” (9). Cynthia Thoreau, Henry’s mother, was more of an

outspoken dynamic person. Though the family was poor, she was known to always have

enough for her children and her neighbors as well. It is apparent that both parents passed

on their love of nature to their children (9,10).

After Henry’s birth, John was forced to sign over the family home in Boston. The family

was forced to move as they would many more times to come. On October 12, 1817,

Henry was christened after his uncle David Thoreau, who had recently died (11). At the

age of five Henry started school. This was the age that he went to visit his grandmother

for first time and had his first visit to Walden Pond. Thoreau remembers, “…one of the

most ancient scenes stamped on the tablets of my memory…. That sweet solitude my spirit

seemed so early to require at once gave the preference to this recess among the pines,

where almost sunshine and shadow were the only inhabitants that varied the scene, over

the tumultuous and varied city, as if it had found its proper nursery” (13-14). It is apparent

that Thoreau associates Walden Pond with his happiest memories.

Thoreau was a deeply religious man, but disliked church. He was very serious as a child

and loved his solitude (Schneider 4). Thoreau says he was truly happiest when he could be

by himself (25). In 1828, Thoreau and his older brother John, to whom he was closest,

went to Concord Academy. Henry was the smarter of the two and in 1833, was sent to

Harvard University, where he did very well. It was there that Thoreau was first exposed to

writing publicly when the Editor of the Dial, which is a periodical for a transcendentalist

group, gave him a job. In 1837, Thoreau graduated form Harvard and this is where he first

heard Ralph Waldo Emerson speak. It was at this time that he began writing his journal.

He started teaching in Concord’s Center School for a brief period of two weeks. Thoreau

was told to enforce corporate punishment in the classroom and he resigned. He ended up

working in his father’s pencil factory where he improved American pencils. He did this by

improving the method of mixing graphite which he discovered by researching the

European methods of making pencils. This made his father’s company the leader in the

American market. It was also at this time in his life that David Henry had his name

changed to Henry David. In time, Thoreau became good friends with R.W. Emerson and

Emerson took on the role of Thoreau’s mentor. Thoreau found support in Emerson’s

individualism and philosophies. Both men took a transcendental view of the world. In

1839, Thoreau and his brother John reopened the Concord Academy. They then took a

boating trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to Hooksett, New Hampshire, and to

Mount Washington. In 1840, Thoreau published his first piece of poetry in the Dial. Only

a few of his pieces from these publications are remembered, such as, “Sic Vita,” “Smoke,”

“Inspiration,” and “Bluebirds.” His love of nature was expressed in his essays such as,

“The Natural History of Massachusetts,” and “A Winter Walk.” While this was a positive

time in Thoreau’s life the next year held some hardships. The school shut down due to his

brother’s illness, and Thoreau moved in with William Emerson as his handy-man in order

to make money. He still continued to publish his poetry and essays in the Dial. The two

transcendental friends, R. W. Emerson and Thoreau began to differ in their philosophies.

Thoreau was becoming a strong believer that the material world existed where Emerson

believed more in the existence of the human soul (Schneider 4,6-8).

Thoreau is known to have fallen in love with Ellen Sewall, who was also the interest of his

brother, John. However, she turned them both down in marriage. It is believed that Henry

never had another love interest. Horace Hosmer says, “he did not have the ‘love -idea’ in

him: i.e. he did not appear to feel the sex-attraction” (9). He is portrayed as a gay man and

some of his works are contained in gay books. Walter Harding says, “there is evidence of

a strong homoerotic element in Thoreau’s personality-although I should add that to the

best of my knowledge no factual evidence of homosexuality on Thoreaus’s part has been

uncovered” (9). There is no proof that Thoreau was a homosexual, but it would make

sense to realize his disinterest in sex was due to his search of moral purity. Thoreau was a

man who found no love in society, therefore he turned to nature (9).

In 1842, John Thoreau died of lockjaw. This severe stress caused Henry to suffer from

psychosomatic symptoms of tetanus. Soon after John’s death, William Emerson’s son,

Waldo, died. The tragic stress of these two incidents in such a short matter of time was a

very rough period for Thoreau. In 1844, Thoreau worked in his father’s pencil factory

again. During this time his love for nature grew and continued to remind him of his

brother. In 1845, Thoreau moved to Walden Pond and built a one room cabin. It was here

where he began his work on the first of his two published works of literature, A Week on

the Concord and Merrimack River. It was in 1846, when Thoreau spent the night in jail

for refusing to pay a poll tax in order to protest the governments participationin the

Mexican War and their allowance of slavery. As Schneider says, “…he spent his famous

night in jail…” (14). He believed he was making an incredible statement that would set a

model for the rest of society. Unfortunately, his action had little effect on the people,

which led to his essay “Civil Disobedience” (14). In this essay, Thoreau explains how he

could not call a government his own that allowed slavery. He first delivered this essay as a

speech called, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government”

(Meltzer 44). It did not become known as “Civil Disobedience” until after Thoreau’s

death. His powerful and persuasive words in this speech deal with moral issues and their

conflict with the law (44). Also at this time, Thoreau took his first trip to the Maine

Woods where he climbed the Mount Ktahdin (sic). He gained much from of his time spent

at Walden Pond and got much accomplished. He completed the rough draft of his second

and best known piece of work, Walden (Schneider 14). Harding tells us Thoreau lived at

Walden two years, two days, and two months out of his forty-four years of life (Hicks 47).

He felt that this was time well spent and a beneficial aspect to his life, almost like a life

completed to his overall life. Thoreau left Walden Pond to return to town and work on

writing and lecturing. He stayed with the Emerson’s for a time and than his parents. The

year 1849 saw the publication of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and the

lecture “Civil Disobedience.” Unfortunately, A Week was not a huge hit and this only

depressed Thoreau. In 1854, Walden was published by Ticknor and Fields and sold very

well. Over the next few years Thoreau took many trips to Cape Cod, New England, New

Jersey, and the Maine Woods. He met many new interesting people such as John Brown

and Walt Whitman. In 1859, Thoreau’s father died and he inherited the pencil factory. At

this time, he was giving lectures and writing essays. In 1860, Thoreau’s final illness began

to fall. He still wanted to work. He continued to write poems such as “Wild Apples” and

“Autumnal Tints” which consisted of his transcendental views which remained constant

throughout his career as an artist. In 1860, Thoreau contracted bronchitis and went to

Minnesota to find a drier climate, however, he returned home when the change did not

seem to help. On May 6, 1862, Thoreau died in Concord (Schneider 9,11-14,16,19,21).

Thoreau spent his life trying to understand the illusions of the material world and see past

them and understand truth. His life is a contrast between two extremes, pure

transcendentalism and surface ideals. It is said that only in Walden did he express a

balance between the real world and his art (23).

Thoreau was an incredible American author. According to his journal, he thought of

himself as a poet, though Stern tells us his prose was much better than his verse. Thoreau

had the ability to read people for who they really were. He had high expectations of people

and could barely meet these expectations himself. His life was full of searching for truth,

beauty, and honest understanding for a better life for mankind (Stern 15). This searching

was due to his doubt and unanswered questions. Many thought Thoreau was stuck up, but

he was simply self-critical. As Thoreau says, “I never dreamed of any enormity greater

than I have committed. I never knew and never shall know, a worse man than myself”

(16). In this quote from Walden, we see his utter disgust with himself. Much of Thoreau’s

disappointment in himself stemmed from his high expectations of society and other people.

These let-downs not only made him disgusted with society and the world, but also himself

because he could not change it (16).

Due to Thoreau’s low self-opinion he had broad mood swings. Excerpts from his journal

show this broad contrast clearly. January 6, 1857; IX, 206, “The storms are happy,

Concord is happy, and I am happy too,” This shows some acceptance of himself when it

came to his intelligence and talent, but his unsettled opinion and unattainable standards can

be seen in his writing from the very next day, “In the street and in society I am almost

invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean” (25). Thoreau, like any

artist, would torture himself through extensive internal trials. These extremes of both his

conscious and unconscious mind make up Walden (25).

Walden is a great classic of American literature and one of two of Thoreau’s published

pieces of literature. The other one is A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Both

of these classics stress the author’s love of nature and found their beginnings at Walden

Pond. Thoreau has other books that are collection of essays, lectures, various excursions,

and Reform Papers (Johnson 3).

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is written about the boat trip Thoreau and

his brother took on the rivers Concord and Merrimack. Thoreau began writing this after

his brothers death. Emerson is also considered one of his inspirations for writing this book.

He included much of his travel knowledge, and things he read at Harvard such as pastoral

prayers. His journey on the river taken with his brother is quoted in one essay, “…he thus

depicted the journey as a withdrawal from the village to an unspoiled poetic world where

he and his brother achieve a closer communion with nature” (Johnson 3). His two earlier

excursions were, “A Walk to Wachusett” and “A Winter Walk” which were published in

the Dial. In these writings, Thoreau used this trip as a spiritual quest for spirituality and

imagination. His use of nature symbols such as mountains and rivers became predominant

central feature in A Week. When he began using his recollective memories to write the

book he used many entries from his journal. He also used other inspirations such as a

walking tour he took in southern New England in 1848. It was there he dealt with the

issue of the growth of the Merrimack River since 1839. According to Johnson, “By the

time it was published in 1849, A Week was thus composed of a carefully orchestrated

series of excursions through New England, at once a pastoral realm, a primitive

wilderness, and a bustling industrial region” (4).

Henry and John left Concord on Saturday, August 31, 1839 on the Musketaquid, a boat

they built and gave the Indian name of the Concord River. Thoreau includes things such as

what the nights were like at their campsites, and their extensive progress up the

Merrimack River. Their river journey ended on Wednesday night where they then walked

ten miles back to Concord. He mentions the tourist attractions they saw such as the basin

and flume at Lincoln, Franconia Notch, and the old man of the mountains they saw from

Echo Lake. He did not necessarily describe these things in great detail, but we can still see

the personal feeling in it (5-6). Due to Thoreau’s complex and back and forth personality,

in time, he viewed his trip as a trip of the mind, spirit, and body. We get this from his

journal entries. In them he describes a withdrawal to a timeless world, but does not

overlook things and people that were along the Concord and Merrimack. He wanted to

show nature and man as one (9-10).

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is one of his most transcendental pieces of

literature. Walter Harding summarizes: “[Recent critics] see the book as ‘a search for the

sacred’ or ‘an exposition of the transcendental experience’ or ‘a defense of the American

Indian’ or ‘a paean to the Greek gods.’” (Schneider 28). The point he is trying to make is

that critics can not agree on Thoreau’s attempts at unity in this book. It is agreed that the

most obvious structural device he uses is that of a circular journey, such as a surface fact

that the brothers’ journey began and ended in Concord. Thoreau himself says, “we were

rowing homeward to find some autumnal work to do, and help the revolution of the

seasons” (29). Along the trip, Thoreau portrays the sights he sees and refers to works of

visual art. We see specific images such as the landscape, the setting, and a man and his

dog (Schneider 30). We see the personal imagery and sense a feeling of realness through

the incredible use of vocabulary and description. His words are like those of an artist

describing a painting.

Another aspect of Thoreau’s transcendentalism is his abrupt shifts from the past to the

present. He is trying to break down the distinctions between the two. Images of the

morning, day, and evening are used to portray the continuity and unity of the past, present,

and the future. Thoreau talks about the founding of the town of Billerica, and then jumps

into long essays on myths, fables, and legends as well. Sometimes he will use “I” and other

times “we” (31). This is all part of the transcendental experience.

Thoreau’s overall themes of life are predominant in A Week. His continuous struggle with

surviving in the world without selling out like the majority of society is his most clearly

seen theme. We also see Thoreau as he tries to deal with his questions and struggles. By

use of his transcendentalism, Thoreau implies that the material world is not true, it is not

“real” or “substantial” (34). He finds much disappointment in the people of society which

is reflected in his own self opinion. Thoreau had expectations of finding spiritual truth in

nature, not through it. He believed it was a symbol and that we should be able to see God

(36). These contrasting ideas show us Thoreau’s means of sorting out his confusion and

reasoning his self explanations. A Week consists of ideas on how to live a successful and

full transcendental life by making use of “successive day journeys” toward “eternal day.”

Thoreau saw two paths that he approved of, that of the “hero” and that of the “poet.”

Schneider tells us, “his goal was to combine the two on the transcendental assumption that

the greatest life is the greatest poetry, and vice versa” (37). Thoreau used the ideas that as

a hero-poet he needed to discover that his own personal identity was created by his own

unique mind. At the same time he needed to realize his mind was part of God’s. Thoreau

says, “Let us wander where we will the universe is built round about us, and we are central

still.” This clearly shows us his transcendental view of the world being an

extension of our minds (39).

Walden was started close to two years after A Week and is considered the masterpiece of

the two works. There is more confidence in unifying art and life and his views of life are

more confident. Richard Lebeaux observes, “By the end of his first year at Walden,

Thoreau had finally succeeded in settling on and building a solid early adult life structure”

(Schneider 45-46). In Walden, Thoreau uses the same circular pattern as in A Week, but

this time it is that

Time of the year which is paralleled by that of day.

Most of what he writes about in Walden is based on his first year living by the pond.

Things such as his night in jail, trip to Mount Katahdin, and scientific studies of the second

year he only touches upon. This helped to unify the book. This great unity creates a

persona right in the beginning which you must become familiar with in order to understand

the rest of the book. The persona is created by the foundation of the cabin on land and by

the reader’s extension which allows for a better view of life. Thoreau is far enough from

Concord to view it objectively, but he is not completely detached (Schneider 47). He tells

us his purpose for writing this book was to answer questions about his own life, and as

Schneider tells us, to enlighten students who are “intellectually poor and unenlightened

that they do not know how to live” (47-48).

It is apparent that Thoreau was concerned about the minds of his readers and their morals.

This presents a strong appeal to young people, people who believe in change, and even

rebellious people. Walden is thought of as a book about social protest, an autobiography,

and a journey into philosophy and nature which evokes strong feelings. Stern says,

“Walden was to be his personal testament, the essence of all he had observed and put

down in his Journal, the bringing together of everything he had felt and thought about”


Many people look at the style of Walden more than its content. Critic, Charles R.

Anderson, thinks that the book should be read as a poem rather than a book. He explains

how it can be looked at as a web or circle. Walden Pond is in the middle which represents

the peaceful state for which man searches. He says there are radial lines of wit leading

away from the middle which run across the sensual life. These lines have concentric circles

which are goals of finding the perfect life or Heaven. He also says that this circle is so

tightly constructed that when any part of it is disturbed the whole piece is effected. He

feels that Walden is a great poem that expresses the true desires of the world and it is sad

that the human race could not attain them (Stern 10-11).

There are other great techniques Thoreau includes such as his interest in natural history,

politics, economics, prose style, anachronism, theology, etc…. Many of the specific

chapters are viewed critically in Walden. Some critics who believe that Walden is

specifically a nature poem think that only those chapters pertaining to nature should be

included. They believe “Economy” should be skipped because it deals with politics, along

with philosophical chapters such as “Where I lived and What I Lived for,” “Higher Laws,”

and “Conclusion.” This belief led to Thoreau being considered a nature writer and not a

philosopher or literary figure, stated by Harding (Hicks 44-45). There are, however, those

that believe Thoreau is not a typical nature writer. He is not cute, sentimental, technical,

or dull. He does not give lower classes of animals human characteristics, but does not

degrade them either. He uses wit and humor to point fun at, not only animals, but humans

as well. Walden deals with humans living simple lives, not only to accept them, but to

enjoy them as well. In the first chapter, Thoreau tells us that we should adopt our own

mode of living and do things our own way rather than that of our parents. He makes us

realize the complexity of civilized life and to choose our own personal desires rather than

those imposed on us by society. He tells us that we should worry more about doing what

is right for us and not what is right for our neighbors. For if we live for others we will

discover that when it comes time to die we will have lived for nothing. At the end of his

own life Thoreau says, “I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I

know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret

nothing” (47). Harding tells us it is apparent that Walden is devoted to answering how we

find the essence of life and this is seen in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”: Our life

is frittered away by detail. …simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! …Let us spend one day as

deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s

wing that falls on the rails (Hicks 48).

Walden is also seen as a satirical criticism of modern life and living. The sarcastic side of

Thoreau is sometimes misunderstood and he is taken too seriously. Thoreau expresses

much humor in this book and should not be taken quite so seriously. Hick tells us,

Thoreau expresses his wit and humor through the use of literary devices such as, “puns,

hyperbole, slapstick, mockery, parody, and burlesque…” (50). Most of his humor is

pointed at society and institutions which Thoreau believed could use reform. A good

example of this: We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some

weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the

broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough

(Hicks 50-51). This is a perfect example of the way people are in society when it comes to

their priorities and their interest in the affairs of others. Thoreau is pointing fun at how

people would be more interested in gossip than any substantial information.

Walden is looked upon as an incredibly written literary masterpiece. It is said that he

wrote the first Modern American prose. Walden is abstractly written with each well

constructed paragraph, line, and sentence falling nicely into place together. The cycles of

adventures take place in one year. Each chapter in the book has its own set place. The

spiritual and mundane chapters are carefully alternated. “Higher Laws” is followed by

“Brute Neighbors.” The practical is followed by the philosophical with “Economy” then

“Where I Lived….” The animal chapter is followed by the human one where “Winter

Visitors” is followed by “Winter Animals.” Chapters that are next to each other are tied

together by contrast such as “Solitude” and “Visitors.” Some are tied together

chronologically such as “The Pond in Winter” and “Spring.” The three major expository

chapters, “Economy,” “Higher Laws,” and “Conclusion,” are strategically placed in the

beginning, middle, and end. Harding tells us Walden contains 423 well structured, long

paragraphs. Thoreau uses a device known as “climax ending” (Hicks 53), where the last

sentence carries the paragraph a little farther and beyond what it is saying. The paragraphs

are independent, but can not be moved without damaging the entire work. Thoreau also

uses incredible and complex vocabulary with words such as; “…integument, umbrageous,

deliquium, aliment, fluviatile, and periplus.” (Hicks 54). A dictionary is required just to

read the book. Thoreau also alludes to Greek gods, Biblical phrases, he quotes other

poets, and alludes or refers to earlier authority figures in history or ancient classics


Yet another way to look at Walden is on a spiritual level. A major thesis of Thoreau is a

spiritual rebirth and this is more evident in, “Economy,” “Where I Lived…,” “Higher

Laws,” and “Conclusion.” This is why Walden has become a spiritual guidebook to many

(Hicks 55). Thoreau shows us that we need to spend more time bettering ourselves than

devising means of destroying the rest of the world. We not only see the renewal soul, but

the earth as well (55).

All these contributions, ideas and concepts conceive our own beliefs about the material

which we read and the author who writes it. Thoreau was a complex man in search of

spiritual peace and happiness while battling his own personal struggle. It was his disgust of

society and the world around him which led to his own negative self-opinion. While this

was an unhealthy attitude it contributed to some of Thoreau’s best pieces of literature.


Works Consulted

“Background behind Walden”. [Online] Available

http://umsa.umd.edu/thoreau/walden.html. (29 Nov. 97)

Buhl, Niels. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

[Online] Available httpH//www.math.ku.de/~buhl/Library/Thoreau.html. (29 Nov. 97).

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

Inc., 1966.

Hicks, John H, et al., eds. Thoreau in Our Season. Massachusetts: The University of

Massachusetts Press, 1966.

Johnson, Linck C, ed. Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of A Week on the Concord

and Merrimack Rivers. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1986.

“The Life of Henry David Thoreau”. [Online] Available

http://umsa.umd.edu/thoreau/history.html (29 Nov. 97).

McMichael, George, et al., eds. Anthology of American Literature Volume I: Colonial

Through Romantic Sixth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Meltzer, Milton. Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics. New York: Hill and Wang,


Schneider, Richard J. Henry David Thoreau. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers,


Van Doren Stern, Philip, ed. The Annotated Walden: Walden; or, Life in the Woods. By

Henry D. Thoreau. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1970.


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