Henry David Thoreau Essay Research Paper He

Henry David Thoreau Essay, Research Paper He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a

Henry David Thoreau Essay, Research Paper

He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study

of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a

shack in the woods near a pond. Who would choose a life like this?

Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau,

what did he do, and what did others think of his work?

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July

12, 1817 ("Thoreau" 96), on his grandmother’s farm. Thoreau, who was of

French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry

Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry

David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother

John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that

Thoreau was interested in literature and writing. At a young age he began

to show interest writing, and he wrote his first essay, "The Seasons," at

the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).

In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to

Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the cost of tuition

so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to

help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of

Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on

September first. "He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of his class, but

he went his own way too much to reach the top" (5).

In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to

earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted about a month and a half

(8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and graduated on August

16, 1837 (12). Thoreau’s years at Harvard University gave him one great

gift, an introduction to the world of books.

Upon his return from college, Thoreau’s family found him to be

less likely to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and

inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and

unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his secret

desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with

freedom to think and act as he wished.

Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied

for a teaching position at the public school in Concord and was

accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He opted

instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the

community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They

decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered

Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up

six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his

resignation, because he felt that physical punishment should have no part

in education (Derleth 15).

In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started

out as a literary notebook, but later developed into a work of art. In

it Thoreau record his thoughts and discoveries about nature (The 1995

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).

Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy

Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s

sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same

thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau.

Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they

quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after

their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson’s help, delivered his first

lecture, "Society" (21).

Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous

person in Henry David Thoreau’s life. From 1841 to 1843 and again

between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household,

and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and

many other members of the "Transcendental Club" ("Thoreau" 696).

On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left

Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal,

into the Merrimack River and into the state of

New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the

Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25).

Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry’s beloved older brother,

became very ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and in early May a poor

and distraught Henry David moved into the upstairs of Ralph Waldo

Emerson’s house (35). On March 11, 1842 John died, and Henry’s life long

friend and companion was gone (40).

In early 1845 Thoreau decided to make a sojourn to nearby Walden

Pond, where Emerson had recently purchased a plot of land. He built a

small cabin overlooking the pond, and from July 4, 1845 to September 6,

1847 Thoreau lived at Walden Pond ("Thoreau" 697). When asked why he

went to live at Walden Pond Thoreau replied:

I went to the woods because I wished to live

deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,

and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came

to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was

not life, living is dear, nor did I wish to

practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I

wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… (Thoreau

75- 76).

One night in July 1846, during his stay at Walden, Thoreau was

walking into Concord from the pond when he was accosted by Sam Staples,

the Concord jailer, and charged with not having paid his poll tax.

Thoreau had not paid a poll tax since 1843 when his friend Bronson Alcott

spent a night in jail for not paying his. He didn’t see why he should

have to pay the tax, he had never voted, and he knew that such a purely

political tax had to be affiliated with the funding of the Mexican War

and the subsistence of slavery, both of which he strongly objected to

(Derleth 66). The following morning Thoreau was released because

someone, probably his Aunt Maria Thoreau, had paid his back taxes (68).

This imprisonment compelled Thoreau to write "Civil Disobedience," one of

his most famous essays.

On May 6,1862 ("Thoreau" 697), after an unavailing journey to

Minnesota in 1861 in search of better health, Henry David Thoreau died of

tuberculosis. Thoreau was buried in Sleep Hollow Cemetery in Concord

near his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson

Alcott (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2).

Thoreau never earned a livelihood by writing, but his works fill

twenty volumes. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack

Rivers, was a huge failure selling only 219 of the original 1,000 copies

("Thoreau" 697), but his doctrine of passive resistance impacted many

powerful people such as Mahatma Gahndi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (The

1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Thoreau’s essay, "Civil

Disobedience," accentuated personal ethics and responsibility. It urged

the individual to follow the dictates of conscience in any conflict

between itself and civil law, and to violate unjust laws to invoke their


Throughout his life, Thoreau protested against slavery by

lecturing, by abetting escaped slaves in their decampment to freedom in

Canada, and by outwardly defending John Brown when he made his hapless

attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859 (2).

Walden is conceivably Thoreau’s most famous work, however, for

nearly a century after it’s publication it was considered to be only a

collection of nature essays, as social criticism, or as a literal

autobiography. Walden is now looked upon as a created work of art

("Thoreau" 697).

In Walden Thoreau expresses his sentiments on varying subjects

such as, the attitudes of society, age, and work. Thoreau felt that

society had no right to judge people on the basis of their appearance:

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a

patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater

anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, of at

least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience

(Thoreau 27).

Thoreau believed in relaxation and simplicity, and he said: "As for work,

we haven’t any of any consequence" (78). Thoreau also believed that

older people should not tell younger people how to live because:

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an

instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it

has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned

anything of absolute value by living (16).

Walden is filled with sarcasm, criticism, and observations of

nature, life, and society, and is written in a very unique style. Walden

has been described as an elaborate system of circular imagery which

centers on Walden Pond as a symbol of heaven, the ideal of perfection

that should be striven for ("Thoreau" 697).

Thoreau has been called America’s greatest prose stylist,

naturalist, pioneer ecologist, conservationist, visionary, and humanist

(The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2). It has also been said that

Thoreau’s style shows an unconscious, but very pointed degree of

Emerson’s influence. However, there is often a rudeness, and an

inartistic carelessness in Thoreau’s style that is not at all like the

style of Emerson.

Thoreau possessed an amazing forte for expressing his many

observations in vivid color:

No one has ever excelled him in the field of minute

description. His acute powers of observation, his ability to

keep for a long time his attention upon one thing,

and his love of nature and of solitude, all lend a distinct individuality

to his style (Pattee 226).

Thoreau’s good friend Bronson Alcott described his style as:

More primitive and Homeric than any American, his style

of thinking was robust, racy, as if Nature herself had

built his sentences and seasoned the sense of his

paragraphs with his own vigor and salubrity. Nothing can be spared from

them; there is nothing superfluous; all is compact, concrete,

as nature is (Alcott 16).

Most of Thoreau’s writings had to do with Nature which caused him

to receive both positive and negative criticism. Paul Elmer More said

that Thoreau was: "The greatest by far of our writers on Nature and the

creator of a new sentiment in literature," but he then does a complete

turn around to say:

Much of his [Thoreau's] writing, perhaps the greater

part, is the mere record of observation and classification,

and has not the slightest claim on our remembrance, —

unless, indeed, it posses some scientific value, which I doubt (More


Thoreau was always very forthright in everything he said.

Examples of this can be found throughout Walden, one of which being his

statement in chapter two: "To a philosopher all news, as it is called,

is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea"

(Thoreau 79). There is certainly no ersatz sentiment, nor simulation of

reverence of benevolence in Walden (Briggs 445).

Thoreau was a philosopher of individualism, who placed nature

above materialism in private life, and ethics above conformity in

politics (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). His life was

marked by whimsical acts and unusual stands on public issues ("Thoreau"

697). These peculiar beliefs led to a lot of criticism of Thoreau and

his work. James Russell Lowell complained the Thoreau exalted the

constraints of his own dispositions and insisted upon accepting his

shortcomings and debilities as virtues and powers. Lowell considered: "a

great deal of the modern sentimentalism about Nature…a mark of disease"

(Wagenknecht 2).

In some ways Walden is deluding. It consists of eighteen essays

in which Thoreau condenses his twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond into

the seasons of a single year. Also, the idea is expressed in Magill’s

Survey of American Literature that:

Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a pioneer;

his hut was within two miles of town, and while at Walden, he

made almost daily visits to Concord and to his family, dined

out often, had frequent visitors, and went off on excursions.

Walden is a testament to the renewing power of nature, to the

need of respect and preservation of the environment, and to the belief

that: "in wildness is the salvation of the world" (Magill 1949). Walden

is simply an experience recreated in words for the purpose of getting rid

of the world and discovering the self ("Thoreau" 697).

Henry David Thoreau strived for freedom and equality. He was

opinionated and argumentative. He stood up for what he believed in and

was willing to fight for it. His teachings and writings had an amazing

affect on people and the world, and will have for centuries to come.