A Brief Introduction to the
Works of Henry David Thoreau

"I am eager to report the glory of the universe." - Henry Thoreau

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"I can open Thoreau anywhere and read over and over a single sentence, about the road between Haverhill and Penacook, or how oak seedlings are best found in a pine wood, and in that sentence is the fragrance of a life lived." - Mike Price 

Henry Thoreau's life can be described as two major accomplishments: he lived life on his own terms to a remarkable degree, and he wrote it all down. Thoreau did not write stories; he wrote some poetry, but mostly he wrote essays. His work began with journal entries; he then built essays from his journal, and later combined essays into books. The work of assembling essays into books has continued, and much of his work has been published posthumously. Recent editions of Thoreau's works, published in 1993, 1999 and 2004, include material not previously available. 

If you read only short selections of Thoreau, he can sound like a whining malcontent, but if you stick with him a bit longer this impression does not last. Thoreau cared deeply about the problems of his time and the people around him, and as this sinks in, many people start to feel that they have a lot in common with Henry. Part of the magic of Walden is that it's not just a story; it's a real person in a real place. You want to step back in time and drop in for a visit at the cabin, feeling absolutely certain that you would be welcome, and that you would have a good time. 

In 1862, Samuel Storrow Higginson wrote: "We found him to be one of the rarest companions, beneath whose rugged exterior there lay a lively appreciation of all that is vivifying in nature, and a natural yearning toward his fellow-men, together with a kindly sympathy, which was but the basis of his simple philosophy.  In place of affected eccentricity, we discovered in him only originality, every thought and action revealing to us a mind singularly individual, acknowledging no model save that fashioned by the dictates of conscience, and by the inferences drawn from a thoughtful contemplation of the natural world.  He appeared to us more than all men to enjoy life, not for its hypocrisies, its conventional shams and barbarisms, but for its intrinsic worth, taking great interest in everything connected with the welfare of the town, no less than delight in each changing aspect of Nature, with an instinctive love for every creature in her realm."(1)

Each time we read a "methinks" or an "I would fain", it's a reminder that Thoreau's works are now close to 150 years old. Some of the places we see with Henry can seem as distant and exotic as anything described in National Geographic. We visit Concord when it was a farming community with small industries, Cape Cod before the motels, and Maine before there was a trail to the summit of Katahdin. Since then, from Henry's point of view, the world has not improved much. Except for slavery, there is generally less today of what Thoreau admired and more of what he deplored. This only serves to make his ideas more relevant to our time.

If you are new to Thoreau, start with Walden; it is his defining masterpiece. (If you're in a hurry, go directly to the Walden Express.) It's not an entertaining book in the modern sense — it would make a terrible movie — but it is often very positive. Walden comes to us as a narrative of the time Thoreau lived in a small cabin near Walden Pond, but it is primarily an exploration of the concept that true wealth is achieved most easily by living simply and wanting little of what money can buy. Wealth to Henry is time — time to write, to explore Nature, to be himself, and to enjoy his life. Watching Henry enjoy life is the great joy of this book. 

The first chapter is called "Economy", and it includes a response to a friend's suggestion... 

    "One says to me, 'I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the [railroad] cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.' But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day's wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have travelled at that rate by the week together. You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day."
By now the cost-per-mile calculations would not be the same, but that is not the point. The point is to enrich your life by spending it well. Ernie Seckinger writes, "He did not depart from society; he did not refuse a job for money; he simply had more things to do and more life to live than the person wrapped up in concerns about economic advancement."

The Thoreau Reader's two other books are Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, both published by Thoreau's admirers after he died. They are Thoreau's travel books; each describes visits to places not that far from Concord, but quite different in geography and culture. Thoreau also continues and expands his nature writing, which became a much larger part of his life as he grew older. Henry Beston, in a 1951 introduction to Cape Cod, refers to Thoreau as "the obstinate and unique genius from whom stems the great tradition of nature writing in America." 

In Cape Cod, Thoreau finds the ocean, fishermen, shipwrecks, and lighthouses... 
    "I thought it a pity that some poor student did not live there, to profit by all that light, since he would not rob the mariner. 'Well,' he said, 'I do sometimes come up here and read the newspaper when they are noisy down below.' Think of fifteen argand lamps to read the newspaper by! Government oil! — light, enough, perchance, to read the Constitution by!"(2)
In The Maine Woods, Thoreau goes off in search of true wilderness and Indians, finds both, and is pleased... 
    "Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?"(3)

The Thoreau Reader contains six of Thoreau's essays. Civil Disobedience is the most famous; it was written after Henry, protesting slavery and the Mexican War, was put in jail overnight for refusing to pay his poll tax. Someone paid the tax for him — ending his protest abruptly — so he put his opposition in writing, creating a document that later influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King... 
    "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."
Life without Principle is considered Thoreau's best short statement of what was most important to him. He delivered this piece as a lecture several times... 
    "If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen."
Slavery in Massachusetts was delivered as an address to an anti-slavery convention in Framingham, Massachusetts on July 4, 1854, where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the constitution. It refers specifically to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the federal government defined the rights of slave holders in northern states, and to the arrest and return to Virginia of fugitive slave Anthony Burns... 
    "The fact which the politician faces is merely that there is less honor among thieves than was supposed, and not the fact that they are thieves."
A Plea for Captain John Brown was delivered after John Brown's failed attempt to raid the federal arsonal at Harper's Ferry, intending to arm the slaves and ignite a slave revolt. Thoreau had met Brown in Concord, and saw that Brown felt as passionatly about ending slavery as he did, while so many in New England were more inclined to work within the existing system.
"I would rather see the statue of Captain Brown in the Massachusetts State-House yard, than that of any other man whom I know. I rejoice that I live in this age, that I am his contemporary."
In Walking, Thoreau, like Emerson, capitalizes "Nature", indicating a spiritual as well as a scientific appreciation of the natural environment. Its most famous quote is "in wildness is the preservation of the world." Walking is one of the earliest American documents to advance the cause of environmentalism... 
    "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society."
In The Succession of Forest Trees, Thoreau speaks to a group of local farmers, and explains for the first time how animals and weather combine to distibute new plants to cleared land. Watch for the joke at the end of the first paragraph!

For more information on Thoreau, see Thoreau: Genius Ignored by Lucius Furius, or the Thoreau Reader's links to other sites. Henry's last name is pronounced like "thorough".

"His work is so rich, and so full of the complex contradictions that he explored, that his readers keep reshaping his image to fit their own needs. Perhaps he would have appreciated that, for he seems to have wanted most to use words to force his readers to rethink their own lives creatively, different though they may be, even as he spent his life rethinking his, always asking questions, always looking to nature for greater intensity and meaning for his life." - Ann Woodlief


1. From "Harvard Magazine," as quoted by Walter Harding in Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries, New York: Dover, 1989 - back
2. Cape Cod, The Highland Light (Chapter 8) - back
3. The Maine Woods, Ktaadn (Part 6) - back

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