of Henry David Thoreau
"I am eager to report
of the universe." - Henry Thoreau
Thoreau Reader: Home
"I can open Thoreau anywhere and read over and over a single
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
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
wrote essays. His work began with journal entries; he then built essays
from his journal, and later combined essays into books. The work of
essays into books has continued, and much of his work has been
posthumously. Recent editions of Thoreau's works, published in 1993,
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
around him, and as this sinks in, many people start to feel that they
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
certain that you would be welcome, and that you would have a good
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
basis of his simple philosophy. In place of affected
we discovered in him only originality, every thought and action
to us a mind singularly individual, acknowledging no model save that
by the dictates of conscience, and by the inferences drawn from a
contemplation of the natural world. He appeared to us more than
men to enjoy life, not for its hypocrisies, its conventional shams and
barbarisms, but for its intrinsic worth, taking great interest in
connected with the welfare of the town, no less than delight in each
aspect of Nature, with an instinctive love for every creature in her
Each time we read a "methinks" or an "I would fain", it's a
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
with small industries, Cape Cod before the motels, and Maine before
was a trail to the summit of Katahdin. Since then, from Henry's point
view, the world has not improved much. Except for slavery, there is
less today of what Thoreau admired and more of what he deplored. This
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
Express.) It's not an entertaining book in the modern sense — it
make a terrible movie — but it is often very positive. Walden
to us as a narrative of the time Thoreau lived in a small cabin near
Pond, but it is primarily an exploration of the concept that true
is achieved most easily by living simply and wanting little of what
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
joy of this book.
The first chapter is called "Economy", and it includes a
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
the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend,
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
there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky
to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be
here the greater part of the day."
By now the cost-per-mile calculations would not be the same, but that
not the point. The point is to enrich your life by spending it well.
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
the person wrapped up in concerns about economic advancement."
The Thoreau Reader's two other books are Cape Cod and The
Woods, both published by Thoreau's admirers after he died. They are
Thoreau's travel books; each describes visits to places not that far
Concord, but quite different in geography and culture. Thoreau also
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
stems the great tradition of nature writing in America."
In Cape Cod, Thoreau finds the
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,'
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
In The Maine Woods,
goes off in search of true wilderness and Indians, finds both, and is
"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
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,
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
— so he put his opposition in writing, creating a document that later
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
Thoreau's best short statement of what was most important to him. He
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
as an address to an anti-slavery convention in Framingham,
on July 4, 1854, where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a
of the constitution. It refers specifically to the Fugitive Slave Law
1850, in which the federal government defined the rights of slave
in northern states, and to the arrest and return to Virginia of
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
A Plea for Captain John Brown was
after John Brown's failed attempt to raid the federal arsonal at
Ferry, intending to arm the slaves and ignite a slave revolt. Thoreau
met Brown in Concord, and saw that Brown felt as passionatly about
slavery as he did, while so many in New England were more inclined to
within the existing system.
"I would rather see the statue of Captain Brown in
State-House yard, than that of any other man whom I know. I rejoice
I live in this age, that I am his contemporary."
In Walking, Thoreau, like Emerson,
"Nature", indicating a spiritual as well as a scientific appreciation
the natural environment. Its most famous quote is "in wildness is the
of the world." Walking is one of the earliest American
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
Forest Trees, Thoreau speaks to a group of local farmers, and
for the first time how animals and weather combine to distibute new
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
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
creatively, different though they may be, even as he spent his life
his, always asking questions, always looking to nature for greater
and meaning for his life." - Ann
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
Light (Chapter 8) - back
3. The Maine Woods,
(Part 6) - back
Thoreau Reader: Home
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