Henry David Thoreau:
Who He Was & Why He Matters

By Randall Conrad, Director of the Thoreau Project at Calliope, Inc.

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) exerted a profound, enduring influence on American thought and letters. His famous experiment in living close to nature, and his equally famous night in jail to protest an inhuman institution and an unjust war, are distilled in his best known works, Walden and "Civil Disobedience."

Thoreau's elevation of conscientious integrity in an era of social conformism, his passionate opposition to the institutional degradation of human life and values, and his enduring literary production as an author, public speaker, and natural scientist — all expressed in a distinctive prose style at once classic and personal — place him at the heart of the era now known as the American Renaissance.

Almost buried beneath the weight of Thoreau's status as a literary classic and popular icon is an extraordinary wealth of thought and insight for people today. The philosopher Stanley Cavell writes that Thoreau's achievement "is still, if one can imagine it, not fully recognized." And literary scholar Lawrence Buell predicts that Thoreau will be "an even more luminous and inspirational figure in the 21st century than he has been in the twentieth."

Henry David Thoreau was...

1. A philosopher and creative artist: Of the inspired intellectuals he lived among and worked with — his elder friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, his sometime editor Margaret Fuller, his fireside companions Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne among others — Thoreau was second to none in dedicating his life, skills, and classical learning to the Emersonian call for the creation of an original American literature and philosophy, in an era when "writer" was not yet a specialized profession.

Thoreau's retreat to Walden was not the misanthropic withdrawal that is too often pictured; it was motivated by the urgent need to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," just as he writes in Walden. And the book that resulted, far from being a straightforward chronicle, is the work of a literary artist — a multi-layered, orchestrated text, alive with wordplay and humor.

2. A scientific originator: Thoreau dedicated his life to the exploration of nature — not as a backdrop to human activity but as a living, integrated system of which you and I are simply a part. He was a skilled engineer, surveyor and inventor. He created the modern American pencil by introducing clay into the manufacture of graphite (pencil "lead"). He became an expert on wildlife and an experienced botanist. His "nature writing" progressed from the poetic symbolism of Walden to the scientific method in his later journals: (1) observation and information-gathering; (2) stating a hypothesis; (3) verifying the hypothesis with testing.

3. An antislavery activist: Despite his deep-rooted individualism, Thoreau was readily moved to activism against injustice. In the 1850s he was a risk-taker on the underground railroad, and an outspoken defender even of extremism to defeat proslavery forces in a divided America. "Henry Thoreau more often than any other man in Concord" looked after the underground railroad's night passengers in Concord, another activist recalled.

The well-known essay "Civil Disobedience" was never Thoreau's final word on resistance against injustice and oppression. His strongest critique of America's constituted society lay in his subsequent public addresses "Slavery in Massachusetts," "Life Without Principle," and his defenses of John Brown.

4. A contributor to community life: Remembered personally for his perennial humor, love of music, and easy way with children, Thoreau was a busy, committed member of his family and community: caring for loved ones, improving the family business (pencil-making and graphite processing), surveying property, innovating as an educator during his brief, stormy employment in Concord's one-room schoolhouse and later at the alternative school he ran with his brother. He contributed to "continuing education," as we call it today, by booking lecturers for the public Lyceum.

5. A restless river that ran deep: Not only high-minded principle but a deep-running emotional life nourished Thoreau's art and prompted his actions. He filled a lifelong Journal — thousands of pages — with feelings as well as factual observations.  Thoreau's Journal was fully published only in the twentieth century and is now recognized as a brilliant work in its own right.

Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

The Thoreau plaque of  "Library Way" in New York City...

New York City Library Way Thoreau Plaque

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