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||Henry D(avid) Thoreau (1817-1862)|
American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, best-known for his autobiographical story of life in the woods, Walden (1854). Thoreau became one of the leading personalities in New England Transcendentalism. He wrote tirelessly but published only two books in his lifetime and did not earn much as a journalist. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (1849) influenced Gandhi in his passive resistance campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr., and at one time the politics of the British Labour Party.
"For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did my duty faithfully, through I never received one cent for it." (Journal, February 22, 1845-1847 - no year in Thoreau's dateline)
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life, although he spent several years in his childhood in the neighboring towns and elsewhere in his adulthood. From an early age, he had a gift for being amazed. "Mother, I have been looking through the stars to see if I couldn't see God behind them," he replied when his mother once asked him why he didn't go to sleep. In 1835 Thoreau contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life. However, a few years later Emerson described Thoreau as a "strong healthy youth fresh from college". He had an out-of doors complexion, and he was often seen walking around his home town. Thoreau studied at Concord Academy (1828-33), and at Harvard University, graduating in 1837. He was teacher in Canton, Massachusetts (1835-36), and at Center School (1837), resigning after two weeks – he first refused to continue the tradition of daily canings and then beat six students to protest against corporal punishment.
From 1837-38 Thoreau worked in his father's pencil factory, and returning to the factory in 1844 and 1849-50. With his elder brother John he opened a school in Concord. Thoreau taught there in 1838-41 until his John Thoreau became fatally ill. From 1848 he was a regular lecturer at Concord Lyceum. He also worked as a land surveyor.
A decisive turning point in Thoreau's life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson. From 1841 to 1843, he was a member of Emerson household, earning his living as a handyman. When Hawthorne and his wife Sophia moved to The Old Manse in Concord, he planted a vegetable garden – beans, Indian corn, and summer squash – for them. Eventually there was superabundance of cabbages. Hawthorne respected Thoreau's minute devotion to nature and appreciated his writing for its careful observation. "On the whole, I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know," he wrote on Thoreau in his journal. However, Sophia was first put off by his awkwardness, opinions, staring intensity of his eyes, and unbending rigor of his character. In 1843 Thoreau was a tutor to William Emerson's sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson's house.
In 1845 Thoreau built a home on the shores of Walden Point for twenty-eight dollars. His observations and speculations Thoreau recorded in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). The account was based on a trip he took with John Thoreau in 1839.
His first book sold poorly and Thoreau remarked, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." Thoreau's most famous essay, Civil Disobedience (1849), was a result of a overnight visit in 1846 in a jail, where he ended after refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the Mexican War and the extension of slavery. Later Thoreau lectured and wrote about the evils of slavery and helped fleeing slaves. In his famous statement, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he crystallized his idea to be the one who has the courage to live, to stand against the trends of his own time.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods described a two-year period
in Thoreau's life from March 1845 to September 1847. From the Fourth of July, the author retired
from the town to live alone at Walden Pond. Much of Walden's
material was derived from his journals and contains such pieces as
'Reading' and 'The Pond in the Winter.' "We are a race of titmen, and
soar but a little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns
of the daily paper," Thoreau wrote in 'Reading in Walden.' Other famous
sections involve Thoreau's visits with a Canadian woodcutter and with
an Irish family, a trip to Concord, and a description of his bean
field. Although Walden has become an inspiration to all idealists who
want to escape civilization, Thoreau was a practical person and took
with him seed, lumber, clothes, nails, and other devices to survive –
and his friends helped him to put the roof on his hut. Moreover, a year
before his withdrawal, railway tracks were built by the western bank of
the pond; they were visible signs of the industrial revolution, that
would reshape Concord.
"We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my own townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects."
Although Thoreau never earned a living by his writings, his works fill 20 volumes. Among his many correspondence friends was H.G.O. Blake, once a Unitarian minister and later attached to the Transcendentalist, whom he wrote in December 1856: "I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contended one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existance." Aware that he was dying of tuberculosis, Thoreau cut short his travels and returned to Concord. There prepared some of his journals for publication. Thoreau died at Concord on May 6, 1862. The last delirious words he said on his deathbed were "Indian" and "moose". His letters were edited by his friend Emerson and published posthumously in 1865. Poems of Nature came out in 1895 and Collected Poems in 1943. Thoreau's collection of journals was published in 1906 in 14 volumes.
Light-winged Smoke! Icarian bird,
Thoreau's primary genre was essay. His fascination with the natural surroundings is reflected in many of his writings. 'Natural History of Massachusetts' includes poetry, describes the Merrimack River, and discusses the best technique for spear-fishing. In 'Resistance to Civil Government', often reprinted with the title 'Civil Disobedience', Thoreau recommends disobeying unjust laws. "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." Many readers have pointed out that in 'Slavery in Massachusetts' Thoreau's defense of John Brown, when he raided on the armory at Harper's Ferry, contradicts his idea of passive resistance. In his final essay, 'Life Without Principle,' the writer warns that working for money alone will never bring happiness. He attacks his contemporaries' fascination with news and gossips and explains how individuals must resist conformity in the search for truth.
Thoreau's Wild Fruits (1999) was written with henscratched handwriting. The text was born during the last decade of his life. Thoreau lived in the third-floor attic of his parents' house and recorded his observations about vegetation surrounding Concord. In this work he argued against the destruction of the wilderness around him.
For furter reading: Thoreau by Henry S. Canby (1939); Henry David Thoreau by Joseph Wood Krutch (1948); The Making of Walden by J. Lyndon Shanley (1957); The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding (1965); Several More Lives to Live by Michael Meyers (1977); Thoreau and American Indians by Robert F. Sayre (1977); The New Thoreau Handbook by Walter Harding and Michael Mayer (1980); Henry David Thoreau: A Descriptive Bibliography by Raymond R. Borst (1982); Thoreau's Reading by Robert Saltmeyer (1988); Thoreau Log, ed. by Raymond R. Borst (1992); Emerson and Thoreau, ed. by Joel Meyerson (1992); The Life of Henry Thoreau by Henry S. Salt (1993); Thoreau's World and Ours by Edmund A. Schofield and Robert C. Baron (1993); The Enviromental Imagination by Lawrence Buell (1995); My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau's Relationship With Emerson by Harmon D. Smith, Harmon L. Smith (1999); The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond by Michael Sims (2014); Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau by Kevin Dann (2017); Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (2017) - Note: Thoreau met Walt Whitman in 1856 in New York. He also travelled in New Hampshire, Maine, Canada, and Minnesota.