You may have
known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist, and
merely pitied or despised him, and despaired of the world; but the sun shines
bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world, and you meet
him at some serene work, and see how his exhausted and debauched veins expand
with still joy and bless the new day, feel the spring influence with the
innocence of infancy, and all his faults are forgotten. There is not only an
atmosphere of good will about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for
expression, blindly and ineffectually perhaps, like a new-born instinct, and
for a short hour the south hill-side echoes to no vulgar jest. You see some
innocent fair shoots preparing to burst from his gnarled rind and try another
year's life, tender and fresh as the youngest plant. Even he has entered into
the joy of his Lord. Why the jailer does not leave open his prison doors—why
the judge does not dismiss his case—why the preacher does not dismiss his
congregation! It is because they do not obey the hint which God gives them,
nor accept the pardon which he freely offers to all.
--from Walden, "Spring"
Who was Thoreau, and why does he matter?
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 we call the
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 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 founder of environmentalism.
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 became an expert on wildlife and an experienced botanist. In
his later work, Thoreau explored "the economy of nature" (today known as
ecology). He theorized about the dispersion of
plants, read Darwin's Origin of Species
soon after it was published, and became a pioneer voice of today's urgent
3. A scientific originator. He was a skilled engineer, surveyor and inventor. He created the modern
pencil by introducing clay into the manufacture of graphite (pencil "lead").
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.
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
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.
6. 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. (See A Page in
Thoreau's Journal.) Thoreau's
Journal was fully published only in the twentieth century and
is now recognized as a brilliant work in its own right.
Students! You have our permission to quote from (not
copy from) this page -- provided that you acknowledge it in your
bibliography as follows:
Calliope Film Resources. "Henry David Thoreau." Copyright CFR.
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]
Thoreau is your gateway to the "American Renaissance,"
the Transcendentalists, environmental science, the turbulent
decades leading up to the Civil War... and key figures and episodes
Use these Thoreau pages and links provided by Calliope to enhance