Henry David Thoreau
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As the afternoons grow shorter, and the early evening drives us home to complete our chores, we are reminded of the shortness of life, and become more pensive, at least in this twilight of the year. We are prompted to make haste and finish our work before the night comes. I leaned over a rail in the twilight on the Walden road, waiting for the evening mail to be distributed, when such thoughts visited me. I seemed to recognize the November evening as a familiar thing come round again, and yet I could hardly tell whether I had ever known it or only divined it.

...I want nothing new, if I can have but a tithe of the old secured to me. I will spurn all wealth beside. Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nearer and nearer here. Here are all the friends I ever had or shall have, and as friendly as ever. Why, I never had any quarrel with a friend but it was just as sweet as unanimity could be. I do not think we budge an inch forward or backward in relation to our friends. How many things can you go away from? They see the comet from the northwest coast just as plainly as we do, and the same stars through its tail.

Take the shortest way round and stay at home. A man dwells in his native valley like a corolla in its calyx, like an acorn in its cup. Here, of course, is all that you love, all that you expect, all that you are. Here is your bride elect, as close to you as she can be got. Here is all the best and all the worst you can imagine. What more do you want ? Bear hereaway then! Foolish people imagine that what they imagine is somewhere else. That stuff is not made in any factory but their own.
Nov. 1, 1858

Daguerreotype of Thoreau, age 39
Courtesy of The Thoreau Society, Lincoln, Mass.



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The individual and the State: The Politics of Thoreau in Our Time� will be the topic of the Thoreau Society�s 2008 Annual Gathering in Concord, July 10-13.

Start by reading:

"Why has every man a conscience then?" (Civil Disobedience)


Read about last summer's Annual Gathering
on the Thoreau Society Web Site


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 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 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 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. (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.

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Teachers! 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 in African American history. Use these Thoreau pages and links provided by Calliope to enhance your curriculum.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010