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Henry David Thoreau was born in July 1817. He was one of the greatest minds in US history. Thoreau was an essayist, poet, philosopher, naturalist, historian, and social critic, and has continued to serve as an inspiration to people all over the world. His friend, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, eulogized Thoreau by saying, “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost … His soul was made for the noblest society … Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”
I cannot pretend to do justice to the extraordinary, if tragically short, life and far-reaching influence of Thoreau in this blog. Rather, I hope to inspire you to learn more about him, to read his books and essays, and to perhaps find some inspiration for yourself in his words and deeds.
He was born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817. He was the middle child of four, and his mother took in boarders to help support the family. His parents quickly recognized their son’s high intellect, and he proved to be an exceptional student. He went to Harvard, and studied languages (Greek, Latin, and German) with the intention of entering into a career in education. He briefly joined the faculty of the Concord Public School, but he resigned within days rather than administer corporal punishment. Following graduation (at age 20!), Thoreau began to call himself Henry David Thoreau, and the name followed him thereafter although he never formally changed it.
He met Emerson through a mutual friend in Concord, and the elder poet soon became Thoreau’s mentor and patron. Emerson helped Thoreau by introducing him to other celebrated writers, which led to some early publications and encouraged him to keep a journal, which would one day become the most significant in American literature. Emerson also took Thoreau in as his children’s tutor.
During this period, Thoreau became enamored with the Transcendentalist Movement, which saw spirituality in all things. It emphasized the importance of empirical thinking and encouraged curiosity and observation of nature. If Romanticism in Great Britain at the time found emotion recollected in tranquility, Transcendentalists in America found divinity in nature.
Emerson had undeveloped property at Walden Pond, a 61-acre tract of land in Concord, and he allowed Thoreau to build a small cabin there in 1845. On July 4, Independence Day, Walden moved into this cabin for a two-year long experiment of living quietly and working little. He was concerned with what he believed was the loss of spirituality in modern society. He wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That experiment, which lasted nearly 2 ½ years, resulted in a meticulously edited, and exquisitely written journal of philosophical and natural observations. We know it today as Walden, or Life in the Woods.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
His book, while sublimely and vividly detailing nature throughout the seasons, is much more than a study of the natural world. It is a philosophical document on the place of man in the universe, containing wisdom and insight which resonates for everyone who has ever had doubt, or wished for more out of life. It began the conservation movement, but it also stirs the heart.
While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau also had an encounter with the authorities, and he was arrested and jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax, which Thoreau felt was subsidizing the Mexican-American War. Thoreau was opposed to the war, and to slavery, and he objected to his tax money supporting those causes. He embarked on a series of lectures encouraging his fellow citizens to stand up for their beliefs, and not to blindly follow their government.
The result was an essay which has also had a profound impact on society throughout the world. Thoreau revised his lectures into a work entitled Resistance to Civil Government, also known as Civil Disobedience. This political treatise, published in 1849, has been cited by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as inspiration to their nonviolent movements in the 20th century. President John F. Kennedy often quoted Thoreau. And, without Thoreau, could there have been a Nelson Mandela?
Thoreau, as you can tell from the quote by Emerson which began this appreciation, was not popular during his lifetime. He was alternately combative and idealistic, and he often took views which put him well outside mainstream thought. He was among the first to champion Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and he was a fervent abolitionist, long before either view gained wide acceptance. He was also, at the time, seen as an imitator of Emerson, who was widely famous and popular. Living, as he did, in the shadow of Emerson throughout his professional career, Thoreau could not have imagined the impact his life and work would have on the world 200 years following his birth.
Walden is a timeless classic. It likely will be read for as long as mankind endures. Civil Disobedience will continue to challenge the political landscape and champion the cause of individualism across the world. In the 21st century, when change seems to be the only constant, Thoreau‘s words are among the most enduring in the history of the English language.
“If a man does not keep pace with his
companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let
him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or
an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer?”
Photo by Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr