Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau (1817-1862) was born in Concord, a village near Boston where many of the literary figures of the 19th century, including Emerson, lived. After graduating from Harvard and teaching school for a few years, Thoreau went to live with Emerson both to study with him and to work as a handyman. Later in his life he traveled a little, but in general Thoreau stayed near his home. He had a strong attachment to his family, and he preferred to travel vicariously through books. The trips he did take were often camping trips, for he enjoyed the outdoors and was a skillful woodsman.

Both Thoreau's Transcendental philosophy and his scientific knowledge contributed to his love of nature. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he wrote about a canoeing trip he made with his brother. Later he built himself a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, and lived there for two years, reporting on his experiences in Walden. He wanted to live alone and to depend on his own mental and physical resources. He raised his own food and spent very little money, devoting most of his time to study and reflection.

Thoreau's style is often conversational in tone, similar to that found in Emerson's journals, so on the surface his books seem to be nothing more than casual accounts of his trips. In reality, however, they are carefully arranged, their design helping to convey Thoreau's meaning. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, for example, compresses a longer period of time into seven days; different subjects are discussed each day. The progression of these subjects, and the daily cycle of sunrise and sunset provide the book's structure. Thoreau worked on the book for 10 years before finally publishing it at his own expense.

Walden is also deceptively casual. Again Thoreau condensed his two and a half years in the woods into one year, stressing the unifying theme of seasonal changes as he progressed from the summer growth of his bean crop to its harvest, and to the death of the plants and replanting in the spring. Thoreau uses the little world around Walden Pond to illustrate his philosophy and observations about life.

Through his writing Thoreau wanted to illustrate that the pursuit of material things had no value. He desired a life of contemplation, of being in harmony with nature, and of acting on his own principles. His study of Eastern religious contributed to his desire for a simple life, while his reaction against such Yankee pragmatists as Benjamin Franklin is also apparent. Both Franklin and Thoreau advocated thrift and hard work, but while Franklin expected the frugal to get richer and richer, Thoreau thought physical labor and a minimum of material goods made men more sensitive and kept them closer to nature.

In 1847 Thoreau was imprisoned briefly for refusing to pay a tax while the government supported a war he considered unjust. His refusal to pay was consistent with his belief in using civil disobedience to protest government actions, a philosophy he explains in his essay, "Civil Disobedience." He was also strongly opposed to slavery. Thoreau was very much an individualist, distrusting group action and preferring to depend on individual reform for the improvement of society.