1902 Encyclopedia > Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau
American writer, philosopher and naturalist

HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1817-1862), one of the most strongly-marked individualities of modern times, spent the greater part of his life in the neighbourhood where he was born -- Concord, a village town of Massachusetts, pleasantly situated some twenty miles north-west of Boston, amidst a pastoral country of placid beauty. To Thoreau this Concord country contained all of beauty and even grandeur that was necessary to the worshipper of nature: he once journeyed to Canada; he went west on one occasion; he sailed and explored a few rivers; for the rest, he haunted Concord and its neighbourhood as faithfully as the stork does its ancestral nest.

Henry David Thoreau image

Henry David Thoreau

John Thoreau, his father, who married the daughter of a New England clergyman, was the son of a John Thoreau of the isle of Jersey, who, in Boston, married a Scottish lady of the name of Burns. This last-named John was the son of Philippe Thoreau and his wife Marie le Gallais, persons of pure French blood, settled at St Helier, in Jersey. From his New England Puritan mother, from his Scottish grandmother, from his Jersey-American grandfather and from his remoter French ancestry Thoreau inherited distinctive traits: the Saxon element perhaps predominated, but the " hauntings of Celtism " were prevalent and potent. The stock of the Thoreaus was a robust one; and in Concord the family, though never wealthy nor officially influential, was ever held in peculiar respect.

As a boy, Henry drove his mother's cow to the pastures, and thus early became enamoured of certain aspects of nature and of certain delights of solitude. At school and at Harvard University he in nowise distinguished himself, though he was an intelligently receptive student; he became, however, proficient enough in Greek, Latin, and the more general acquirements to enable him to act for a time as a master.

But long before this he had become apprenticed to the learning of nature in preference to that of man: when only twelve years of age he had made collections for Agassiz, who had then just arrived in America, and already the meadows and the hedges and the stream-sides had become cabinets of rare knowledge to him. On the desertion of schoolmastering as a profession, Thoreau became a lecturer and author, though it was the labour of his hands which mainly supported him through many years of his life: professionally he was a surveyor.

In the effort to reduce the practice of economy to a fine art he arrived at the conviction that the less labour a man did, over and above the positive demands of necessity, the better for him and for the community at large; he would have had the order of the week reversed - six days of rest for one of labour.

It was in 1845 he made the now famous experiment of Walden. Desirous of proving to himself and others that man could be as independent of this kind as the nest-building bird, Thoreau retired to a hut of his own construction on the pine-slope over against the shores of Walden Pond - a hut which he built, furnished and kept in order entirely by the labour of his own hands. During the two years of his residence in Walden woods he lived by the exercise of a little surveying, a little job-work and the tillage of a few acres of ground which produced him his beans and potatoes. His absolute independence was as little gained as if he had camped out in Hyde Park; relatively he lived the life of a recluse.

He read considerably, wrote abundantly, thought actively if not widely, and came to know beasts, birds and fishes with an intimacy more extraordinary than was the case with St Francis of Assisi. Birds came at his call, and forgot their hereditary fear of man; beasts lipped and caressed him; the very fish in lake and stream would glide, unfearful, between his hands. This exquisite familiarity with bird and beast would make us love the memory of Thoreau if his egotism were triply as arrogant, if his often meaningless paradoxes were even more absurd, if his sympathies were even less humanitarian than we know them to have been.

His Walden, the record of this fascinating two years' experience, must always remain a production of great interest and considerable psychological value.

Some years before Thoreau took to Walden woods he made the chief friendship of his life, that with Emerson. He became one of the famous circle of the transcendentalists, always keenly preserving his own individuality amongst such more or less potent natures as Emerson, Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. From Emerson he gained more than from any man, alive or dead; and, though the older philosopher both enjoyed and learned from the association with the younger, it cannot be said that the gain was equal.

There was nothing electrical in Thoreau's intercourse with his fellow men; he gave off no spiritual sparks. He absorbed intensely, but when called upon to illuminate in turn was found wanting. It is with a sense of relief that we read of his having really been stirred into active enthusiasm anent the wrongs done the ill-fated John Brown. With children he was affectionate and gentle, with old people and strangers considerate. In a word, he loved his kind as animals, but did not seem to find them as interesting as those furred and feathered.
In 1847 Thoreau left Walden Lake abruptly, and for a time occupied himself with lead-pencil making, the parental trade. He never married, thus further fulfilling his policy of what one of his essayist-biographers has termed "indulgence in fine renouncements." At the comparatively early age of forty-five he died, on the 6th of May 1862. His grave is in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery at Concord, beside those of Hawthorne and Emerson.

Thoreau's fame will rest on Walden, the Excursions , and his Letters, though he wrote nothing which is not deserving of notice. Up till his thirtieth year he dabbled in verse, but he had little ear for metrical music, and he lacked the spiritual impulsiveness of the true poet. His weakness as a philosopher is his tendency to base the laws of the universe on the experience-born, thought-produced convictions of one man -- himself. His weakness as a writer is the too frequent striving after antithesis and paradox. If he had had all his own originality without the itch of appearing original, he would have made his fascination irresistible. As it is, Thoreau holds a unique place. He was a naturalist, but absolutely devoid of the pedantry of science; a keen observer, but no retailer of disjointed facts. He thus holds sway over two domains: he had the adherence of the lovers of fact and of the children of fancy. He must always be read, whether lovingly or interestedly, for he has all the variable charm, the strange saturninity, the contradictions, austerities and delightful surprises, of Nature herself.

See W. E. Channing, Thoreau the Poet Naturalist, Boston, 1873; F. B. Sanborn, Biography of Thoreau (American Men of Letters Series); H. A. Page, Biography of Thoreau; Emerson, Introduction to Excursions; J. Russell Lowell, My Study Windows; Wil. H. Dircks, Introduction to Walden; Professor Nichol, American Literature, pp. 312 sq.; Mr. Burroughs; Mr. Henry James, &c..

After Thoreau's death were published (besides the Excursions, 1863) The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1865); Letters and Poems (1865); A Yankee in Canada (1866). In the Atlantic Monthly, in 1862, appeared "Walking," "Autumn Tints" and "Wild Apples"; in 1863, "Night and Moonlight." His best known work, Walden, constitutes the second volume of the series called The Camelot Classics; otherwise, Thoreau's productions are not strictly known in Britain. (W. SH.)

The article above was written by William Sharp, general editor of the Canterbury Poets; author of Wives in Exile, Silence Farm, critical biographies of Rossetti, Shelley, Heine and Browning; compiled the anthologies Sonnets of the Century, Lyra Celtica, etc.

Quotations about Henry David Thoreau and his works

Quotes about Thoreau

He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself. In his travels, he used the railroad only to get over so much country as was unimportant to the present purpose, walking hundreds of miles, avoiding taverns, buying a lodging in farmers' and fishermen's houses, as cheaper, and more agreeable to him, and because there he could better find the men and the information he wanted.

There was somewhat military in his nature not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Thoreau" in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1862)

Idealist as he was, standing for abolition of slavery, abolition of tariffs, almost for abolition of government, it is needless to say he found himself not only unrepresented in actual politics, but almost equally opposed to every class of reformers.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Thoreau" in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1862)

Whilst he used in his writings a certain petulance of remark in reference to churches or churchmen, he was a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion, a person incapable of any profanation, by act or by thought. Of course, the same isolation which belonged to his original thinking and living detached him from the social religious forms. This is neither to be censured nor regretted. Aristotle long ago explained it, when he said, "One who surpasses his fellow-citizens in virtue is no longer a part of the city. Their law is not for him, since he is a law to himself."

Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in the ethical laws by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation; a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart. He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind nothing great was ever accomplished: and he thought that the bigoted sectarian had better bear this in mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Thoreau" in The Atlantic Monthly (August 1862)

In reading Henry Thoreau's Journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, & ventures on & performs tasks which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. 'Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, & saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a fource unapproachable, — though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings & jumps.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal (24 June 1863)

Among American writers Thoreau was the pioneer of nature-study. Audubon had preceded him but he worked mainly with the brush; to multitudes Thoreau opened the gate to the secrets of our natural environment. The subtle delicacy of the grass-blade, the crystals of the snowflake, the icicle, the marvel of the weird lines traced by the flocks of wild geese athwart the heavens as they migrated, these he watched and recorded with loving accuracy and sensitive poetic feeling as no one in our land before had done. I have thrown a stone upon the cairn at Walden Pond which has now grown so high through the tributes of his grateful admirers. I shall throw still others in grateful admiration if the opportunity comes to me.
-- James Kendall Hosmer in The Last Leaf: Observations, during Seventy-five Years, of Men and Events in America and Europe (1912), Ch. 8 "Poets and Prophets"

Quotes about Thoreau's Walden

Many think it a sermon; many set it down as an attempt to rearrange society; some think it an excuse for nature-loving; some find it a rather irritating collection of inspirational puffballs by an eccentric show-off. I think it none of these. It still seems to me the best youth's companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one's valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of powerful adoration, it contains religious feeling without religious images, and it steadfastly refuses to record bad news.
-- E.B. White, The Yale Review (1954)

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