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Henry D(avid) Thoreau (1817-1862)

 

American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, best-known for his autobiographical story of life in the woods, Walden (1854). Thoreau became one of the leading personalities in New England Transcendentalism. He wrote tirelessly but published only two books in his lifetime and did not earn much as a journalist. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (1849) influenced Gandhi in his passive resistance campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr., and at one time the politics of the British Labour Party.

"For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did my duty faithfully, through I never received one cent for it." (Journal, February 22, 1845-1847 - no year in Thoreau's dateline)

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life, although he spent several years in his childhood in the neighboring towns and elsewhere in his adulthood. In 1835 Thoreau contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life. However, a few years later Emerson described Thoreau as a "strong healthy youth fresh from college". He had an out-of doors complexion, and he was often seen walking around his home town. Thoreau studied at Concord Academy (1828-33), and at Harvard University, graduating in 1837. He was teacher in Canton, Massachusetts (1835-36), and at Center School (1837), resigning after two weeks – he first refused to continue the tradition of daily canings and then beat six students to protest against corporal punishment.

From 1837-38 Thoreau worked in his father's pencil factory, and returning to the factory in 1844 and 1849-50. With his elder brother John he opened a school in Concord. Thoreau taught there in 1838-41 until his John Thoreau became fatally ill. From 1848 he was a regular lecturer at Concord Lyceum. He also worked as a land surveyor.

A decisive turning point in Thoreau's life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson. From 1841 to 1843, he was a member of Emerson household, earning his living as a handyman. When Hawthorne and his wife Sophia moved to The Old Manse in Concord, he planted a vegetable garden – beans, Indian corn, and summer squash – for them. Eventually there was superabundance of cabbages. Hawthorne respected Thoreau's minute devotion to nature and appreciated his writing for its careful observation. "On the whole, I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know," he wrote on Thoreau in his journal. However, Sophia was first put off by his awkwardness, opinions, staring intensity of his eyes, and unbending rigor of his character. In 1843 Thoreau was a tutor to William Emerson's sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson's house.

In 1845 Thoreau built a home on the shores of Walden Point for twenty-eight dollars. His observations and speculations Thoreau recorded in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). The account was based on a trip he took with John Thoreau in 1839.

His first book sold poorly and Thoreau remarked, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." Thoreau's most famous essay, Civil Disobedience (1849), was a result of a overnight visit in 1846 in a jail, where he ended after refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the Mexican War and the extension of slavery. Later Thoreau lectured and wrote about the evils of slavery and helped fleeing slaves. In his famous statement, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he crystallized his idea to be the one who has the courage to live, to stand against the trends of his own time.

Walden; or, Life in the Woods described a two-year period in Thoreau's life from March 1845 to September 1847. From the Fourth of July, the author retired from the town to live alone at Walden Pond. Much of Walden's material was derived from his journals and contains such pieces as 'Reading' and 'The Pond in the Winter.' "We are a race of titmen, and soar but a little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper," Thoreau wrote in 'Reading in Walden.' Other famous sections involve Thoreau's visits with a Canadian woodcutter and with an Irish family, a trip to Concord, and a description of his bean field. Although Walden has become an inspiration to all idealists who want to escape civilization, Thoreau was a practical person and took with him seed, lumber, clothes, nails, and other devices to survive – and his friends helped him to put the roof on his hut.

"We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my own townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects."

Although Thoreau never earned a living by his writings, his works fill 20 volumes. Among his many correspondence friends was H.G.O. Blake, once a Unitarian minister and later attached to the Transcendentalist, whom he wrote in December 1856: "I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contended one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existance." Aware that he was dying of tuberculosis, Thoreau cut short his travels and returned to Concord. There prepared some of his journals for publication. Thoreau died at Concord on May 6, 1862. His letters were edited by his friend Emerson and published posthumously in 1865. Poems of Nature  came out in 1895 and Collected Poems in 1943. Thoreau's collection of journals  was published in 1906 in 14 volumes.

Light-winged Smoke! Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowly form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

Thoreau's primary genre was essay. His fascination with the natural surroundings is reflected in many of his writings. 'Natural History of Massachusetts' includes poetry, describes the Merrimack River, and discusses the best technique for spear-fishing. In 'Resistance to Civil Government', often reprinted with the title 'Civil Disobedience', Thoreau recommends disobeying unjust laws. "I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." Many readers have pointed out that in 'Slavery in Massachusetts' Thoreau's defense of John Brown, when he raided on the armory at Harper's Ferry, contradicts his idea of passive resistance. In his final essay, 'Life Without Principle,' the writer warns that working for money alone will never bring happiness. He attacks his contemporaries' fascination with news and gossips and explains how individuals must resist conformity in the search for truth.

Thoreau's Wild Fruits (1999) was written with henscratched handwriting. The text was born during the last decade of his life. Thoreau lived in the third-floor attic of his parents' house and recorded his observations about vegetation surrounding Concord. In this work he argued against the destruction of the wilderness around him.

For furter reading: Thoreau by Henry S. Canby (1939); Henry David Thoreau by Joseph Wood Krutch (1948); The Making of Walden by J. Lyndon Shanley (1957); The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding (1965); Several More Lives to Live by Michael Meyers (1977); Thoreau and American Indians by Robert F. Sayre (1977); The New Thoreau Handbook by Walter Harding and Michael Mayer (1980); Henry David Thoreau: A Descriptive Bibliography by Raymond R. Borst (1982); Thoreau's Reading by Robert Saltmeyer (1988); Thoreau Log, ed. by Raymond R. Borst (1992); Emerson and Thoreau, ed. by Joel Meyerson (1992); The Life of Henry Thoreau by Henry S. Salt (1993); Thoreau's World and Ours by Edmund A. Schofield and Robert C. Baron (1993); The Enviromental Imagination by Lawrence Buell (1995); My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau's Relationship With Emerson by Harmon D. Smith, Harmon L. Smith (1999) - Note: Thoreau met Walt Whitman in 1856 in New York. He also travelled in New Hampshire, Maine, Canada, and Minnesota.

Selected works:

  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849
  • Resistance to Civil Government / Civil Disobedience / On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1849 - Kansalaistottelemattomuudesta (toim. Outi Lauhakangas, 1986)
  • Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854 - Elämää metsässä (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1954) / Walden: elämää metsässä (suom. Antti Immonen, 2010)
  • Slavery in Massachusetts, 1854 - 'Orjuus Massachusettissa', in Vaellus vuorelle (suom. Antti Immonen, 2007)
  • A Plea for Captain John Brown, 1859
  • 'Walking', 1862 (Atlantic Monthly) - Kävelemisen taito (suom. Markku Envall, 1997)
  • Excursions, 1863
  • The Maine Woods, 1864
  • Cape Cod, 1865
  • A Yankee in Canada, 1866
  • Summer, 1884 (from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau; ed. by H. G. O. Blake)
  • The Succession of Forest Trees, and Wild Apples, 1887
  • Winter, 1888  (from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau; ed. by H. G. O. Blake)
  • Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, 1890
  • Autumn, 1892
  • A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, 1892
  • The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1894-95 (7 vols.)
  • Poems of Nature, 1895 (selected and ed. by Henry S. Salt and Frank B. Sanborn)
  • Some Unpublished Letters of Henry D. and Sophia E. Thoreau, 1899 (edited by Samuel Arthur Jones) 
  • Of Friendship: An Essay from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1901
  • Life Without Principle; with a Short Biography of the Author by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1902
  • The Servivce, 1902 (edited by F.B. Sanborn)
  • The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau, 1905 (2 vols., edited by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh, by Henry David Thoreau, 1905 (ed. by Henry Aiken Metcalf)
  • Journal, 1906 (14 vols., edited by Bradford Torrey)
  • Familiar Letters, 1906 (edited by F.B. Sanborn)
  • Friendship, 1906
  • A Little Book of Nature Themes, 1906
  • The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1906 (20 vols.)
  • A Thoreau Calendar, 1909 (ed. by Annie Russell Marble)
  • Friendship, Love & Marriage, 1910
  • Notes on New England Birds, 1910 (arranged and ed. by Francis H. Allen)
  • Canoeing in the Wilderness, 1916 (ed. by Clifton Johnson; illustrated by Will Hammell)
  • The Succession of Forest Trees, and Other Essays, 1916
  • Two Thoreau Letters, 1916
  • Night and Moonlight, 1921
  • Where I Lived & What I Lived for, 1924
  • Thoreau’s Last Letter; with a Note on His Correspondent, Myron B. Benton, 1925
  • The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, 1927 (edited by Odell Shepard)
  • Moon, 1927
  • Winter Animals: An Essay, 1928
  • Thoreau's Complete Works, 1929 (5 vols.)
  • Thoreau: Philosopher of Freedom, 1930 (selected, with an introduction, by James MacKaye)
  • Little Essays from the Works of Henry David Thoreau, 1931 (selected by Charles R. Murphy)
  • Riverside Edition. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1932 (11 vols.)
  • Men of Concord and Some Others as Portrayed in the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1936 (edited by Francis H. Allen, with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth)
  • Walden and Other Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1937 (edited, with an introduction by Brooks Atkinson)
  • The Works of Thoreau, 1937 (selected and edited by Henry S. Canby)
  • The Living Thoughts of Thoreau, 1939 (presented by Theodore Dreiser)
  • Thoreau, Reporter of the Universe, 1939 (selected and arranged by Bertha Stevens)
  • Henry D. Thoreau to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, 1942
  • Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, 1943 (edited by Carl Bode)
  • Excerpts from Writings on Liberty, 1943
  • The Portable Thoreau, 1947 (edited by Carl Bode; enl. ed., 1964)
  • The Journals, 1949
  • Selected Writings on Nature and Liberty, 1953 (edited with an introd., by Oscar Cargill)
  • Mr. Thoreau Declines an Invitation; Two Unpublished Papers by Thoreau, 1956
  • Wild Apples: History of the Apple Tree, 1956
  • Thoreau Today; Selections from his Writings, 1957 (edited by Helen Barber Morrison)
  • Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau's Hitherto "Lost Journal," 1840-1841, 1958 (ed. by Perry Miller)
  • Correspondence, 1958 (edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode)
  • Selected Writings, 1958 (edited by Lewis Leary)
  • The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 1959
  • Thoreau’s Translation of The Seven Against Thebes (1843), 1960 (edited by Leo Max Kaiser)
  • A Writer’s Journal, 1960 (selected and edited with an introd. by Laurence Stapleton)
  • Journal, 1962 (14 vols., edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, with a foreword by Walter Harding)
  • Thoreau’s Minnesota Journey: Two Documents, 1962 (edited by Walter Harding)
  • Walden, and Other Writings, 1962 (edited and with an introd. by Joseph Wood Krutch)
  • The Thoughts of Thoreau, 1962 (selected with a biographical foreword and introd. by Edwin Way Teale)
  • The River; Selections from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1963 (ed. by Dudley C. Lunt)
  • Thoreau on Birds, 1964 (compiled and with commentary by Helen Cruickshank, foreword by Roger Tory Peterson)
  • Selected Journals, 1967 (edited, with a foreword, by Carl Bode)
  • Thoreau’s Canadian notebook, and Record of Surveys, 1967 (selected chapters from Transcendental climate, by Kenneth Walter Cameron)
  • Thoreau’s Turtle Nest, 1967 (pref. by Walter Harding)
  • Reflections at Walden; Selected Writings, 1968 (edited by Peter Seymour)
  • Huckleberries, 1970 (edited, with an introd., by Leo Stoller)
  • Writings, 1971-93 (7 vols.; in progress)
  • Thoreau's Vision: The Major Essays, 1973 (edited by Charles R. Anderson)
  • The Indians of Thoreau: Selections from the Indian Notebooks, 1974 (edited by Richard F. Fleck)
  • Early Essays and Miscellanies, 1975 (edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alexander C. Kern)
  • Essays, Journals, and Poems, 1975 (edited by Dean Flower)
  • The Selected Works of Thoreau, 1975 (rev. and with a new introd. by Walter Harding)
  • The Natural Man, 1978 (compiled by Robert Epstein and Sherry Phillips)
  • Works of Henry David Thoreau, 1981 (edited by Lily Owens)
  • Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, 1982 (edited, with an introduction by Wendell Glick)
  • Some Unpublished letters of Henry D. and Sophia E. Thoreau, 1985 (edited with a prefatory note, by Samuel Arthur Jones)
  • Translations, 1986 (edited by K.P. Van Anglen)
  • The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, 1986 (edited and with commentaries by Robert Bly; wood engravings by Michael McCurdy)
  • Thoreau’s Comments on the Art of Writing, 1987 (edited and with an introduction by Richard Dillman)
  • The Natural History Essays, 1989 (introduction and notes by Robert Sattelmeyer)
  • Thoreau on Writing, 1989 (compiled by Eva M. Burkett and Joyce S. Steward)
  • An American Landscape, 1991 (edited and illustrated by Robert L. Rothwell; with an introduction by Robert Finch)
  • The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862, 1992 (compiled by Raymond R. Borst)
  • The Green Thoreau, 1992 (selected and with an introduction by Carol Spenard LaRusso)
  • Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, 1993 (edited by Bradley P. Dean)
  • Political Writings, 1996 (edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum)
  • Material Faith: Thoreau on Science, 1999 (edited by Laura Dassow Walls; foreword by Edward O. Wilson) 
  • Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on education, 1999 (edited by Martin Bickman; foreword by Jonathan Kozol)
  • Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript, 2000 (edited and introduced by Bradley P. Dean; illustrations by Abigail Rorer)
  • Henry David’s House, 2002 (edited by Steven Schnur; illustrated by Peter Fiore)
  • "Wild Apples" and Other Natural History Essays, 2002 (edited by William Rossi)
  • Thoreau on Freedom: Attending to Man: Selected Writings by Henry David Thoreau, 2003 (foreword by Arun Gandhi; edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer)
  • Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, 2004 (edited by Bradley P. Dean)
  • Bonds of Affection: Thoreau on Dogs and Cats, 2005 (edited by Wesley T. Mott; foreword by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas)
  • The Journal 1837-1861, 2009 (edited by Damion Searls)
  • The Portable Thoreau, 2012 (edited with an introduction by Jeffrey S. Cramer) 


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