By Elizabeth Witherell, with Elizabeth Dubrulle
THOREAU'S EARLY YEARS
Henry Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, where his father, John, was a shopkeeper. John moved his family to Chelmsford and Boston, following business opportunities. In 1823 the family moved back to Concord where John established a pencil-making concern that eventually brought financial stability to the family. Thoreau's mother, Cynthia Dunbar, took in boarders for many years to help make ends meet. Thoreau's older siblings, Helen and John, Jr., were both schoolteachers; when it was decided that their brother should go to Harvard College, as had his grandfather before him, they contributed from their teaching salaries to help pay his expenses, at that time about $179 a year.
Harvard put heavy emphasis on the classics--Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar or composition for three of his four years. He also took courses in mathematics, English, history, and mental, natural, and intellectual philosophy. Modern languages were voluntary, and Thoreau chose to take Italian, French, German, and Spanish. He was never happy about the teaching methods used at Harvard--Ralph Waldo Emerson is supposed to have remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard, and Thoreau to have replied, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots" (Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970], 51)--but he did appreciate the lifelong borrowing privileges at Harvard College Library for which his degree qualified him.
He returned to Concord after his graduation in 1837 and took up the profession of teaching, first at the district school and then in a school he opened with his brother John. He had already begun to think of himself as a writer, however, and when he and John had to close their school in 1841 Thoreau accepted an offer to stay with neighboring Emerson's family and earn his keep as a handyman while he concentrated on his writing.
Thoreau knew himself to be a writer from the time he graduated from Harvard. He had begun keeping a journal in 1837 and had probably started writing poetry earlier than that; he also wrote and published essays and reviews. He soon found, however, that he would have to earn his living in some other way.
GETTING A LIVING
For a steady income, he relied on two sources: the family pencil business and his own practice as a surveyor. The Thoreau family became involved in manufacturing pencils in the 1820s, and Thoreau used his talent as an engineer to improve the product. He invented a machine that ground the plumbago for the leads into a very fine powder and developed a combination of the finely ground plumbago and clay that resulted in a pencil that produced a smooth, regular line. He also improved the method of assembling the casing and the lead. Thoreau pencils were the first produced in America that equaled those made by the German company, Faber, whose pencils set the standard for quality. In the 1850s, when the electrotyping process of printing began to be used widely, the Thoreaus shifted from pencil-making to supplying large quantities of their finely ground plumbago to printing companies. Thoreau continued to run the company after his father's death in 1859. Characteristically, Thoreau put the business letters and invoices associated with the company to a second use as scrap paper for lists and notes, and drafts of his late unfinished natural history essays.
Thoreau taught himself to survey; he had, as Emerson noted in his eulogy, "a natural skill for mensuration," and he was very good at the work. In addition to working for the town of Concord, he surveyed house and wood lots around Concord for landowners who were having property assessed and those wanting to settle boundary disputes with their neighbors. In 1859, he was hired by a group of farmers who filed suit against the owners of the Billerica Dam, claiming that the dam raised the water level in the river and destroyed the farmers' meadow lands. To help support the claim, Thoreau collected evidence from many sources. He interviewed people with long experience of the river, took extensive measurements of the water level at various points along its course, and inspected all of the river's bridges. He recorded his findings in a large chart and transferred appropriate information to an existing survey of the river that he had traced. The dispute was a bitter one, arousing ill-feeling in the town: Thoreau reported in his February 17, 1860, journal entry that one of those he interviewed testified in court that the river was "dammed at both ends and cursed in the middle."
He also collected specimens for Louis Agassiz, who had brought the study of natural history to Harvard after Thoreau graduated, but he was not compensated for this work. He lectured several times a year at lyceums and private homes from Maine to New Jersey. These lectures were important in his process of composition--most of the ideas and themes in his essays and books were first presented to the public in lectures--but they were not lucrative.
In 1847, responding to a request from the secretary of his Harvard class, he described his various employments: "I am a Schoolmaster--a Private Tutor, a Surveyor--a Gardener, a Farmer--a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster" (The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], 186). He generalized about the advantage of making just enough money to supply his limited needs in the essay "Life without Principle": "Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity" (Reform Papers, 160).
Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement in New England grew up together. Thoreau was nineteen years old when Emerson published Nature, an essay that articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the movement. Transcendentalism began as a radical religious movement, opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution that Unitarianism had become. Many of the movement's early proponents were or had been Unitarian ministers, Emerson among them.
They had found Unitarianism wanting both spiritually and emotionally, and, beginning in the late 1820s, had expressed the need for and conviction of a more personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to every person. "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;" wrote Emerson in Nature, "we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"
The Transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul and nature. Emerson defined the soul by defining nature: "all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE." A belief in the reliability of the human conscience was a fundamental Transcendentalist principle, and this belief was based upon a conviction of the immanence, or indwelling, of God in the soul of the individual. "We see God around us, because he dwells within us," wrote William Ellery Channing in 1828; "the beauty and glory of God's works are revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself."
This conviction of immanence enabled Thoreau to write, in "Civil Disobedience," "The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right" (Reform Papers, 65), and it supported his intense and particular interest in nature, in which the divine force is also revealed. As a reflection of God, nature expressed symbolically the spiritual world that worked beyond the physical one. Transcendentalism can be seen as the religious and intellectual expression of American democracy: all men had an equal chance of experiencing and expressing divinity directly, regardless of wealth, social status, or politics.
Initially because of Emerson's presence, Concord was a significant intellectual and cultural center in Thoreau's time. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott lived there, as did William Ellery Channing the Younger. Margaret Fuller visited Emerson often, and Franklin Sanborn boarded with the Thoreau family in the 1850s. Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Horace Greeley were also members of the circle of friends.
Thoreau was respected within this circle, but he was always a prickly individualist. He cared little for group activities, whether political or religious, and even avoided organized reform movements until the moral imperative of abolition commanded his attention. In eulogizing Thoreau, Emerson said, "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."
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau expressed his belief in the power and, indeed, the obligation of the individual to determine right from wrong, independent of the dictates of society: "any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one" (Reform Papers, 74). While many of his contemporaries espoused this view, few practiced it in their own lives as consistently as Thoreau. Thoreau exercised his right to dissent from the prevailing views in many ways, large and small. He worked for pay intermittently; he cultivated relationships with several of the town's outcasts; he lived alone in the woods for two years; he never married; he signed off from the First Parish Church rather than be taxed automatically to support it every year.
Thoreau encouraged others to assert their individuality, each in his or her own way. When neighbors talked of emulating his lifestyle at the pond, he was dismayed rather than flattered.
Thoreau also believed that independent, well-considered action arose naturally from a questing attitude of mind. He was first and foremost an explorer, of both the world around him and the world within him.
Thoreau's celebration of solitude was a natural outgrowth of his commitment to the idea of individual action. His neighbors frequently saw him heading out for his regular afternoon walk which took him to every stream and meadow in Concord and the surrounding towns. Contemporaries attest that Thoreau was gregarious, and he left an extensive correspondence which demonstrates the depth and perseverance of his friendships. And although he had many visitors at Walden, much of the time he was alone, a condition he savored.
Allying himself with an ancient tradition of asceticism, Thoreau considered the ownership of material possessions beyond the basic necessities of life to be an obstacle, rather than an advantage. He saw that most people measured their worth in terms of what they owned, and stood this common assumption on its head.
Thoreau proposed to determine what was basic to human survival, and then to live as simply as possible.
He grew some of his own food, including beans, potatoes, peas, and turnips. He ate wild berries and apples, and occasionally a fish that he had caught, and once killed and cooked a woodchuck that had ravaged his bean-field. He so arranged his affairs that he had to work only a little at a time for his upkeep, and he kept a broad margin to his life for reading, thinking, walking, observing, and writing.
TECHNOLOGY AND PROGRESS
Thoreau, himself an inventor and an engineer of sorts, was fascinated by technology, and the mid-nineteenth century saw a series of inventions that would radically change the world, such as power looms, railroads, and the telegraph. But these inventions were products of a larger movement, the industrial revolution, in which Thoreau saw the potential for the destruction of nature for the ends of commerce. In Thoreau's view, technology also provoked an excitement that was counterproductive because it served as a distraction from the important questions of life.
The railroad was made the symbol of technology, and the language Thoreau uses to describe it expressed his ambivalence.
Thoreau was a dedicated, self-taught naturalist, who disciplined himself to observe the natural phenomena around Concord systematically and to record his observations almost daily in his Journal. The Journal contains initial formulations of ideas and descriptions that appear in Thoreau's lectures, essays, and books; early versions of passages that reached final form in Walden can be found in the Journal as early as 1846. Thoreau's observations of nature enrich all of his work, even his essays on political topics. Images and comparisons based on his studies of animal behavior, of the life cycles of plants, and of the features of the changing seasons illustrate and enliven the ideas he puts forth in Walden.
The love of nature that is evident in Thoreau's descriptions in Walden is one of the most powerful aspects of the book. The environmental movement of the past thirty years has embraced Thoreau as a guiding spirit, and he is valued for his early understanding of the idea that nature is made up of interrelated parts. He is considered by many to be the father of the environmental movement.
BEFORE AND AFTER WALDEN
Walden is Thoreau's best-known book, but other works of his written both before and after Walden have met with favorable responses. All of his writing except his poetry is expository--he wrote no fiction--and much of it is built on the framework of the journey, short or long, external or interior. A Week, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and the essays "A Winter Walk," "A Walk to Wachusett," and "A Yankee in Canada," for example, are all structured as traditional travel narratives. The speaker--and it is useful to remember that almost all of Thoreau's published essays and books were first presented as lectures--sets out from home in each case, and the reader experiences the wonders of each new place with him, sharing the meditations it inspires, and finally returning with him to Concord with a deeper understanding of both native and foreign places and of the journeying self. Other essays take the reader on different kinds of journeys--through the foliage of autumn ("Autumnal Tints"), through the cultivated and wild orchards of history ("Wild Apples"), through the life-cycle of a plot of land as one species of tree gives way to another ("The Succession of Forest Trees").
Nature is Thoreau's first great subject; the question of how we should live is his second. One series of his essays deals with issues of personal exploration and renewal. In the 1830s and 1840s a wave of reform movements of all kinds swept New England. The issues involved ranged from women's rights to temperance, from education to religion, from diet to sex. In general, Thoreau did not support reform movements; after he was invited to join the model community at Brook Farm, he wrote in his Journal, "As for these communities--I think I had rather keep batchelor's hall in hell than go to board in heaven.--" The one movement with which he finally could not resist an alliance was abolitionism. Although he wrote in Walden,
and was at first reluctant to speak at abolitionist rallies because he
felt he was expected to follow certain formulas, he later gave several
impassioned lectures in response to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave
Law and in support of the activities of John
Brown. Considering his neighbors' dismissive responses to Brown at
the news of his death, Thoreau wrote,
Thoreau's most famous essay is "Civil Disobedience," published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government." The incident that provoked him to write it took place in July 1846, while he was living at Walden. Coming into town to have a pair of shoes repaired, he was arrested for non-payment of the poll tax assessed against every voter, and spent a night in jail. He was released the next day, after one of his relatives, probably an aunt, paid what was owed, but the event gave him the impetus to attack the government in a classic antiwar, antislavery piece that gave support to the passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other twentieth-century conscientious objectors.
Some critics now consider Thoreau's Journal his most innovative and exciting work. In it he was able to show his thoughts in their natural relation to one another, not forced into a thematic arrangement, or stretched or lopped to fit the constraints of formal exposition. The natural alternation of observation and reflection provided a rhythm that suited his temperament and style. He usually walked in the mornings and, using field notes that were almost a shorthand to remind him of what he had observed, wrote in the afternoons, although he sometimes postponed the composition and wrote several days' entries at once.
Thoreau's careful observations of the cycles of growing plants, of water levels in the local rivers and ponds, of fluctuating temperatures, and of many other natural phenomena are recorded in his Journal. They became the basis for a series of lists and charts that provided precise information for several essays in Transcendental natural history that remained unfinished at his death, and that show him developing another kind of writing--more scientific than his excursions but no less poetic.
This essay was written in 1995 for an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of Thoreau's move to Walden Pond and his writing of the American classic, Walden; it has been updated for inclusion here. References are to Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) and to Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).
For a version of this essay in Estonian, translated by Karolin Lohmus in 2017, go to ELU LÕPUKS KORDA HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
Added October 2017