Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

    Contributing Editor: Wendell P. Glick

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    In my experience, an understanding of Thoreau rarely follows the initial exposure to his writings. The appreciation of the profundity and subtlety of his thought comes only after serious study, and only a few of the most committed students are willing to expend the necessary effort. Many, upon first reading him, will conclude: that he was a churlish, negative, antisocial malcontent; or that he advocated that all of us should reject society and go live in the woods; or that each person has complete license to do as he/she pleases, without consideration for the rights of others; or that he is unconscionably doctrinaire. His difficult, allusive prose, moreover, requires too much effort. All such judgments are at best simplistic and at worst, wrong.

    If an instructor is to succeed with Thoreau, strategies to meet these responses will need to be devised. The best, in my opinion, is to spend the time explicating to students key sentences and paragraphs in class and responding to questions. Above all, students must be given a knowledge of the premises of Romanticism that constitute Thoreau's world view.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    What are Thoreau's premises, the hypotheses from which he reasons? Even the most recalcitrant young reader should be willing to acknowledge that the question of most concern to Thoreau is a fundamental one: "How, since life is short and one's years are numbered, can one live most abundantly?" In other words, what values should one live by? "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," from Walden, was Thoreau's personal answer, but he insists that he has no wish to prescribe for "strong natures" who have formulated their own value systems. All persons should live "deliberately," having separated the ends of life from the means, he argued; and the instructor should aid students to identify those ends. Accepting without examination current social norms, most persons give no thought, Thoreau charged, to the question of the values by which they live.

    Thoreau's absorption with physical nature will be apparent to all students. Stressing the linkage of all living things, he was one of the first American ecologists. But the instructor should point out that for Thoreau nature was not an end in itself but a metaphor for ethical and spiritual truth. A walk in the woods therefore was a search for spiritual enlightenment, not merely a sensory pleasure. One should look "through" nature, as Thoreau phrased it, not merely "at" her. Honest seekers would find the same truths. Belief in the existence of a Moral Law had had by Thoreau's day a venerable history. Jefferson, for example, opened the Declaration of Independence with an appeal to the "self-evident" truths of the Moral Law. Thoreau's political allegiance was first to the Moral Law, and second to the Constitution, which condoned black slavery.

    In his letters to H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau spells out his personal philosophy.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Thoreau's angle of vision is patently that of American Romanticism, deeply influenced by the insights of Kant and Coleridge and Carlyle. But Thoreau's style differs markedly from that of Emerson, whose natural expression is through abstraction. Thoreau presents experience through concrete images; he "thinks in images," as Francis Matthiessen once observed, and employs many of the resources of poetry to give strength and compressed energy to his prose. Widely read himself, he is very allusive, particularly to classical literature, and is one of America's most inveterate punsters.

    Original Audience

    The recognition that Thoreau was one of America's greatest writers, like the recognition of Melville and Poe, has been a twentieth-century phenomenon. Emerson recognized Thoreau's importance when the younger man died in 1862, detailing both the dimensions of his genius and his personal eccentricities in an extended obituary. James Russell Lowell, shortly after Thoreau's death, accused him of having been a "skulker" who neglected his social responsibilities. But a few nineteenth-century friends like H. G. O. Blake, William Ellery Channing, and Emerson kept Thoreau's reputation alive until Norman Foerster, F. O. Matthiessen, and an expanded group of later twentieth-century critics became convinced of the qualities of mind and art that have elevated Thoreau into the first rank of American prose writers. The Recognition of Henry David Thoreau (Michigan, 1969) traces the vicissitudes of Thoreau's reputation from the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) to his present eminence in the literary canon.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Walden is sui generis though there are contemporary writers, e.g., Wendell Berry and E. B. White, who have clearly been influenced by this book in both style and thought. N. C. Wyeth, the American painter, confessed to being "an enthusiastic student of Thoreau." Of major twentieth-century writers, Frost has probably been most indebted to Thoreau. Martin Luther King's philosophy of passive resistance to the state is clearly borrowed from Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government." Some Thoreau scholars have discerned Thoreau's influence in Yeats, Tolstoy, and Gandhi.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    Though Thoreau's life was short, it was fully lived. Conscientiously, he recorded his thoughts in a journal that extends to many volumes over more than twenty years. Consequently, he has something to say about many of the issues that concerned people in his own time, and that still concern us today. I have found it profitable to ask students to write papers taking issue with him on some position he has argued, making certain that they fully understand what his position is. Thoreau is an economist, political theorist, philosopher, literary critic, poet, sociologist, naturalist, ecologist, botanist, surveyor, pencil maker, teacher, writer-- even jack of manual trades, so that whatever a student's primary interest may be, the probability is that Thoreau had something to say about it.

    The issues of bigotry and racism that so concerned Thoreau will always provide topics for student papers.


    Research now extant on Thoreau would fill a fair-sized library. Particularly useful in getting a sense of its scope and variety is The New Thoreau Handbook, ed. Walter Harding and Michael Meyer (New York, 1980). This should be supplemented with the section on Thoreau in the annually published American Literary Scholarship (Duke), and the running bibliography in the Thoreau Society Quarterly. Very useful also are the many articles on Thoreau in the annual Studies in the American Renaissance, ed. Joel Myerson. Collections of critical essays on Thoreau have been edited by Sherman Paul, John Hicks, Wendell Glick, and Joel Myerson. The standard biography is still The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding (New York, 1965).