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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Henry David Thoreau

Henry Thoreau was the second son and third child of John Thoreau, whose father Jean had emigrated to America from the Isle of Jersey about the time of the American Revolution. The Thoreaus were of Huguenot stock, having been driven from France in the Protestant persecutions of the late seventeenth century, culminating in the revocation by Louis XIV of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Thoreau’s energetic mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, was of hardy Scotch lineage. Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, home also to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau attended Harvard College in nearby Cambridge from 1833 to 1837, graduating without conspicuous honors. The remainder of his life, except for visits to Canada, Maine, Minnesota, and nearby locales, he spent in his home community, whose flora and fauna he explored with a microscopic eye, recording his observations in a compendious journal which he faithfully kept from 1837 to 1860. Early interpreters of Thoreau understandably thought of him as a naturalist, since his observations of botanical phenomena were copious, and since he spent much of his time roaming the environs of Concord with spyglass, notebook, and pencil, recording the seasonal changes and life cycles of hundreds of plants.

But this interpretation of Thoreau is now universally adjudged to have been too narrow. The mistake lay in part in the failure to perceive in Thoreau his immersion in the world view of his “Transcendentalist” friend and neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had propounded in his seminal book, Nature, the doctrine that every physical fact is but the facade of a spiritual truth. Emerson had counseled his generation to look through the transparency of nature in order to grasp the essential spirituality of the universe embosomed there; and Thoreau, of all Emerson’s followers, acted upon Emerson’s teachings most consistently. His most dramatic act was his retirement for two years, two months, and two days in 1845, 1846, and 1847 to Walden Pond, where he built a hut and studied nature to discover what she had to teach of moral and spiritual truth, the record of which he narrated in one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century—Walden—a triumph of refined, condensed, figurative prose that has provided the base for his present distinguished literary reputation.

Thoreau’s “Transcendental” premises led him to take a negative view of the dominant values of pre–Civil-War America. He wrote disparagingly of the destruction of the natural environment, of which human beings were an integral part; he deplored the implications of the rise of industrialism, with its emphasis upon materialistic values; he condemned the institution of black slavery, which debased people to the level of property, and as a corollary, the government which fostered and perpetuated the institution. Astute readers will also discern in Thoreau an awareness of the philosophical systems of his day, particularly of Kant and Coleridge; of the political and economic theories of the time; and even of many scientific assumptions that were to flower in the twentieth century. In short, Thoreau was not only a writer of great skill, but a man remarkably alert to the thinking of his age, who with remarkable prescience anticipated the crises in values of the centuries to follow him. He is a man of his time, it is true, but he is a man of our time also; and it is his perceptiveness of the human problems of all times that makes him such an engaging literary figure to the student today.

Though Thoreau considered his profession to be that of writer, he published only two books in his short lifetime of 44 years. The first, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) is the record of a two-week river excursion by rowboat taken by Thoreau and his brother, John, in the fall of 1839, condensed in the book to one week, and embellished by Thoreau’s reflections on a variety of subjects for the most part suggested to him by his wide reading in world literature. For many readers, the book is a collection of remarkable essays that lack cohesion and relatedness. It is, however, the second book, Walden (1854), that has elevated Thoreau into the first rank of American authors, and distinguished him throughout the world as an artist and philosopher of unique perceptiveness and vision. Walden breaks out of the structure of Emersonian Transcendentalism current at the time (though influenced by it), lifting the perceptive reader to a rare and exhilarating self-knowledge, as Thoreau’s romantic contemporary John Keats observed that poetry should do, “surprising by a fine excess.” That is to say, by employing many of the devices of poetry—allusion, figures of speech, imagery—and through a disciplined process of refinement and constriction of his text that took portions of the book through seven versions, Thoreau achieved a work of such subtlety and suggestiveness that repeated readings do not exhaust its meanings or dim the brilliance of its insights. Though only a few chapters can be excerpted for inclusion in an anthology such as this, students of American literature should secure a copy of the complete Walden, perennially available in multiple inexpensive editions, and enjoy the coherence and unity of the book as a whole.

Next to Walden, Thoreau is best known for his essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” often mistakenly called “Civil Disobedience,” which delineates his view in 1849 of the legitimate role of the private individual in a society whose government sanctions the immorality of black slavery. Published in a soon to be defunct journal, Aesthetic Papers, edited by Elizabeth Peabody, Thoreau’s contentions that private morality is a privileged sanctuary that governments have no right to intrude upon, and that such intrusion by government should be passively resisted by the individual, have elicited sympathetic responses in widely separated parts of the world, from Gandhi’s India to Martin Luther King’s American South. The immediate occasion that provoked the essay was Thoreau’s incarceration in the Concord jail for one night for his refusal to pay his poll tax to a government which supported black slavery, a story that he narrates in his essay; but what chiefly interests the modern reader is Thoreau’s perceptive definition of the line of demarcation between individual prerogative and the power of the state. In other words, Thoreau universalizes his experience, seeking not so much to justify his own actions and motives, as to illuminate the principles that provide the cutting edge that separates individual rights from state authority. Black slavery is to him a moral issue, and a government that condones it and even abets it has intruded into an area where governments, according to his principle, have no authority. Over against the American Constitution, which condones black slavery, Thoreau superimposes an eighteenth-century “higher law” resembling that of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, which accords supremacy to individual morality.

By 1859, Thoreau’s passive resistance to governmental intrusion upon individual rights, so eloquently argued in 1849, had changed to a methodology of militancy. When John Brown made his abortive assault upon the armory at Harpers Ferry, Thoreau applauded Brown’s resort to arms, tacitly admitting, it would seem, that so entrenched an evil as southern slavery was unresponsive to the passive resistance he had offered earlier as the appropriate weapon to use to confront state authority. Thoreau had met John Brown in Concord and had been impressed by his single-minded aversion to human slavery; and in “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” delivered by Thoreau as a lecture on several occasions before Brown was executed by hanging on December 2, 1859, Thoreau elevates Brown to the level of mythical hero, a “man of principle” who defied personal danger in order to shock both North and South into a recognition of the moral obliquy that black slavery typified. Thoreau had written earlier of his horror of the institution of slavery, notably in “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), which excoriated the Fugitive Slave Law that permitted southern sheriffs to pursue fleeing blacks across the boundaries of northern states; but Thoreau’s John Brown essays are perhaps the most polemic that he ever wrote, charged with outrage at the social institution that was soon to provoke the American Civil War. Ironically, Thoreau was not to live to see the day when the Emancipation Proclamation would extinguish the American government’s approval of a practice he found so heinous.

He died in 1862 of tuberculosis, the scourge of his family, at the age of 44. Within four years, four books of his writings were in print, edited and published by his sister, Sophia, his friend, Ellery Channing, and by Emerson. His remarkable journal was issued in 1906, adding to his growing fame. As he declined into death in the spring months of 1862, just as nature was renewing herself around him, he expressed no regrets for the life he had lived. To the deathbed question, “Have you made your peace with God?” he allegedly replied, “We never quarrelled.” “Are you ready for the next world?” another acquaintance asked. Thoreau’s response was: “One world at a time.”
Wendell P. Glick
University of Minnesota

In the Heath Anthology
Letters to H.G.O. Blake: March 27, 1848 and November 16, 1857 (1848)
Resistance to Civil Government (1849)
A Plea for Captain John Brown (1860)
Walking (1862)
from Walden
      "Conclusion" (1854)
      "Higher Laws" (1854)
      "Spring" (1854)
      "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" (1854)

Other Works
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
The Maine Woods (1864)
Cape Cod (1865)
Letters to Various Persons (1865)
A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866)

Cultural Objects
IMAGE fileThe Hudon River School, Romanticism, and American Painting

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Ecology Hall of Fame Links: Thoreau links
Links to sites with both analytical and primary materials.

Henry David Thoreau
A portal to a multitude of major Thoreau sites, electronic texts, and analytical articles.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862
Samples of Thoreau's writings, images, and criticism.

The Thoreau Home Page
Regularly updated site containing many resources including primary works, biographical and historical data and more.

Thoreau's Cape Cod
An interactive tour in text, photographs, video, and sound.

Secondary Sources