100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 76

The Life of Henry David Thoreau, America's First Saint



To a modern bystander, Thoreau's life would seem dreary and dull; to those familiar with his writings, however, he is an author of worldwide prominence whose words can still encourage and motivate. Thoreau was an American writer, philosopher, and naturalist best remembered for assailing social institutions he deemed dissolute, for his belief in the sacredness of nature, and his convictions of the significance of individualism. As regards Thoreau's writings: Civil Disobedience (1849) is his most celebrated social protest; Walden (1854), his greatest work, is an examination of his attempt at living close to nature, and is primarily responsible for his literary standing, for it exemplified his philosophy and mirrored his self-sufficient personality. It reports Thoreau's encounters in his hand-built cabin at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, where he subsisted for two years in self-limited isolation. To a profound degree, Walden celebrates a person existing in harmony with nature. If New England transcendentalism held that the individual was a dissenter opposed to the traditional guidelines of society, then Henry David Thoreau was its leading agent. He was a man alone who stared at the social world and discovered it missing something in nearly every regard. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated of him:


He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.


   Born in 1817 at Concord, Mass., Thoreau spent practically his entire life there. Contrary to the foremost writers of his day, he hailed from a family that was neither affluent nor illustrious. His father was self-employed and owned a small shop making pencils, and his mother rented rooms to boarders. Graduating from Harvard University in 1837, he was unsuccessful at teaching before running his own private school along with his brother John till 1841.

   Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family had relocated to Concord in 1834, and Thoreau resided with them sporadically. There he resolved to dedicate his life to writing. Thereafter, he seldom worked at anything but his father's pencil-making business and as a surveyor. However, Emerson supported his efforts at writing, offered him helpful comments, and later retained him as a gardener and handyman to financially assist him. Additionally, he transmitted to Thoreau the philosophy of transcendentalism, with its stress on spirituality and individualism. Transcendentalists held that God is intrinsic in nature, and that human beings must trust their own consciences and intuitions for mystical truths. Accordingly, transcendentalists promoted a liberated approach vis-à-vis authority and tradition, and facilitated the freeing of American thought and writing from European traditions. While staying at Emerson's house, Thoreau encountered other American transcendentalists including Nathaniel Hawthorne.   

   Restiveness led him to the seclusion of Walden Pond just over 3 kilometers from Concord. There he constructed a small cabin, moved in on July 4, 1845, and left it on Sept. 6, 1847. During this time, he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), an account of a boating excursion that Thoreau and his brother took in August 1839, amalgamating a nature study with metaphysical conjecture; it displays the distinguishing mark of the author's appealing personality. In addition, at Walden he wrote copiously in his journal and finished the first draft of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. He asserted that the outing to Walden Pond was a test in minimal living, not a pointless departure from civilization, and wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"—truer now than when he lived. He urged people to cut back and simplify, thus salvaging time and energy that would permit them "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. . . ." The vividness of Walden lets us see, hear, and feel Thoreau's observations, and thus appreciate the significance he put on it.

   In 1846 while at Walden, the government jailed him for a night for not paying the poll tax. He preferred jail as a means to articulate his resistance to slavery as it developed into an issue in the Mexican War (1846-1848) and loathed to provide assistance for this imperialist war. This gave him the material for a lecture, Civil Disobedience aka Resistance to Civil Government—it denoted a juncture in his life. Thoreau maintained that people must be free to behave according to their individual code of morality devoid of governmental intrusion. In Civil Disobedience (1849), he held that people should reject to observe any law they deemed unjust. Thoreau thus applied his principle of passive resistance from behind bars, and wrote:


There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor. . . . A State which bore this fruit . . . would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.


The essay significantly swayed such reformers as Leo Tolstoy of Russia, and Mohandas Gandhi of India, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the American civil rights movement who implemented it as a technique of peaceful protest.

   Thoreau plead for the end of slavery. He assailed it in his essay Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), and promised not to sustain a government that tolerated it. Furthermore, he aided the freeing of slaves by way of the Underground Railroad, and in the fierce abolitionist John Brown Thoreau discovered a new hero; his Plea for Captain John Brown (1859) is among his finest works.

   Thoreau departed Walden Pond and stayed again with Emerson from 1847 to 1848. Subsequently from 1849, he lived with his parents and sister in Concord supporting himself by working odd jobs, including gardening, land surveying, and carpentry. The main part of his time, he dedicated to investigating nature, to pondering philosophical issues, to reading English, French, Latin, and Greek literature, and to extended discussions with his neighbors.

   Several of the books published after his death were founded on expeditions he had taken. His friends prepared them for publication from his manuscripts, journals, and letters. These works comprise Excursions (1863) which includes the renowned essay Walking, and the books The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866). In 1993, Faith in a Seed emerged; this formerly unpublished compilation of Thoreau's natural-history writings highlights the essay The Dispersion of Seeds. Wild Fruits, an additional formerly unpublished work, arrived on the scene in 1999.These books are loosely chronological and convey the author's encounters to reader. He arranged his "Ten Commandments" of life, so to speak, in Life Without Principle (1863), but he himself was an individualist of a very characteristic American type. "We go westward," he wrote, "as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure." Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862.

His was the first voice of conscience to raise itself in America.