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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau[2†]

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, practical philosopher, and natural scientist[1†][2†]. A leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement, he is best known for his book “Walden”, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings[1†][2†]. His other significant work, “Civil Disobedience” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”), is a vigorous advocate of civil liberties[1†][2†].

Thoreau’s writings, which amount to more than 20 volumes, interweave close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore[1†][2†]. His literary style displays a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and attention to practical detail[1†][2†]. He was deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay[1†][2†].

Thoreau was also a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the fugitive slave law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown[1†][2†]. His philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of notable figures such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr[2†].

Early Years and Education

Henry David Thoreau was born as David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts[1†][2†]. He was the third child of John Thoreau, a pencil maker, and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau[1†][2†]. Thoreau grew up in the beautiful surroundings of Concord, which included woodlands, streams, and meadows[1†][2†]. These natural settings would later profoundly influence his writings and philosophy[1†][2†].

In 1828, Thoreau began attending Concord Academy[1†][3†][4†]. His teachers were impressed by his academic performance, and he was allowed to prepare for college[1†]. In 1833, he entered Harvard University[1†][3†][4†]. At Harvard, Thoreau was a good student, but he was indifferent to the rank system and preferred to use the school library for his own purposes[1†]. He graduated in the middle ranks of the class of 1837[1†].

After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau returned to Concord and started working for his father in the family pencil-making business[1†]. In June 1838, he started a small school with the help of his brother John[1†]. Despite its progressive nature, the school lasted for three years, until John fell ill[1†].

Thoreau’s early years and education laid the foundation for his later work as a writer, philosopher, and naturalist[1†][2†]. His love for nature, cultivated during his childhood in Concord, and his education at Harvard, where he was exposed to a variety of ideas and philosophies, played a significant role in shaping his unique perspective on life and society[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau returned to Concord and started working for his father in the family pencil-making business[1†][5†]. In June 1838, he started a small school with the help of his brother John[1†][5†]. Despite its progressive nature, the school lasted for three years, until John fell ill[1†][5†].

During Thoreau’s sophomore year at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson settled in Concord, and by the autumn of 1837, they were becoming friends[1†]. Emerson sensed in Thoreau a true disciple—that is, one with so much Emersonian self-reliance that he would still be his own man[1†].

Thoreau is renowned for having lived the doctrines of Transcendentalism as recorded in his masterwork, “Walden” (1854), and for having been a vigorous advocate of civil liberties, as evidenced in the essay “Civil Disobedience” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”)[1†][2†]. His books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to more than 20 volumes[1†][2†]. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism[1†][2†].

His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and attention to practical detail[1†][2†]. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time, he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs[1†][2†].

Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the fugitive slave law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown[1†][2†]. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of notable figures such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr[1†][2†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Thoreau’s literary contributions are vast, with his works amounting to more than 20 volumes[2†]. Here are some of his most notable works:

Each of these works reflects Thoreau’s unique perspective on life, society, and nature. His writings on natural history and philosophy anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism[2†]. His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore[2†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Thoreau’s works, particularly “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience”, have been subject to extensive analysis and evaluation[8†][9†].

“Walden” is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and it is considered a classic in American literature[8†][9†]. Thoreau’s detailed observations of nature and his philosophical reflections have been praised for their poetic sensibility and attention to practical detail[8†][9†]. His exploration of the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay has been seen as a critique of society’s focus on material wealth[8†][9†].

“Civil Disobedience”, originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”, is an argument in favor of peaceful disobedience against an unjust state[8†][9†]. Thoreau asserts that government as an institution hinders the accomplishment of the work for which it was created[8†]. He advocates for individual conscience over majority rule and urges rebellion against misuse of government power[8†]. This essay has been extraordinarily influential, shaping the political thoughts and actions of notable figures such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr[8†][9†].

Thoreau’s other works, including his essays and journals, have also been recognized for their deep insights into nature and human life[8†][9†]. His writings anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism[8†][9†].

Despite the profound impact of his works, Thoreau met with only modest literary success during his lifetime[8†][9†]. His early poems and essays were well known and appreciated in Transcendentalist circles but were generally unknown to popular audiences[8†][9†]. However, his influence has grown significantly since his death, and he is now recognized as an important contributor to the American literary and philosophical movement known as New England transcendentalism[8†][10†].

Conclusion and Legacy

In terms of material success, Thoreau lived a life of repeated failures[11†]. He had to pay for the printing of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”; when it sold a mere 220 copies, the publishers dumped the remaining 700 on his doorstep[11†]. “Walden”, the second and last of his books published during his lifetime, fared better but still took five years to sell 2,000 copies[11†].

Despite these setbacks, Thoreau is regarded as both a classic American writer and a cultural hero of his country[11†]. His greatness stems from the power of his principal ideas and the lucid, provocative writing with which he expressed them[11†]. Thoreau’s two famous symbolic actions, his two years in the cabin at Walden Pond and his night in jail for civil disobedience, represent his personal enactment of the doctrines of New England Transcendentalism[11†].

Thoreau’s commitment to social justice and civil disobedience inspired future generations to stand up against injustice and fight for equality[11†][12†]. His influence can be seen in various social and political movements throughout history, including the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for environmental conservation[11†][12†].

Thoreau’s legacy also extends to the field of nature writing, which he helped establish[11†]. His pioneer study of the human uses of nature profoundly influenced such conservationists and regional planners as Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford[11†].

Thoreau’s life, so fully expressed in his writing, has had a pervasive influence because it was an example of moral heroism and the continuing search for a spiritual dimension in American life[11†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Henry David Thoreau: American writer [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Henry David Thoreau [website] - link
  3. Britannica Kids - Henry David Thoreau [website] - link
  4. The Walden Woods Project - Thoreau’s Life - [website] - link
  5. CliffsNotes - Walden - Henry David Thoreau Biography [website] - link
  6. Thoreau-online.org - Henry David Thoreau - [website] - link
  7. Library of America - Henry David Thoreau - [website] - link
  8. CliffsNotes - Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism - Summary and Analysis [website] - link
  9. eNotes - Henry David Thoreau Analysis [website] - link
  10. Poetry Foundation - Henry David Thoreau [website] - link
  11. Britannica - Legacy of Henry David Thoreau [website] - link
  12. Facts.net - Henry David Thoreau Facts [website] - link
  13. Britannica - Henry David Thoreau summary [website] - link
  14. My Harvard Classics - 7 Interesting Facts about Henry David Thoreau [website] - link
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