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An introduction to the life and literature of henry david thoreau

Early life Thoreau was born in 1817 in ConcordMassachusetts, the third child of a feckless small businessman named John Thoreau and his bustling wife, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. Though his family moved the following year, they returned in 1823. Even when he grew ambivalent about the village after reaching adulthood, he never grew ambivalent about its lovely setting of woodlands, streams, and meadows.

In 1828 his parents sent him to Concord Academy, where he impressed his teachers and so was permitted to prepare for college. There he was a good student, but he was indifferent to the rank system and preferred to use the school library for his own purposes.

Graduating in the middle ranks of the class of 1837, Thoreau searched for a teaching job and secured one at his old grammar school in Concord. He found that he was no disciplinarian and resigned after two shaky weeks, after which he worked for his father in the family pencil-making business. In June 1838 he started a small school with the help of his brother John.

Despite its progressive nature, it lasted for three years, until John fell ill. Emerson sensed in Thoreau a true disciple—that is, one with so much Emersonian self-reliance that he would still be his own man. Thoreau saw in Emerson a guide, a father, and a friend.

With his magnetism Emerson attracted others to Concord. Out of their heady speculations and affirmatives came New England Transcendentalism. In retrospect, it was one of the most significant literary movements of 19th-century Americawith at least two authors of world stature, Thoreau and Emerson, to its credit.

Essentially, it combined romanticism with reform. It celebrated the individual rather than the masses, emotion rather than reason, nature rather than man. Transcendentalism conceded that there were two ways of knowing, through the senses and through intuitionbut asserted that intuition transcended tuition. Similarly, the movement acknowledged that matter and spirit both existed.

Henry David Thoreau

It claimed, however, that the reality of spirit transcended the reality of matter. Transcendentalism strove for reform yet insisted that reform begin with the individual, not the group or organization. He soon polished some of his old college essays and composed new and better ones as well. He wrote some poems—a good many, in fact—for several years. A canoe trip that he and his brother John took along the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839 confirmed in him the opinion that he ought not be a schoolmaster but a poet of nature.

As the 1840s began, Thoreau formally took up the profession of poet. Captained by Emerson, the Transcendentalists started a magazine, The Dial. In 1840 Thoreau fell in love with and proposed marriage to an attractive visitor to Concord named Ellen Sewall.

She accepted his proposal but then immediately broke off the engagement at the insistence of her parents. He remained a bachelor for life. Confirmed in his distaste for city life and disappointed by his lack of success, he returned to Concord in late 1843.

  • Out of their heady speculations and affirmatives came New England Transcendentalism;
  • The Thoreau Society Established in 1941, the Thoreau Society has long contributed to the dissemination of knowledge about Thoreau by collecting books, manuscripts, and artifacts relating to Thoreau and his contemporaries, by encouraging the use of its collections, and by publishing articles in two Society periodicals;
  • In 1840 Thoreau fell in love with and proposed marriage to an attractive visitor to Concord named Ellen Sewall.

By early 1845 he felt more restless than ever, until he decided to take up an idea of a Harvard classmate who had once built a waterside hut in which one could read and contemplate. In the spring Thoreau picked a spot by Walden Ponda small glacial lake located 3 km 2 miles south of Concord on land Emerson owned. Early in the spring of 1845, Thoreau, then 27 years old, began to chop down tall pines with which to build the foundations of his home on the shores of Walden Pond.

From the outset the move gave him profound satisfaction. Once settled, he restricted his diet for the most part to the fruits and vegetables he found growing wild and the beans he planted. When not busy weeding his bean rows and trying to protect them from hungry groundhogs or occupied with fishing, swimming, or rowing, he spent long hours observing and recording the local flora and fauna, reading, and writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers 1849.

  1. His suggestion that one can resist a government without resorting to violence gave the essay its notoriety; Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. About half of the specimens include the location where the plant was collected, and most are identified by the plant's Latin name.
  3. In retrospect, it was one of the most significant literary movements of 19th-century America , with at least two authors of world stature, Thoreau and Emerson, to its credit. By early 1862 Thoreau seemed to know that he was dying.
  4. Broader and more balanced in this regard, Robinson 2004 is the all-around best overview both for new and specialist readers. His surveying provided ample opportunity to continue his studies of nature.

He also made entries in his journals, which he later polished and included in Walden. Much time, too, was spent in meditation. Several of the essays provide his original perspective on the meaning of work and leisure and describe his experiment in living as simply and self-sufficiently as possible, while in others Thoreau described the various realities of life at Walden Pond: Walden Pond hutHenry David Thoreau's hut, illustration from the title page of an edition of his Walden, which was first published in 1854.

  1. In the summer of 1847 Emerson invited him to stay with his wife and children again, while Emerson himself went to Europe.
  2. Since then, the organization has protected nearly 140 acres in and around Walden Woods.
  3. This site provides a list of all of the specimens; the list is arranged by plant family. There is more day to dawn.
  4. The year he graduated he began the journal that was a primary source for his lectures and published work throughout his life. The essay displays both his scientific interest and his Transcendentalist vision of the meanings to be found in human encounters with nature.

In the summer of 1847 Emerson invited him to stay with his wife and children again, while Emerson himself went to Europe. Thoreau accepted, and in September 1847 he left his cabin forever. Midway in his Walden sojourn Thoreau had spent a night in jail. On an evening in July 1846 he encountered Sam Staples, the constable and tax gatherer.

Staples asked him amiably to pay his poll taxwhich Thoreau had omitted paying for several years. He declinedand Staples locked him up. The next morning a still-unidentified lady, perhaps his aunt, Maria, paid the tax. Thoreau reluctantly emerged, did an errand, and then went to collect huckleberries.

A single night, he decided, was enough to make his point that he could not support a government that endorsed slavery and waged an imperialist war against Mexico. To many, its message still sounds timely: So does its consequence: Slowly his Transcendentalism drained away as he became a surveyor in order to support himself. He collected botanical specimens for himself and reptilian ones for Harvard, jotting down their descriptions in his journal.

Thoreau made excursions to the Maine woods, to Cape Codand to Canada, using his experiences on the trips as raw material for three series of magazine articles: As Thoreau became less of a Transcendentalist, he became more of an activist—above all, a dedicated abolitionist. As much as anyone in Concord, he helped to speed fleeing slaves north on the Underground Railroad. In the abolitionist John An introduction to the life and literature of henry david thoreau he found a father figure beside whom Emerson paled; the fiery old fanatic became his ideal.

He died, apparently of tuberculosisin 1862. Legacy In terms of material success, Thoreau lived a life of repeated failures. 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. Walden the second and last of his books published during his lifetime fared better but still took five years to sell 2,000 copies.

And yet Thoreau is regarded as both a classic American writer and a cultural hero of his country. This opinion of his greatness stems from the power of his principal ideas and the lucid, provocative writing with which he expressed them.

In his writings Thoreau was concerned primarily with the possibilities for human culture provided by the American natural environment. He adapted ideas garnered from the then-current Romantic literatures in order to extend American libertarianism and individualism beyond the political and religious spheres to those of social and personal life.

He demanded for all men the freedom to follow unique lifestyles, to make poems of their lives and living itself an art. In a restless, expanding society dedicated to practical action, he demonstrated the uses and values of leisure, contemplation, and a harmonious appreciation of and coexistence with nature. Thoreau established the tradition of nature writing later developed by the Americans John Burroughs and John Muirand his pioneer study of the human uses of nature profoundly influenced such conservationists and regional planners as Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford.

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