By Elizabeth Witherell, with Elizabeth Dubrulle
THOREAU'S EARLY YEARS
Henry Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, where his father, John, was a shopkeeper. John moved his family to Chelmsford and Boston, following business opportunities. In 1823 the family moved back to Concord where John established a pencil-making concern that eventually brought financial stability to the family. Thoreau's mother, Cynthia Dunbar, took in boarders for many years to help make ends meet. Thoreau's older siblings, Helen and John, Jr., were both schoolteachers; when it was decided that their brother should go to Harvard College, as had his grandfather before him, they contributed from their teaching salaries to help pay his expenses, at that time about $179 a year.
Harvard put heavy emphasis on the classics--Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar or composition for three of his four years. He also took courses in mathematics, English, history, and mental, natural, and intellectual philosophy. Modern languages were voluntary, and Thoreau chose to take Italian, French, German, and Spanish. He was never happy about the teaching methods used at Harvard--Ralph Waldo Emerson is supposed to have remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard, and Thoreau to have replied, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots" (Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970], 51)--but he did appreciate the lifelong borrowing privileges at Harvard College Library for which his degree qualified him.
He returned to Concord after his graduation in 1837 and took up the profession of teaching, first at the district school and then in a school he opened with his brother John. He had already begun to think of himself as a writer, however, and when he and John had to close their school in 1841 Thoreau accepted an offer to stay with neighboring Emerson's family and earn his keep as a handyman while he concentrated on his writing.
Thoreau knew himself to be a writer from the time he graduated from Harvard. He had begun keeping a journal in 1837 and had probably started writing poetry earlier than that; he also wrote and published essays and reviews. He soon found, however, that he would have to earn his living in some other way.
GETTING A LIVING
For a steady income, he relied on two sources: the family pencil business and his own practice as a surveyor. The Thoreau family became involved in manufacturing pencils in the 1820s, and Thoreau used his talent as an engineer to improve the product. He invented a machine that ground the plumbago for the leads into a very fine powder and developed a combination of the finely ground plumbago and clay that resulted in a pencil that produced a smooth, regular line. He also improved the method of assembling the casing and the lead. Thoreau pencils were the first produced in America that equaled those made by the German company, Faber, whose pencils set the standard for quality. In the 1850s, when the electrotyping process of printing began to be used widely, the Thoreaus shifted from pencil-making to supplying large quantities of their finely ground plumbago to printing companies. Thoreau continued to run the company after his father's death in 1859. Characteristically, Thoreau put the business letters and invoices associated with the company to a second use as scrap paper for lists and notes, and drafts of his late unfinished natural history essays.
Thoreau taught himself to survey; he had, as Emerson noted in his eulogy, "a natural skill for mensuration," and he was very good at the work. In addition to working for the town of Concord, he surveyed house and wood lots around Concord for landowners who were having property assessed and those wanting to settle boundary disputes with their neighbors. In 1859, he was hired by a group of farmers who filed suit against the owners of the Billerica Dam, claiming that the dam raised the water level in the river and destroyed the farmers' meadow lands. To help support the claim, Thoreau collected evidence from many sources. He interviewed people with long experience of the river, took extensive measurements of the water level at various points along its course, and inspected all of the river's bridges. He recorded his findings in a large chart and transferred appropriate information to an existing survey of the river that he had traced. The dispute was a bitter one, arousing ill-feeling in the town: Thoreau reported in his February 17, 1860, journal entry that one of those he interviewed testified in court that the river was "dammed at both ends and cursed in the middle."
He also collected specimens for Louis Agassiz, who had brought the study of natural history to Harvard after Thoreau graduated, but he was not compensated for this work. He lectured several times a year at lyceums and private homes from Maine to New Jersey. These lectures were important in his process of composition--most of the ideas and themes in his essays and books were first presented to the public in lectures--but they were not lucrative.
In 1847, responding to a request from the secretary of his Harvard class, he described his various employments: "I am a Schoolmaster--a Private Tutor, a Surveyor--a Gardener, a Farmer--a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster" (The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], 186). He generalized about the advantage of making just enough money to supply his limited needs in the essay "Life without Principle": "Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity" (Reform Papers, 160).
Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement in New England grew up together. Thoreau was nineteen years old when Emerson published Nature, an essay that articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the movement. Transcendentalism began as a radical religious movement, opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution that Unitarianism had become. Many of the movement's early proponents were or had been Unitarian ministers, Emerson among them.
They had found Unitarianism wanting both spiritually and emotionally, and, beginning in the late 1820s, had expressed the need for and conviction of a more personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to every person. "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;" wrote Emerson in Nature, "we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"
The Transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul and nature. Emerson defined the soul by defining nature: "all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE." A belief in the reliability of the human conscience was a fundamental Transcendentalist principle, and this belief was based upon a conviction of the immanence, or indwelling, of God in the soul of the individual. "We see God around us, because he dwells within us," wrote William Ellery Channing in 1828; "the beauty and glory of God's works are revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself."
This conviction of immanence enabled Thoreau to write, in "Civil Disobedience," "The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right" (Reform Papers, 65), and it supported his intense and particular interest in nature, in which the divine force is also revealed. As a reflection of God, nature expressed symbolically the spiritual world that worked beyond the physical one. Transcendentalism can be seen as the religious and intellectual expression of American democracy: all men had an equal chance of experiencing and expressing divinity directly, regardless of wealth, social status, or politics.
Initially because of Emerson's presence, Concord was a significant intellectual and cultural center in Thoreau's time. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott lived there, as did William Ellery Channing the Younger. Margaret Fuller visited Emerson often, and Franklin Sanborn boarded with the Thoreau family in the 1850s. Theodore Parker, George Ripley, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Horace Greeley were also members of the circle of friends.
Thoreau was respected within this circle, but he was always a prickly individualist. He cared little for group activities, whether political or religious, and even avoided organized reform movements until the moral imperative of abolition commanded his attention. In eulogizing Thoreau, Emerson said, "There was somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition."
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau expressed his belief in the power and, indeed, the obligation of the individual to determine right from wrong, independent of the dictates of society: "any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one" (Reform Papers, 74). While many of his contemporaries espoused this view, few practiced it in their own lives as consistently as Thoreau. Thoreau exercised his right to dissent from the prevailing views in many ways, large and small. He worked for pay intermittently; he cultivated relationships with several of the town's outcasts; he lived alone in the woods for two years; he never married; he signed off from the First Parish Church rather than be taxed automatically to support it every year.
Thoreau encouraged others to assert their individuality, each in his or her own way. When neighbors talked of emulating his lifestyle at the pond, he was dismayed rather than flattered.
I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course. (Walden, 71)
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. (Walden, 326)
Thoreau also believed that independent, well-considered action arose naturally from a questing attitude of mind. He was first and foremost an explorer, of both the world around him and the world within him.
be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. (Walden, 321)
Thoreau's celebration of solitude was a natural outgrowth of his commitment to the idea of individual action. His neighbors frequently saw him heading out for his regular afternoon walk which took him to every stream and meadow in Concord and the surrounding towns. Contemporaries attest that Thoreau was gregarious, and he left an extensive correspondence which demonstrates the depth and perseverance of his friendships. And although he had many visitors at Walden, much of the time he was alone, a condition he savored.
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. (Walden, 135)
the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready (Walden, 72)
Allying himself with an ancient tradition of asceticism, Thoreau considered the ownership of material possessions beyond the basic necessities of life to be an obstacle, rather than an advantage. He saw that most people measured their worth in terms of what they owned, and stood this common assumption on its head.
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. (Walden, 5)
a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. (Walden, 82)
Thoreau proposed to determine what was basic to human survival, and then to live as simply as possible.
By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it. (Walden, 12)
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind (Walden, 14)
my greatest skill has been to want but little. (Walden, 69)
He grew some of his own food, including beans, potatoes, peas, and turnips. He ate wild berries and apples, and occasionally a fish that he had caught, and once killed and cooked a woodchuck that had ravaged his bean-field. He so arranged his affairs that he had to work only a little at a time for his upkeep, and he kept a broad margin to his life for reading, thinking, walking, observing, and writing.
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. (Walden, 69)
It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do. (Walden, 71)
TECHNOLOGY AND PROGRESS
Thoreau, himself an inventor and an engineer of sorts, was fascinated by technology, and the mid-nineteenth century saw a series of inventions that would radically change the world, such as power looms, railroads, and the telegraph. But these inventions were products of a larger movement, the industrial revolution, in which Thoreau saw the potential for the destruction of nature for the ends of commerce. In Thoreau's view, technology also provoked an excitement that was counterproductive because it served as a distraction from the important questions of life.
perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. (Walden, 21)
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. (Walden, 52)
The railroad was made the symbol of technology, and the language Thoreau uses to describe it expressed his ambivalence.
I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear. The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed. Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off. If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early! If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snow-shoes, and with the giant plow, plow a furrow from the mountains to the seaboard, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed. All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber. Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber. If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied! (Walden, 116-117)
Thoreau was a dedicated, self-taught naturalist, who disciplined himself to observe the natural phenomena around Concord systematically and to record his observations almost daily in his Journal. The Journal contains initial formulations of ideas and descriptions that appear in Thoreau's lectures, essays, and books; early versions of passages that reached final form in Walden can be found in the Journal as early as 1846. Thoreau's observations of nature enrich all of his work, even his essays on political topics. Images and comparisons based on his studies of animal behavior, of the life cycles of plants, and of the features of the changing seasons illustrate and enliven the ideas he puts forth in Walden.
All day long the red squirrels came and went, and afforded me much entertainment by their manoeuvres. One would approach at first warily through the shrub-oaks, running over the snow crust by fits and starts like a leaf blown by the wind, now a few paces this way, with wonderful speed and waste of energy, making inconceivable haste with his "trotters," as if it were for a wager, and now as many paces that way, but never getting on more than half a rod at a time; and then suddenly pausing with a ludicrous expression and a gratuitous somerset, as if all the eyes in the universe were fixed on him,--for all the motions of a squirrel, even in the most solitary recesses of the forest, imply spectators as much as those of a dancing girl,--wasting more time in delay and circumspection than would have sufficed to walk the whole distance,--I never saw one walk,--and then suddenly, before you could say Jack Robinson, he would be in the top of a young pitch-pine, winding up his clock and chiding all imaginary spectators, soliloquizing and talking to all the universe at the same time,--for no reason that I could ever detect, or he himself was aware of, I suspect. (Walden, 273-274)
The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire,--"et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata,"--as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame;--the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life below. . . . So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity. (Walden, 310-311)
Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life. (Walden, 202)
The love of nature that is evident in Thoreau's descriptions in Walden is one of the most powerful aspects of the book. The environmental movement of the past thirty years has embraced Thoreau as a guiding spirit, and he is valued for his early understanding of the idea that nature is made up of interrelated parts. He is considered by many to be the father of the environmental movement.
BEFORE AND AFTER WALDEN
Walden is Thoreau's best-known book, but other works of his written both before and after Walden have met with favorable responses. All of his writing except his poetry is expository--he wrote no fiction--and much of it is built on the framework of the journey, short or long, external or interior. A Week, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and the essays "A Winter Walk," "A Walk to Wachusett," and "A Yankee in Canada," for example, are all structured as traditional travel narratives. The speaker--and it is useful to remember that almost all of Thoreau's published essays and books were first presented as lectures--sets out from home in each case, and the reader experiences the wonders of each new place with him, sharing the meditations it inspires, and finally returning with him to Concord with a deeper understanding of both native and foreign places and of the journeying self. Other essays take the reader on different kinds of journeys--through the foliage of autumn ("Autumnal Tints"), through the cultivated and wild orchards of history ("Wild Apples"), through the life-cycle of a plot of land as one species of tree gives way to another ("The Succession of Forest Trees").
Nature is Thoreau's first great subject; the question of how we should live is his second. One series of his essays deals with issues of personal exploration and renewal. In the 1830s and 1840s a wave of reform movements of all kinds swept New England. The issues involved ranged from women's rights to temperance, from education to religion, from diet to sex. In general, Thoreau did not support reform movements; after he was invited to join the model community at Brook Farm, he wrote in his Journal, "As for these communities--I think I had rather keep batchelor's hall in hell than go to board in heaven.--" The one movement with which he finally could not resist an alliance was abolitionism. Although he wrote in Walden,
I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south. It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. (7)
and was at first reluctant to speak at abolitionist rallies because he felt he was expected to follow certain formulas, he later gave several impassioned lectures in response to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and in support of the activities of John Brown. Considering his neighbors' dismissive responses to Brown at the news of his death, Thoreau wrote,
I hear another ask, Yankee-like, "What will he gain by it?" as if he expected to fill his pockets by this enterprise. Such a one has no idea of gain but in this worldly sense. If it does not lead to a "surprise" party, if he does not get a new pair of boots, or a vote of thanks, it must be a failure. "But he won't gain any thing by it." Well, no, I don't suppose he could get four-and-sixpence a day for being hung, take the year round; but then he stands a chance to save a considerable part of his soul--and such a soul!--when you do not. No doubt you can get more in your market for a quart of milk than for a quart of blood, but that is not the market that heroes carry their blood to. ("A Plea for Captain John Brown," Reform Papers, 119)
Thoreau's most famous essay is "Civil Disobedience," published in 1849 as "Resistance to Civil Government." The incident that provoked him to write it took place in July 1846, while he was living at Walden. Coming into town to have a pair of shoes repaired, he was arrested for non-payment of the poll tax assessed against every voter, and spent a night in jail. He was released the next day, after one of his relatives, probably an aunt, paid what was owed, but the event gave him the impetus to attack the government in a classic antiwar, antislavery piece that gave support to the passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other twentieth-century conscientious objectors.
Some critics now consider Thoreau's Journal his most innovative and exciting work. In it he was able to show his thoughts in their natural relation to one another, not forced into a thematic arrangement, or stretched or lopped to fit the constraints of formal exposition. The natural alternation of observation and reflection provided a rhythm that suited his temperament and style. He usually walked in the mornings and, using field notes that were almost a shorthand to remind him of what he had observed, wrote in the afternoons, although he sometimes postponed the composition and wrote several days' entries at once.
Thoreau's careful observations of the cycles of growing plants, of water levels in the local rivers and ponds, of fluctuating temperatures, and of many other natural phenomena are recorded in his Journal. They became the basis for a series of lists and charts that provided precise information for several essays in Transcendental natural history that remained unfinished at his death, and that show him developing another kind of writing--more scientific than his excursions but no less poetic.
This essay was written in 1995 for an exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of Thoreau's move to Walden Pond and his writing of the American classic, Walden; it has been updated for inclusion here. References are to Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) and to Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).
For a version of this essay in Estonian, translated by Karolin Lohmus in 2017, go to ELU LÕPUKS KORDA HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
Added October 2017
Henry David Thoreau published two books and numerous essays during his lifetime and many more of his works were published after his death in 1862.
Deciding on which of these Thoreau books or essays you should read really depends on what type of Thoreau writing is your favorite.
If you are more of a fan of his political writing, then his essays and books such as Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts and John Brown are probably more your style.
If you are more drawn to his nature and philosophical writing, then Walden, Walking, Wild Apples, Cape Cod would be a better option for you.
If you haven’t read much of Thoreau’s work and don’t know what type of his writing you prefer, here is a general overview of his best essays and books:
(Disclaimer: purchases made through the links in this article help support the History of Massachusetts Blog)
1. Walden, or, Life in the Woods
Published in 1854, Walden is Thoreau’s most famous book and many would argue is his best. The book is about the virtues of simple living and self-sufficiency in a modern world and was inspired by the two years Thoreau spent living in a small cabin at the edge of Walden Pond in the 1840s.
The book is a complex work that is part memoir, part sermon, part manifesto and, at its heart, is about how to live a full and meaningful life amid a world full of drudgery and meaningless distractions.
Walden was moderately successful when it was published, but took five years to sell 2,000 copies. It then went out of print until Thoreau’s death in 1862. It has since become an American classic.
The book received a number of favorable reviews when it was originally published in 1854, though its unique perspective and subject matter perplexed many reviewers.
The Boston Commonwealth found it thought-provoking and delightful:
“We mean, before long, to say how delightful a book this is but it is now Saturday, the very day when people buy books, and we can only say that it is just the pleasantest and most readable, the most-thought-provoking book of the present season. It is a better work than the author’s previous one, ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,’ though we reckon that as a book which will live in American literature a good while.”
The Saturday Evening Post declared it strange but interesting:
“We have, now and then, in this jostling, civilized world, an unmistakable human oddity, and the author of this strange, but interesting book, is one of that class…Nevertheless, his ‘Life in the Woods’ is a most fascinating book.”
The Boston Herald deemed the book “a readable and interesting one” while the New York Times declared Thoreau a genius but also wrote the book off as selfish:
“The author of this book – Mr Henry D. Thoreau – is undoubtedly a man of genius. It is not possible to open twenty pages without finding plentiful indications of that fact. Unfortunately, however, he is an erratic genius, thoroughly impracticable, and apt to confuse rather than arrange the order of things, mental and physical…Mr. Thoreau is a good writer, possessed of great comic powers, and able to describe accurately many peculiar phases of nature. But the present work will fail to satisfy any class of readers. The literary man may be pleased with the style, but he will surely lament the selfish animus of the book.”
As beloved as the book is, modern readers still sometimes struggle with the old-fashioned prose as well as the overall message of the book, as can be seen from the handful of reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon criticizing it as judgemental, elitist and hard to read.
Nonetheless, some readers who said they initially struggled with the book eventually came to understand and enjoy it, as one reviewer on Goodreads explained:
“The concluding chapter, to an extent, rewarded me for my persistence and toil. In this final chapter, he comes back to the real purpose of the book: to drill home a simple idea – ‘I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.’ This I think was the core philosophy of the book – if you pursue the ideal direction/vision you have of how your life should be, and not how convention dictates it should be, then you will find success and satisfaction on a scale unimaginable through those conventional routes or to those conventional minds.”
2. Civil Disobedience
Published in 1849, under its original title of Resistance to Civil Government, this essay advocates resistance to unjust laws and governments and was inspired by Thoreau’s experience of being arrested and jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax because he believed it was being used to fund the Mexican-American war, which he opposed.
As activist and historian Howard Zinn explained in the introduction to the book The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, which is a collection of Thoreau’s political essays including Civil Disobedience, Thoreau was addressing important questions in these essays about how to do the right thing in an unjust world:
“You will find in this volume (published previously in hardcover as Reform Papers) what are usually called the ‘political writings’ of Thoreau. Indeed, he is dealing here with the incendiary issues of his time: the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act, the execution of John Brown. The term ‘political,’ however, does not do justice to the breadth and depth of Thoreau’s ideas. He looks beyond the immediate subjects of contention to ask the fundamental questions pondered before and after his time by the world’s great thinkers: Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy. That is, he addresses the obligations of the citizen to government, of law to justice, of human beings to one another. In this collection, he does something more–he asks the most troubling question of human existence: how shall we live our lives in a society that makes being human more and more difficult?”
In the 20th century, many activists of the time cited the book as a major influence on their own ideas and activism, particularly Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandi and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr:
“My first introduction to Thoreau’s writing was, I think, in 1907, or later, when I was in the thick of the passive resistance struggle. A friend sent me an essay on ‘Civil Disobedience.’ It left a deep impression on me.” – Mahatma Gandi
“I became convinced that what we were preparing to do in Montgomery [Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955] was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, ‘We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.’” – Martin Luther King, Jr
Published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine one month after Thoreau’s death in 1862, this essay is about the art of taking a walk and how it allows you to better explore and appreciate nature, which, Thoreau argues, humans are not separate from but are a part of, as he explains in the opening line of the essay:
“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil – to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”
An article in Slate Magazine, titled Walking Home from Walden, argues that Walking is a precursor or perhaps even a companion piece to Walden:
“If you understand ‘Walking,’ you can almost skip Walden. (I’m not really recommending that—in fact, please don’t.) What I mean is this: It’s clear that ‘Walking,’ and the actual walking that inspired it, leads to Walden. Within a year of delivering the ‘Walking’ lecture for the first time, in the spring of 1851, Thoreau was back at his draft of the big book, revising and expanding with renewed creative energy. You could almost say Thoreau ‘walked’ to Walden. And yet if ‘Walking’ is a sermon, then Walden is something more like prophecy—its author the Reformer and child of wildness, divine messenger, sent to save the town. ”
Thoreau himself seems to have agreed with this sentiment when he scribbled on the title page of a draft of the essay in 1852: “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”
4. The Maine Woods
Published posthumously in 1864, the book chronicles three separate trips Thoreau took to the woods of Maine in the 1840s and 1850s.
It consists primarily of a series of articles previously published in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine in 1858, as well as some unpublished material, that describe the Maine landscape and identify the types of trees, plants and animals of the area while also weaving in a bit of philosophy from time to time.
In the introduction to the 1983 Princeton University Press edition of the book, Paul Theroux explains that since the book was published after Thoreau’s death, it is a bit unfinished but, although it is not exactly a cohesive work, it is still an excellent read:
“The Maine Woods published posthumously is a set of three narratives in various states of completion; not a unified book, but rather a three-decker sandwich of woodland excursions. As a record of impressions, a work in progress, it is all the more interesting. ‘Ktaadn’ is a polished and youthful piece, ‘Chesuncook’ finished and mature, and ‘The Allegash and East Branch’ somewhat provisional though containing a wealth of information.”
The New York Times recently described it, in an article about retracing Thoreau’s Maine trips, as “an insightful reporter’s picture of a rugged wilderness the moment before being irrevocably altered by armies of loggers.”
Reviewers on Amazon describe the book as more of a travel story than a manifesto like Walden, as one Amazon reviewer said: “Do not read this and compare it to Walden or as a some window into Thoreau, but for sheer joy of kicking off the canoe at Telos and the wonder of the north country.”
5. Cape Cod
Published posthumously in 1865, this book is similar to Thoreau’s other book The Maine Woods because it is about three separate trips that Thoreau took to Cape Cod in the 1840s and 1850s.
It consists primarily of a series of articles previously published in Putnam Magazine in 1855 that describe the natural beauty of Cape Cod and suggests that a trip to the beach, like many journeys into the wilderness, can be a spiritual journey.
According to an article titled At the Threshold of Chaos: Henry Thoreau on Cape Cod, on the Thoreau Society website, the book suggests that the beach is the place to go if you want to think and be inspired:
“At the center of Cape Cod is an idea of the beach as a threshold of creative energy: ‘The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world’…A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
Also present in the text are some of Thoreau’s most fundamental beliefs, such as his belief, which is also present in Walden, that one should seek spiritual wealth instead of material wealth. This can be seen when Thoreau describes watching a sloop in Chatham dragging the sea bed for lost ship anchors:
“But that is not treasure for us which another man has lost; rather it is for us to seek what no other man has found or can find,—not be Chatham men, dragging for anchors.”
The Walden Woods Project published a statement in the Cape Cod: Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, explaining that Thoreau’s Cape Cod is a mix philosophy, nature worship and travel adventure:
“Yet, like any Thoreauvian excursion, Cape Cod is anything but a simple travel narrative. It encompasses all the Thoreaus we have come to expect: the saunterer, the reformer, the social critic, the natural philosopher, and the father of the American environmental movement.”
6. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Published in 1849, the book is about a camping trip to the White Mountains that Thoreau took with his brother John in 1839.
After John Thoreau died of tetanus in 1842, Thoreau decided to publish the book as a tribute to him and worked on the early drafts of the book while living at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847.
Thoreau paid for the publishing costs of the book himself. Unfortunately, the book didn’t sell well and the publisher, James Munroe and Company, returned the remaining 700 copies to Thoreau. In a letter to a friend, Thoreau said: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
According to the introduction of the Princeton University Press edition of the book, John McPhee states that the book didn’t sell well because Thoreau’s unorthodox style was too ahead of its time and, since it was Thoreau’s first book, readers were unfamiliar with who Thoreau was as a writer. McPhee explains that modern readers appreciate the book more because they know and understand Thoreau’s work better:
“The book’s heterodoxy and apparent formlessness troubled its contemporary audience. Modern readers, however, have come to see it as an appropriate predecessor to Walden, with Thoreau’s story of a river journey depicting the early years of his spiritual and artistic growth.”
An article on the Thoreau Society website, titled Life and Legacy, explains that readers at the time also found the book to be problematic because it had a “looseness of structure and a preaching tone unalleviated by humor, that had put readers off.” These issues actually prompted Thoreau to hold off on publishing Walden so he could revise it and avoid these problems.
Modern readers don’t seem to have an issue with the structure or tone of the book and feel that if there is a problem, it lies in the reader and not the book, as one Amazon reviewer said:
“It is obscene that abridged versions of this book are for sale. ‘A Week…’ is an artistic masterpiece. If it seems a bit dense right now, then put the book on your shelf for a few decades and hope that you, not the book, will improve over time.”
7. Life Without Principle
Published posthumously in 1863, the book discusses ethical principles for living a righteous life. It argues that working solely for money will morally bankrupt you and that you should instead do a job because you love the work, as Thoreau explains:
“The ways by which you may get your money almost without exception lead downward. If you traded in messages from heaven, the whole curse of business would attach to it. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.”
The book was based on an essay in 1856, alternatively titled Getting a Living and What Shall It Profit?, that Thoreau later revised and edited for publication but died before being able to do so. It was finally published in 1863 in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine.
According to the book Reimaging Thoreau by Robert Midler, Life Without Principle is a bold essay that challenges readers to re-evaluate their lives and take stock of what’s really important:
“’Getting a Living’ (as revised in ‘Life Without Principle’) is his most abrasive literary performance, resuming the critique of materialism in ‘Economy’ but converting its reformist stance into a moralism calculated to affront his readers and drive a wedge between his own principled but (financially) ‘profitless’ life and their truly profitless lives.”
Many reviewers on Goodreads describe the essay as insightful and thought-provoking and praise the essay’s anti-consumer and anti-materialistic message, as one reviewer said:
“If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then a daily page of Thoreau or Emerson will flush the consumer out of your system.”
8. Wild Apples
Published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine six months after Thoreau’s death in 1862, this essay discusses the history of the apple and how it came to grow and evolve over time.
The essay is based on a lecture of the same name that Thoreau delivered at the Bedford Lyceum on February 14, 1860.
An article on the website MappingThoreauCountry.org points out that the essay is more than a simple history of fruit and is actually a transcendental lesson about learning and knowledge:
“In narrating the apple tree’s valiant resistance to its enemies and the enterprising methods it used to insinuate itself across the country, Thoreau was not so much anthropomorphizing evolution as he was implying that our direct experience of natural phenomena informs our understanding, which includes but is not limited to facts alone.”
While many of the book’s reader reviews on Amazon seem to have missed the point of the book and state that it’s just a simple book about apples, one reviewer, who titled their review “Not Just About Apples,” picked up on the subtext of the essay:
“While this was an interesting dissertation about apples, it was also about the settling of the New World. Comparing Thoreau’s time with our own, we seem to have lost our spirit of adventure. We seem to have lost our ‘wildness’ so to speak. We have become tribal and no longer have the self reliance that Thoreau and Emerson valued.”
Another Amazon reviewer noted that the book was a “story of overlooked beauty” and enjoyed the inspiring message of the essay:
“While the title is “Wild Apples” and the text describes Thoreau’s love of and experience with the various wild apple trees he “discovered” the story could be about tenaciousness, flexibility and resolve; making something worthwhile from poor circumstances and despite expectations and appearances.”
9. Slavery in Massachusetts
Published in 1854 in the Liberator Magazine, this essay is based on a speech that Thoreau gave at an anti-slavery rally in Framingham, Massachusetts in July of 1854 after the re-enslavement of fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts.
The essay expands on the ideas in Civil Disobedience and attacks the state of Massachusetts for complying with the Fugitive Slave Act, according to an article on the PoetryFoundation.org:
“His attack is now not merely on slavery in general but on his own state’s complicity with an immoral law. Thoreau retains his Transcendentalist plea that one trust one’s inner conscience to judge the state’s actions, but he moves much closer to advocating the destruction of a state that engages in practices such as slavery.”
The essay is considered a part of Thoreau’s “political writings” and since it explores concepts such as morals, ethics and laws, it is similar in nature to his other essay Civil Disobedience.
Since slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, the subject matter may be seem out of date, but as one reviewer on Goodreads points out, the essay’s message about politics in general make it as relevant as ever:
“Master of rhetoric. This essay contains criticism of American government and press that is still relevant today. My favorite quote is, ‘if the majority in congress were to vote the devil to be God. . . the minority must then wait and comply until a later date to reinstate God.’”
10. October, or Autumnal Tints
Published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine in 1862, this essay was based on a lecture that Thoreau delivered at Frazier Hall in Lynn in 1859. The essay is about nature in autumn and reflects on the changes that occur during this time.
A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine describes Autumnal Tints as “a naturalist’s guide to truly seeing nature” and argues that the essay reflects on Autumn as a time of renewal instead of a time of death:
“Instead of viewing autumn as a time of death and decay, Thoreau came to see and celebrate the season (and death itself) as nature’s own way of renewing life. He believed that if we could see properly, even fallen leaves on the ground could ‘teach us how to die.'”
Thoreau revised the essay while he was dying of tuberculosis and one reviewer on Goodreads noted the symbolism of the text in the context of Thoreau’s own impending death:
“For Thoreau, an autumn leaf is not just an autumn leaf. Rather, it is a symbol that helps him confront the idea of his own death with the hope that he would live on in some way, much as the dying leaves of fall go on to be a part of future forests.”
Midler, Robert. Reimagining Thoreau. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. Vol. 69, 1968.
Berger, Michael Benjamin. Thoreau’s Late Career and The Dispersion of Seeds. Camden House, 2000.
Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod: Illustrated Edition of the American Classic. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.
Dean, Bradley P. and Gary Scharnhorst. “The Contemporary Reception of Walden.” Studies in American Renaissance, 1990, pp: 293-328.
Andriote, John-Manuel. “Revisiting the Splendor of Thoreau’s Autumnal Tints.” Atlantic Monthly Magazine, 1 Nov. 2012, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/revisiting-the-splendor-of-thoreaus-autumnal-tints-150-years-later/264291/
“Henry David Thoreau.” The Poetry Foundation, n.d., poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/henry-david-thoreau
Berman, Paul. “Thoreau Among the Cranberries.” New York Times, New York Times Company, 26 Dec. 1999, nytimes.com/books/99/12/26/reviews/991226.26bermant.html
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Thoreau, Henry David. “Wild Apples: The History of the Apple.” Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Nov. 1862, theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/1862nov/186211thoreau.htm
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“At the Threshold of Chaos; Henry David Thoreau on Cape Cod by Elizabeth Kalman with Nicholas Holdgate.” Thoreau Society, n.d., thoreausociety.org/news-article/threshold-chaos-henry-thoreau-cape-cod-elizabeth-kalman-nicholas-holdgate
Gilsdorf, Ethan. “Tracking Thoreau Through Maine’s Grim and Wild Land.” New York Times, New York Times Company, 19 Sept. 2008, nytimes.com/2008/09/19/travel/escapes/19american.html
Stephenson, West. “Walking Home from Walden.” Slate Magazine, 21 June. 2011, slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2011/walking_home_from_walden/part_3_the_surprises_that_awaited_me_in_the_works_of_henry_david_thoreau.html
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking.” Atlantic Monthly Magazine, June 1862,
“The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform: With an Introduction by Howard Zinn.” Princeton University Press, n.d., press.princeton.edu/titles/7719.html
Dean, Bradley P. “Reconstructions of Thoreau’s Early Life Without Principle Lecture.” Studies in American Renaissance, University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp: 285-364, jstor.org/stable/30228137?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.
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