Meet Thoreau: Introduction
Next: Henry finds his Walden
|Who is Henry David Thoreau?
Henry David Thoreau--pronounced THOHR-oh, like "thorough" or rhyming with "furrow"-- is most famous today as the author of such celebrated works as Walden and "Civil Disobedience." If you asked him for a description of himself, however, he would have listed various other personas as well. Responding to a Harvard alumni questionnaire about his occupation and activities, Henry wrote, "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 [inferior poet]."(1)
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12th, 1817 in his grandmother's farmhouse on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts, a small village of about two thousand people. His father John, described as "amiable and loveable," worked for some time as a shopkeeper and teacher before eventually finding success as a pencil maker. His mother Cynthia was dynamic and sociable as well as compassionate and charitable. Both parents maintained a love of nature which they shared with their four children during frequent explorations around Concord.
Beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout his life, Henry spent his most peaceful, reflective, and enjoyable times walking and carefully observing the outdoors, as well as collecting many botanical specimens. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent author and lecturer, as well as friend and mentor to Thoreau, once described how Henry looked while walking around town: â€œThere came Henry with music book under his arm to press flowers in, with telescope in his pocket to see the birds, and microscope to count stamens, with a diary, jackknife and twine, in stout shoes and strong gray trousers ready to brave the shrub oaks and smilax and to climb a tree for a hawk's nest. His strong legs when he wades were no insignificant part of his armor.(2)
Henry held many roles in his time: a satirist of society, a staunch individualist, a social reformer, a Transcendentalist, an observer of the seasons and natural changes, an environmentalist, a naturalist, and a conservationist.
Henry is considered one of the most influential men of his era, a social reformer whose ideas written in "Civil Disobedience" inspired the twentieth century Civil Rights movements of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He also holds great literary importance as the eloquent writer of the first modern American prose, Walden. Additionally, his promotion of conservation has led him to be revered as one of the most significant influences on the American environmental movement and wilderness preservation worldwide.
Henry, along with other transcendentalists, considered Nature to be a spiritual entity. Adherents to this school of thought experienced Nature as a way of ascending to untamed wilderness and connecting with the divine. The wildness of the environment offered them rejuvenation and fired their imaginations. Henry wrote in Walden, â€œHeaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." (3)
Henry also believed that humans needed nature to survive on a practical level. The wooded forest offered a withdrawn place for spiritual reflection and rest, but it also provided shelter and fuel for fire.
As local towns and farms developed around him, Henry encouraged his peers to preserve some of the natural woodlands. In the essay "Walking" he wrote, "A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above, while another primitive forest rots below-such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages."(4)
Henry held his local environment in high regard and believed in a responsibility to one's own community. "A man must generally get away some hundreds of thousands of miles from home before he can be said to begin his travels," he chided. "Why not begin his travels at home? Would he not have to go far or look very closely to discover novelties?"(5)
Henry tried to inspire his fellow townspeople to appreciate, as he did, the wonders of nature that surrounded them. He mused on the many offices that the village supported, such as commissioners of trade and agriculture, and asked why there should not also be a commissioner of flowers, since observing nature was just as important an endeavor for the community.
What was Henry's Experiment?
Henry wanted to test a daily existence based on simplifying down to the necessities of life. He would sustain himself on minimal possessions and work while spending a maximum amount of time enjoying nature and pursuing his writing. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."(7)
At his college graduation, Henry had spoken of an ideal lifestyle as consisting of working one day per week and resting for the remaining six. He put this idea of a simplified life into practice during his experiment, although on his days of "rest" he stayed busy observing nature and writing.
The most evident stimulus for Henry's move to Walden was to work on a book about the trip he and his beloved brother John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers six years earlier. In the solitude and quiet he would have time to reflect and write while grieving for his brother who had recently died.
Walden Pond, a small glacial lake located just two miles outside the village of Concord, gave inspiration to Henry Thoreau every day for the two years, two months and two days that he lived there. The pond, half a mile wide and three-fourths of a mile long, is exceptionally deep and clear. It is surrounded by hills and a mixed woodland forest comprised mostly of white pine and oak trees, which Thoreau believed to be fed by "a perennial spring...without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation."(8)
There are three hypotheses for how Walden received its name. In one version, the physical description of the pond as being "walled in" slurred to form one word. In another story, the name comes from the German word for wooded, which is "bewadelt." It is also possible that Walden is an English family name bestowed on the pond by some earlier neighbors.
Walden Pond also held some commercial significance for the nearby people. In winter, the thick layer of ice covering the pond was broken up and carted away for sale in town. The woods surrounding the pond were also a source of timber for Concord residents. Henry describes the ice-cutters in Walden in the chapter "The Pond in Winter," and his interaction with a woodchopper in "Visitors."
Next: Henry finds his Walden