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Henry David Thoreau


Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely it must have been in a distant land to me.

What sort of man might go off for two years to live alone in a cabin in the woods- to hoe beans, observe nature, and write in his journal? A deeply religious person, perhaps, one anxious for solitude. Or a person who wanted to escape a nine-to-five routine.

For years Henry David Thoreau talked about living alone in a cabin in the woods. He finally went to live at Walden Pond in 1845 when he was almost twenty-eight years old. In those days, most twenty- eight-year-old men were well into their careers. Not only did Henry not have a career, he didn't want one. After working only a few weeks, he had resigned from his job as a teacher in the Concord school system because he refused to beat his students into good behavior. With his older brother John, he then started his own school. It was quite a success until John's health failed and Henry was unable to keep the school open on his own.

Henry spent some time in his family's business of pencil making. He worked for a while as a surveyor. He also worked as a handyman and gardener for the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and writer. in spite of all these jobs, he simply didn't have the same ambitions as other men.

Events in his personal life were so unsatisfying that Thoreau had nothing to lose in going off alone. One summer he fell in love with a young woman from Boston named Ellen Sewall; so did his brother John. John proposed to her, but she changed her mind and rejected him. Not knowing that his brother had proposed and been turned down, Henry proposed to her himself the next fall. By this time Ellen's father had developed an unfavorable opinion of the Thoreau family. He was convinced that they were too liberal for his liking, and he would not allow Ellen to marry Henry.

A year and a half later, Henry suffered a much greater loss: the death of his brother. John cut himself one day while sharpening a razor. He developed tetanus (at that time more commonly called "lockjaw") and ten days later he was dead.

From our position in the late twentieth century, surrounded as we are by synthetics and machines, it's easy to understand a person's desire to "get back to nature." A return to things that are natural, especially foods and fabrics, is fashionable today. But you may wonder why someone felt it necessary to live this way almost 150 years ago, when life was simpler, and people lived in closer harmony with nature.

The railroad had just come to Concord when Thoreau went to live at Walden. In Thoreau's world, the railroad was a symbol of commerce and of the Industrial Revolution. With the growth of industry came factory work with its poor conditions, low pay, and division of labor (each person doing only part of a job). Paralleling the rise of industry was a philosophy of materialism this country had not seen before. The Civil War had not yet been fought and slavery in the United States was still permitted. When Thoreau moved to Walden Pond he was reacting both against the problems and to the issues of his times.

Among the controversial issues of his time was the Transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom Thoreau lived and worked, had since the 1820s been a mouthpiece of the movement along with Thoreau's other Concord neighbors, Orestes Brownson and Bronson Alcott. (Thoreau was one of their disciples.)

In its beginnings Transcendentalism was a religious protest. Young clergymen in the Boston area were speaking out against the Unitarian Church. They objected to the Unitarian's view of man, which was influenced by John Locke who believed that man is born a blank slate and receives impressions through his senses. Through his senses, according to Locke, a man gathers evidence of the supernatural and the divine, but he can never experience or know God firsthand.

Transcendentalists believed that man was not a passive and limited being; he could imagine God. Since imagining something is in a way creating something, man could create God. And to take it one step further, any being who was capable of creating the divine must be divine himself. The movement was also characterized by an interest in Asian literature and mysticism. Followers believed they were responsible for spreading the truths they had gained. The Transcendentalists were convinced, too, that the way to attain spiritual growth was through nature.

By 1845 Henry was anxious to write his book-length account of a trip he had taken in a homemade rowboat years earlier with his brother John. It would become his first published work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But, like every young artist, he was struggling to make time for his art while having to earn a living. When he figured out the cost of something, Henry always looked past the price expressed in dollars. He counted also the amount of time (spent working to earn those dollars) that he had to exchange in order to have the item. His solution to the problem was not to earn more, but to need less- to see if he might make himself richer by making his wants fewer. By Henry's standards, "Man is rich in proportion to the things that he can afford to let alone."

Emerson owned property at Walden Pond, a place between Concord and Lincoln, Massachusetts. Henry had loved this property since he was a boy. Emerson offered to let him build a cabin on its shore. Henry accepted, and lived there from March 1845 to September 1847. Walden is the record of his "experiment in living."

After Walden, Henry went first to live at the Emerson house, and later back to live with his father. He returned to his odd jobs and pencil making, adding some lecturing to his schedule. He continued to write in his journal, and to walk in the woods for some part of every day. He never married.

Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of forty-four. His gravestone bears the single word Henry, and stands near the gravestones of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne on Author's Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. All his life he refused to attend church. He considered the Bible a good book, but no more important than many others. On his deathbed Henry was asked if he had "made his peace" with God. God and he- the answer came- had never quarreled.


ECC [Walden Contents] []
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