I just noticed that yesterday, exactly 200 years ago, a man by the name of Henry David Thoreau was born.
Which is interesting, because I just finished reading a book about him. And then I started reading Walking again a few nights ago. And I wondered…
Who was he? What was he about?
He was a poet. A naturalist (he had an intense love and respect of nature), transcendentalist and abolitionist.
Friends and fellow transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott (father and daughter), and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Amongst these folks his work was accepted.
But Thoreau was not always understood by his fellow man. Those who lived in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts saw him as a loafer, didn’t think he contributed much to society.
Which was fair enough. Because although he was a Harvard grad, he didn’t have any specific employment or job title. Although he did have some work as surveyor and handyman for a time.
But that wasn’t his passion. He loved to study nature. In Walking (published after his death) his level of detail and study of the natural world is amazing. But passion and paycheck don’t always intersect.
Enter Emerson. Emerson was a close friend who helped Thoreau further his dreams. He was the one who provided the land on which Thoreau built his famous Walden cabin. Here he could write and dream without fear or impediment.
I am so intrigued by the life he lived here. He built a little house (only 10’x15′!) and for 2 years he had this experiment where he lived such a simple and minimalistic life. He farmed and lived off of the land. He studied nature and walked for hours each day. Man that sounds so relaxing!
His book Walden (also called Life In The Woods) covers this time period.
The remainder of his life he spent exploring parts of Maine and Canada and recording his thoughts. He saw himself as a “reporter in nature” and thought it his responsibility to observe and record what he could.
He is also well-known for his anti-government essay entitled Civil Disobedience. This essay was sparked by the night he spent in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. The theme is peaceful protest against blindly following unfair governmental laws and regulations. This particular work is part of the inspiration behind a few of the advocates for peace that we know today, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
“In literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us.”
-from Walking, by Henry David Thoreau
The abolition of slavery was likewise important to Thoreau. He wrote the essay “Slavery In Massachusetts” and the speech “A Plea For Capt. John Brown” both in defense of abolishing slavery, one of the evils of his day.
For a man obsessed with all things nature, he was surprisingly humanitarian.
I picture Thoreau as a bit of an oddball. No wife and kids, no real job, writing about things and issues that didn’t gain acceptance till after his death on May 6th, 1862.
He was different, but he didn’t let that stop him. His differences defined him. Like many authors, his works didn’t become popular until after his death.
He was a quiet, simple man who knew what he believed and stood by it. That quiet, odd man from Massachusetts.
For further reading:
Books & e-books:
Henry David Thoreau: American Naturalist, by Peter Anderson
Walking (free e-book)
Walden (free e-book)