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Outlines of English and American Literature|
Henry D. Thoreau
by Long, William J.
|Among the many secondary writers of the period the most original
and most neglected was Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), a man who differed
greatly from other mortals in almost every respect, but chiefly in this,
that he never was known to "go with the crowd," not even on the rare
occasions when he believed the crowd to be right. He was one of the few
persons who select their own way through life and follow it without the
slightest regard for the world's opinion.
Numerous examples of Thoreau's oddity might be given, but we note here only
his strange determination to view life with his own eyes. This may appear a
simple matter until we reflect that most men measure life by what others
have said or written concerning life's values. They accept the standards of
their ancestors or their neighbors; they conform themselves to a world in
which governments and other long-established institutions claim their
allegiance; they are trained to win success in such a world by doing one
thing well, and to measure their success by the fame or money or office or
social position which they achieve by a lifetime of labor and self-denial.
Thoreau sharply challenged this whole conception of life, which, he said,
was more a matter of habit than of reason or conviction. He saw in our
social institutions as much of harm as of benefit to the individual. He
looked with distrust on all traditions, saying that he had listened for
thirty years without hearing one word of sound advice from his elders. He
was a good workman and learned to do several things passing well; but he
saw no reason why a free man should repeat himself daily in a world of
infinite opportunities. Also he was a scholar, versed in classical lore and
widely read in oriental literature; but unlike his friend Emerson he seldom
quoted the ancients, being more concerned with his own thoughts of life
than by the words of philosophers, and more fascinated by the wild birds
that ate crumbs from his table than by all the fabled gods of mythology. As
for success, the fame or money for which other men toiled seemed to him but
empty bubbles; the only wealth he prized was his soul's increase in love
and understanding: "If the day and the night are such that you greet them
with joy, and life emits a fragrance like sweet-scented herbs--is more
elastic, starry and immortal--that is your success."
There are other interesting matters in Thoreau's philosophy, but these will
appear plainly enough to one who reads his own record. His best-known work
is Walden (1854), a journal in which he recorded what he saw or
thought or felt during the two years when he abandoned society to live in a
hut on the shore of Walden Pond, near his native village of Concord. If
there be any definite lesson in the book, it is the proof of Thoreau's
theory that simplicity is needed for happiness, that men would be better
off with fewer possessions, and that earning one's living should be a
matter of pleasure rather than of endless toil and anxiety. What makes
Walden valuable, however, is not its theories but its revelation of
an original mind fronting the facts of life, its gleams of poetry and
philosophy, its startling paradoxes, its first-hand impressions of the
world, its nuggets of sense or humor, and especially its intimate
observation of the little wild neighbors in feathers or fur who shared
Thoreau's solitude. It is one of the few books in American literature that
successive generations have read with profit to themselves and with
increasing respect for the original genius who wrote it.