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Henry David Thoreau did not live a long life, however, he is perhaps America's most famous and beloved philosopher, rebel, and environmentalist. In 1846, he protested against slavery and the Mexican War by not paying his taxes and spent a night in jail (Thoreau pg). Thoreau said, He said, "It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey" (Henry pg). His essay "Civil Disobedience" has influenced countless great men, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although, he was regarded as a nature writer, "he declined membership in a scientific society, saying he was, 'a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot'" (Thoreau pg). He died before completing the "Kalender," a book he was writing based from his vast collection of Indian data that would be "a total, all comprehending picture of life" (Thoreau pg). During his life, Thoreau served as surveyor for the township of Concord, taught school, lectured, and did odd jobs, including working as a handyman for Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known for writing undistinguished poetry and excellent prose. Thoreau had published only two books, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" and "Walden," when he died May 6, 1862. Although, at the time of his death, few people knew him outside the Concord vicinity, today he is included in the noble list of American classical writers (Thoreau pg). Perhaps no Thoreau quote describes him truer than, "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" (Henry pg). He certainly lived his life to his words.
Thoreau was born in Concord in 1817. His father, John, was a shopkeeper who later established a pencil making firm. Cynthia, his mother, took in boarders to supplement the family income (Witherell pg). When it was decided that he should go to Harvard, his older brother, John, Jr. And sister, Helen, both school teachers, contributed to help pay his expenses. At Harvard, Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar, mathematics, English, history, and mental, natural and intellectual philosophy. He also studied Italian, German, French, and Spanish. Thoreau was displeased with the teaching methods at Harvard, and when Emerson remarked that "most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard," Thoreau replied, "Yes, all of the branches and none of the roots" (Witherell pg). Nevertheless, he had an appreciation of the privileges that a degree from Harvard allowed, especially the borrowing privileges from the Harvard College Library.
In 1837, after graduation, Thoreau returned to Concord and began teaching in the Center School, however, "after two weeks, he resigned over his determination not to whip his students into greater academic zeal" (Henry pg). He then opened a school with his brother John, who died in 1842. In 1841, Thoreau became the handyman for the Emerson family, while he devoted his free time to writing. Although, he had a few essays and reviews published, he soon realized that he had to find another source of income (Witherell pg). He practiced surveying, and joined the family pencil business. "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" (Witherell pg). Thoreau also made improvements on the assembling method for the casing and 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" (Witherell pg). When the electrotyping printing process became popular in the 1850's, the Thoreaus began supplying the finely ground plumbago to the printing companies. After his father's death, Thoreau continued to manage the company, often recycling old business letters and invoices as scrap paper for notes and drafts of his essays (Witherell pg).
Thoreau was a self-taught surveyor, working for town of Concord and the disputing landowners. In 1859, he helped settle a suit filed by a group of farmers against the Billerica Dam, collecting data and interviews, then recording his findings onto a large chart. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, "one of those he interviewed testified in court that the river was 'dammed at both ends and cursed in the middle'" (Witherell pg). He also collected specimens for Harvard natural history professor, Louis Agassiz. Thoreau lectured at lyceums and private homes from Maine to New Jersey, and although they helped him in the process of composition for his essays and books, they were not lucrative. He described himself to the secretary of his Harvard class as, "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" (Witherell pg).
Thoreau was only nineteen years old when Emerson wrote "Nature." During this time, Concord was a prominent cultural center, with residents such as Nathaniel Hawthorn, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Franklin Sanborn boarded with the Thoreaus, and Horace Greely, Theordore Parker, George Ripley, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson were among the circle of friends (Witherell pg). "Transcendentalism began as a radical religious movement, opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution that Unitarianism had become" (Witherell pg). Expressing the need for and conviction of a more personal and intuitive experience of the divine, Emerson wrote, "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 religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs" (Witherell pg). The Transcendentalists believed that the universe is divided into two parts, the soul and nature. This belief and conviction is what led 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 is right"(Witherell pg).
Three years after the death of his brother, Thoreau wrote, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers" a commemorative of a canoe trip they had taken. Needing a quiet place to write, he built a small cabin on a piece of land owned by Emerson, on the north shore of Walden Pond. "Thus began one of the great and lasting experiments in life and thought of the whole of human experience" (Henry pg). "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" (Henry pg).
Thoreau's days on Walden Pond were filled with reading, gardening, visiting with friends, and writing. "But most of all, he walked and thought, and it's difficult to tell now which was the more important activity" (Henry pg). Emerson wrote, "The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all" (Walking pg). In "Walking," Thoreau says, "I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows" (Walking pg). Discussing the art of walking, Thoreau said, "For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels (Walking pg). The two years Thoreau lived in his cabin at Walden Pond seemed to bring him "to a state of conscious living, where thought and action were harmoniously combined" (Henry pg).
During the summer of 1846, he made the first of three trips to Maine, and wrote essays that were later collected in 'The Maine Woods." The intimacy with nature that Thoreau depicted in these essays, caused Edward Abbey to remark that Thoreau had "outgrown his Emersonian transcendentalist background" (Henry pg). Thoreau had found his drummer, it was nature. Thoreau wrote:
The poet's, commonly, is not the logger's path, but a woodman's... there are spirits... To whom no simplicity is barren. There are not only stately pines, but fragile flowers, like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat. These remind us, that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger's path and the Indian trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness" (The Maine Woods)
Thoreau believed that government was at its best when it governed the least, and that no government was the ideal. However, he also campaigned for the government to foster culture and education, build roads, prevent crime, and protect wildlife. A pioneer ecologist and conservationist, Thoreau was one of the first Americans to understand that natural resources were not inexhaustible.…[continue]
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