With their call for "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”, for self-honesty, and for harmony with nature, the writings of Henry David Thoreau are perhaps the most influential philosophical works in all American literature. The selections in this volume represent Thoreau at his best. Included in their entirety are Walden, his indisputable masterpiece, and his two great arguments for nonconformity, Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle. A lifetime of brilliant observation of natureand of himselfis recorded in selections from A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods and The Journal.
About the Author
Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 - "just in the nick of time," as he wrote, for the "flowering of New England," when the area boasted such eminent citizens as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville. Raised in genteel poverty - his father made and sold pencils from their home - Thoreau enjoyed, nevertheless, a fine education, graduating from Harvard in 1837. In that year, the young thinker met Emerson and formed the close friendship that became the most significant of his life. Guided, sponsored and aided by his famous older colleague, Thoreau began to publish essays in The Dial, exhibiting the radical originality that would gain the disdain of his contemporaries but the great admiration of all succeeding generations.
In 1845, Thoreau began the living experiment for which he is most famous. During his two years and two months in the shack beside the New England pond, he wrote his first important work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax to a government that supported slavery (recorded in "Civil Disobedience") and gathered the material for his masterpiece, Walden (1854). He spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing and died, relatively unappreciated, in 1862.
Date of Birth:July 12, 1817
Date of Death:May 6, 1862
Place of Birth:Concord, Massachusetts
Place of Death:Concord, Massachusetts
Education:Concord Academy, 1828-33); Harvard University, 1837
Read an Excerpt
Henry David Thoreau was the last male descendant of a French ancestor who came to this country from the Isle of Guernsey. His character exhibited occasional traits drawn from this blood, in singular combination with a very strong Saxon genius.
He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in teaching a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied that he should never make another pencil. "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once." He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.
At this time, a strong, healthy youth, fresh from college, whilst all his companions were choosing their profession, or eager to begin some lucrative employment, it was inevitable that his thoughts should be exercised on the same question, and it required rare decision to refuse all the accustomed paths and keep his solitary freedom at the cost of disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends: all the more difficult that he had a perfect probity, was exact in securing his own independence, and in holding every man to the like duty. But Thoreau never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well. If he slighted and defied the opinions of others, it was only that he was more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief. Never idle or self-indulgent, he preferred, when he wanted money, earning it by some piece of manual labor agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence, planting, grafting, surveying or other short work, to any long engagements. With his hardy habits and few wants, his skill in wood-craft, and his powerful arithmetic, he was very competent to live in any part of the world. It would cost him less time to supply his wants than another. He was therefore secure of his leisure.
A natural skill for mensuration, growing out of his mathematical knowledge and his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of ponds and rivers, the height of mountains and the air-line distance of his favorite summitsthis, and his intimate knowledge of the territory about Concord, made him drift into the profession of land-surveyor. It had the advantage for him that it led him continually into new and secluded grounds, and helped his studies of Nature. His accuracy and skill in this work were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.
He could easily solve the problems of the surveyor, but he was daily beset with graver questions, which he manfully confronted. He interrogated every custom, and wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation. He was a protestant à outrance, and few lives contain so many renunciations. He was bred to no profession, he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. Perhaps he fell into his way of living without forecasting it much, but approved it with later wisdom. "I am often reminded," he wrote in his journal, "that if I had bestowed on me the wealth of Crœsus, my aims must be still the same, and my means essentially the same." He had no temptations to fight againstno appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles. A fine house, dress, the manners and talk of highly cultivated people were all thrown away on him. He much preferred a good Indian, and considered these refinements as impediments to conversation, wishing to meet his companion on the simplest terms.
He declined invitations to dinner-parties, because there each was in every one's way, and he could not meet the individuals to any purpose. "They make their pride," he said, "in making their dinner cost much; I make my pride in making my dinner cost little." When asked at table what dish he preferred, he answered, "The nearest." He did not like the taste of wine, and never had a vice in his life. He said"I have a faint recollection of pleasure derived from smoking dried lily-stems, before I was a man. I had commonly a supply of these. I have never smoked anything more noxious."
He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself. In his travels, he used the railroad only to get over so much country as was unimportant to the present purpose, walking hundreds of miles, avoiding taverns, buying a lodging in farmers' and fishermen's houses, as cheaper, and more agreeable to him, and because there he could better find the men and the information he wanted.
There was somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise. It cost him nothing to say No; indeed he found it much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as if his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is a little chilling to the social affections; and though the companion would in the end acquit him of any malice or untruth, yet it mars conversation. Hence, no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. "I love Henry," said one of his friends, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree."
Yet, hermit and stoic as he was, he was really fond of sympathy, and threw himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people whom he loved, and whom he delighted to entertain, as he only could, with the varied and endless anecdotes of his experiences by field and river: and he was always ready to lead a huckleberry-party or a search for chestnuts or grapes. Talking, one day, of a public discourse, Henry remarked that whatever succeeded with the audience was bad. I said, "Who would not like to write something which all can read, like Robinson Crusoe? and who does not see with regret that his page is not solid with a right materialistic treatment, which delights everybody?" Henry objected, of course, and vaunted the better lectures which reached only a few persons. But, at supper, a young girl, understanding that he was to lecture at the Lyceum, sharply asked him, "Whether his lecture would be a nice, interesting story, such as she wished to hear, or whether it was one of those old philosophical things that she did not care about." Henry turned to her, and bethought himself, and, I saw, was trying to believe that he had matter that might fit her and her brother, who were to sit up and go to the lecture, if it was a good one for them.
Table of Contents
|Where I Lived, and What I Lived For||76|
|Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors||241|
|The Pond in Winter||265|
What People are Saying About This
Thoreau's immortality may hang by a single book, but the book includes even his writing that is not in it. Nothing he ever said but sounds like a quotation from it. Think of the success of a man's putting himself together all under one one-word title. Enviable!
Reading Group Guide
1. Walden, thought by many to be Thoreau's masterpiece, contains the famous lines, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." What lessons does Thoreau learn, in your view, through his experience of living in simple near isolation at Walden Pond?
2. At the end of two years, why does Thoreau leave Walden? Does he himself provide or imply an adequate answer?
3. Discuss Thoreau's ideas about living simply, without material luxuries. Do his ideas still apply? Is the kind of freedom and self-reliance Thoreau sought possible in societies other than the America of Thoreau's time? Is it possible in America today?
4. In the essay "Nature, " Thoreau writes: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil-to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." Discuss the meaning of this statement, and Thoreau's relationship to nature, one of the great themes running through all of his work, as both "absolute freedom and wildness, " and as something that has, for Thoreau, definite spiritual associations. What is to be gained by living as "part and parcel of Nature?" What is given up? Discuss other writers you've read that might be said to record similar attitudes toward nature.
5. The essay "Civil Disobedience" proved to be one of the most admired essays ever written; it influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., andGandhi, among others. In it, Thoreau distinguishes between "the law, " and "the right, " and here as elsewhere takes strong issue with government injustice, and even government altogether. In the essay's first paragraph he writes, "That government is best which governs not at all, " and elsewhere, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." Still elsewhere, he writes, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion." Discuss Thoreau's attitude toward government, politics, and morality, in "Civil Disobedience" and elsewhere in his writings.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Where to start? This book was an eye opener for me, starting me on a path to find my true purpose, to elevate my existance. Thoreau gave me the basis for my journey, so now, I hope to begin, hope to lose the world to find myself. As a seeker of individualism I loved this book, but at points it was too thick; metaphor after metaphor, allusion after allusion, it made me question reading it. To throw it into the fire and rid myself of many headaches or finish it and start again. This book both disgusted me and inspired me, but that is much of its beauty. Find yourself without following another. I recommend this book to the lost soul, to he who wishes to find himself, for everyone else, turn back before its too late.
The introduction to the edition I read quoted American philosopher and Harvard professor Stanley Cavell as saying "Emerson and Thoreau... are the founding philosophers of America" and comparable in complexity to Plato. As you can tell from my disparate ratings below, I nevertheless found reading Thoreau a decidedly mixed bag. Given their influence on the environmental movement and non-violent mass protest movements, I'd highly recommend reading Walden and the article "Civil Disobedience" no matter what your personal beliefs. If you then find you really love this man's philosophy and writing style, then... well there sure is plenty more to read. This is one book where my rating suffered from including too much. If it had included just the works mentioned above I'd have added at least a star.Walden - This book in particular is often cited as one of the origins of the environmentalist movement. What struck me from the beginning is that Thoreau's a truly impressive writer. I was often entranced by the sheer beauty of the prose even when he was expressing ideas antithetical to my worldview. Frequently I'd come across familiar lines such as the "mass of men live lives of quiet desperation" and "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps he hears a different drummer." And how can I not appreciate his "Reading" chapter with its lyrical praise of books? The first chapter though, "Economies," often had me lifting a cynical brow. His mantra in the book is simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! And though I can see his point about the futility of yearning after many superfluous things just because they're in fashion, some of his encomiums on his frugality... Well, he's at his worst in the "Baker Farm" chapter where he lectured this poor hard-working Irish immigrant with several children on how he should live. Given Thoreau was squatting on Emerson's land and bringing his laundry home to his mother, it sounded like this guy ranting about how to make ends meet while he's living in his parent's basement rent-free. And all his talk about self-sufficiency and living the natural way? As much as we take such objects for granted today, such things as Thoreau used to make his cabin such as panes of glass, nails, screws, planks, are products of specialization and even industrialization--at least produced cheaply for use of the ordinary men, and I could wish that Thoreau would, if not appreciate that, acknowledge it. I don't resonate with a lot of the book's messages--and was at times bored with Thoreau's lengthy rhapsodies on nature. There's definitely gorgeous writing and food for thought here nevertheless. If you'd call yourself an environmentalist or naturalist I think that's worth adding at least an additional star in rating. 298 pages Four StarsA Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers - A travelogue of Thoreau's travels on the river with his brother. I've read claims this is second only to Walden in importance among Thoreau's works. I think if you loved Walden, and I mean loved it and you can't get enough Thoreau, by all means read this and the others below--especially if you love Nature studies studded with loads of classical allusions. That said, even though some parts bored me, other parts definitely were worth the read. Especially the chapter "Atlantides" dealing with friendship that featured the line: "It takes two to speak the truth,--one to speak and another to hear." I loved the discussion of Chaucer too. One where I liked the digressions more than the main narrative. 138 pages Three and a Half StarsCape Cod - My edition included four of the chapters. The first chapter, "The Shipwreck" was interesting for it's depiction of tragedy but then subverts the seeming compassion of the account in a disconcerting way. "The Wellfleet Oysterman" is interesting for it's title character--an elderly man who can remember the Revolutionary War. "The Highland Light" and
Thoreau is my new favorite author. I am going to re-read this book many times in my lifetime. His views on nature, government and everyday life are like no one else's. His observations are profound. It was also great to read about an area I am familiar with.
This compilation of Thoreau's writings is a national treasure; and this wisdom should be required reading in (preferably the junior year of) high school, and beyond. Thoreau has influenced more great thinkers, as well as plain citizens of the Earth, than has been fully calculated. His life of 45 years is markedly representative of both Mother Nature and Humanity.
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