Essay on Henry David Thoreau and "Walden"

You have already been introduced to Thoreau as a writer. Read this short essay on get a better sense of him as an activist.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau took up residence in a cabin he had constructed on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the shores of Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts. For the next 27 months, Thoreau would live there, contemplating nineteenth-century American life and the world as a whole as it passed by, compiling notes and thoughts that would eventually form the basis of what has been considered his masterpiece , Walden . Organized around the calendar year, Walden consolidates Thoreau's two-year experience into one calendrical cycle, but it is far more than a memoir or a naturalist's report, moving from philosophical and political considerations to short sketches of the people and animals that move in and out of his life to rhapsodic celebrations of the pond and its environs to scientific data on its depth and its climate. To an extent none of his other writings do, Walden balances Thoreau's various interests and themes – understanding nature from a scientific and spiritual perspective, criticizing nineteenth-century U. S. materialism and inequality on the basis of natural laws and spiritual truth, and experimenting with language as a way of conveying those laws and truths in order to transform himself and his society.

Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, where he lived almost the entirety of his life. His family was fairly well off economically, as they owned one of the premier pencil-making factories in the nation. This financial security allowed Thoreau to attend Harvard, from which he graduated in 1837, in the midst of one of the worst financial panics of the nineteenth century. After resigning from his first job as a teacher because he refused to inflict corporal punishment, he opened a school with his brother John in Concord, which they ran together until 1841, when John became ill. After John's death in 1842, which would leave him without one of his closest companions, Thoreau took a teaching position in Staten Island as a way of gaining a foothold in the New York literary market. However, he would soon return to Concord. Following his experiment on Walden Pond, Thoreau continued in Concord, first living with the Emerson family for a short time, before returning to his family home, where he lived as a boarder until his death in 1862.

Early on, Thoreau came under the influence of Emerson and the transcendentalist circle, publishing essays and poetry in The Dial edited by Emerson and Margaret Fuller in the early 1840s, and living with Emerson from 1841 to 1843. While Emerson's influence can be felt in many of Thoreau's writings, their relationship was not always easy and Thoreau departs from Emerson in significant ways. Thoreau's time at Walden Pond and the experience he records of being jailed for not paying taxes in "Resistance to Civil Government" ("Civil Disobedience") can be readily understood as putting Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance into material practice. But as significant as that philosophical basis is to Thoreau's activity, the material nature of his activity may be more important. For Thoreau, the material world and his interaction with it become central in a way that the world never seems to be quite so real in Emerson's writings. While many of Emerson's essays and lectures tend to focus on abstract ideas, principles, and social positions as indicated by their very titles – "Self-Reliance", "Compensation", and "The Poet" – Thoreau's writings ground themselves in specific experience and particular locales, as indicated by the two books he published during his life time: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden .

Also unlike Emerson, who would achieve great fame as a lecturer and essayist, Thoreau would remain relatively obscure during his lifetime, even as he circulated among the most important literary circles of his age. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was an infamous publishing failure – fewer than 300 of the original edition of 1000 books sold – but it helped to establish Thoreau's ability to weave philosophical insights and meditations, commentary on nature and history, into a narrative structure. Written during his time at Walden Pond, the book ostensibly chronicles the trip Thoreau and his brother John took in 1839. But Thoreau uses their journey both to mourn and remember his brother and to explore the philosophical and social questions at the core of his thought, the relationship between the self and nature, the history of Euro-American exploitation of American nature and its native inhabitants, and the connection between specific locales and times and the eternal and the universal.

During the same year of the publication A Week , Thoreau produced his most famous essay, "Resistance to Civil Government", better known now by the title "Civil Disobedience". "Resistance to Civil Government", with its argument that the individual conscience trumps man-made laws when those laws become the machinery of injustice, has influenced a number of important political activists, most famously Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The essay uses Thoreau's experience of being imprisoned for one night in 1846 (during his sojourn at Walden Pond) for not paying his poll tax in protest of American policies, most importantly the U.S.-Mexican War and the continuation of slavery. In defending and explaining his conduct, Thoreau produces an individualistic, transcendentalist politics based on the inviolability of the individual conscience, a conscience or moral sense that potentially grants each of us access to a higher truth. This faith in the individual's ability to conduct himself properly through the use of an inner moral sense provides the foundation for the fundamentally anarchistic position Thoreau articulates at the beginning of the essay – "'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have". Thoreau returns to his hope for a state that will all but cease to exist at the end of the essay and describes his ability and desire to escape contact with the government as much as possible, concluding his inserted history of his night in prison by recounting a huckleberry picking expedition that led him into nature where "the State was nowhere to be seen".

Yet much of the essay takes a more practical approach to the realities of the government in the antebellum U. S., with Thoreau even recognizing it as doing some good, as when he acknowledges paying the "highway tax:" "to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government". As much as Thoreau bases his radical individualism and anarchist tendencies in his transcendentalist philosophy, then, he is most concerned with the specific American government of his time and its policies. The fundamental problem with government is that it takes on a life of its own, becoming, in Thoreau's central metaphor in the essay, a machine that then attempts to treat individual men as machines lacking in thought or conscience. In articulating his more specific focus, he grounds his critique in American political thought, recalling the Revolution in order to contend that "All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable". While he seems to suggest that any violation of one's sense of justice by the government would validate resisting the state by withholding one's allegiance or by refusing to pay taxes, his argument largely relegates such extreme acts to only the most severe violation of right. He advises us to let certain injustices go: "If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go". And he makes it clear that he is not calling upon his fellow citizens to engage in a crusade to eliminate all evil: "It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong". Thoreau's point is not that slavery and what he – and many others – saw as an imperialistic war are wrong. There's much evil in the world, and it is beyond our capacity to eliminate it all.

What goads Thoreau to action is that the government that asks for his allegiance and support has created machinery for unjust purposes, as "oppression and robbery are organized" to support war and slavery. While Thoreau does not see it as his duty to oppose all injustice, he argues that "it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it . . . not to give it practically his support. . . . . I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue [my pursuits] sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too". Much of his critique is aimed at his many neighbors who ostensibly oppose slavery and the U. S.-Mexican War but do little in actuality to stop the federal government from continuing as it has and, in supporting the government, actually further the injustices they claim to oppose, thus "practically" giving their support. It is here that he dismisses voting as an empty gesture because the voter does not fully invest himself in the outcome of the vote. This is where civil disobedience becomes necessary, for the individual must make his "life a counter friction to stop the machine" of injustice by attempting to clog up the wheels of the government's machinery: "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence". If each person who thought slavery or the U.S.-Mexican War was wrong withheld support for the government, Thoreau contends, the government would have to relent rather than jailing thousands of citizens. While this idea of nonviolent resistance became one of the most influential parts of Thoreau's political thought, he moved away from this position as the nation stumbled closer and closer to Civil War. Specifically, in his eulogistic essays on John Brown, following his failed attempt at provoking a slave rebellion in Virginia, Thoreau celebrated Brown's ability to stir Northerners from their slumber, as "He has liberated many thousands of slaves, both North and South". This figuring of his fellow Northerners as slaves – as enslaved to the system of slavery specifically and to social norms more broadly – connects this later apology for violence to "Resistance" where he similarly opines that slavery could only be abolished by voting when society has become "indifferent" to it and the voters themselves "will then be the only slaves".

As his more explicitly political writings frequently speak of his fellow citizens as slaves for their continuing support of slavery, Walden similarly equates those who "lead lives of quiet desperation" in which they have "no time to be any thing but a machine" to being "slave-driver[s]" of themselves. If slavery and industrialization provide the most prominent contexts for Thoreau's critique, Nature provides the antidote for these moral and social ailments. Most pronouncedly, he announces his social project in terms of his fellow Americans being asleep: "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up". For Thoreau, especially in the second chapter of Walden , "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For", morning becomes a figure for the ever-present possibility of waking to "a poetic or divine life" through both the imaginative constitution of the world and direct contact with its material reality.

Much of Walden consists of Thoreau's meditations on his experiment in Spartan living, an experiment based in an attempt at discovering exactly what a man needs to live, materially and spiritually, and his focus is largely on discerning his place within nature and, through it, within the universe. Yet running through these more philosophical and, at times, scientific threads is a steady critique of American society – "this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century" – for having misplaced priorities due to a failure of imagination and perspective. While not as explicitly political as "Resistance" or his essays and lectures on slavery, Walden takes aim both at specific injustices and at the broader social and ideological underpinnings of those injustices. Among other things, Thoreau, for example, attacks industrialized labor for merely seeking "that the corporations may be enriched" and repeatedly gestures to the travesty of Southern slavery. But the basis for these critiques lies in his returning to nature and a world that exists outside the nineteenth century and its narrow interests, allowing him the perspective to see the limitations of his time.

It is through his deeper engagement, his "closest acquaintance with Nature", that Thoreau discovers the higher laws that guide his critique of American society. In particular, in the chapter "Higher Laws", Thoreau attempts to link the higher "spiritual life" with "a primitive", more "rank hold on life", even as he recognizes these instincts as quite distinct. He argues that it is through his experiences in the wild, that he gains access to "the most original part of himself", through a kind of "clarifying process". In "Spring", he famously describes such a clarifying process within nature itself through his description of the thawing of the railroad bank. As with his depiction of morning as reflecting the awakening of the self to the world, so with "Spring" he offers an account of the world coming back to life. Viewing the bank, he feels as if he "stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me". This experience leads him to meditate on the connections between various material phenomena and language, captured in the repeated form of leaves, as he concludes that "it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature". "Spring" concludes with images that suggest the unimportance of human or any specific animal's existence within nature, as Thoreau defends and celebrates nature's extravagance, the fact that "Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed" – "tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the world". Yet nature also provides the springboard for transforming human life – both in general, in a particular society, and for the individual – for it enables us to recognize that this earth and "the institutions upon it, are plastic" and to see "our own limits transgressed" by its "inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features". It is this emphasis on continually transgressing our limits as our experience with nature repeatedly reminds us that leads Thoreau to leave Walden Pond. As he famously puts it, "I had several more lives to live", and during his time at Walden he had already made "a beaten track" between his cabin and the pond and a similar path "which the mind travels". Nature, Thoreau suggests, helps to correct our tendency to fall into the same paths, the same routines, and as such it can help to reorient ourselves as individual and as a society.


Suggested Additional Reading

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden. Expanded ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.

Milder, Robert. Reimagining Thoreau. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Myerson, Joel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986

Robinson, David M. Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 3:31 PM