Henry David Thoreau Literary Works

Henry David Thoreau Literary Works

As a follower of transcendentalism, Thoreau projected individualism in his literary works, Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau had a deep emphasis on nature, as displayed in his works, as well as his freedom and following conscience.

Walden Pond was one of Thoreau’s favorite spots in Concord, Massachusetts. Walden Pond is a symbol for self-exploration; it must answer human nature depth for depth. Even as a very young child, he could stand alone among the trees at Walden Pond and not feel lonely. The people around his small town referred to Thoreau as “nature’s own child” (Reef 21). Thoreau spent more time outdoors than in the small cabin he built by Walden Pond. Thoreau took long walks in the woods and fields around his town in Concord, Massachusetts.

While he was at Walden, Thoreau was alone quite often, but he was rarely lonely. Walden is a book about Thoreau’s experiences while living in the woods beside Walden Pond. Walden is not a long book, but it is filled with wonderful sentences that grab at your mind and stay in your ear (Burleigh 20). This book has helped many people think about and change their lives. Thoreau summed up his reasoning for living by Walden Pond by saying, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials 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” (Daugherty 15).

Thoreau felt peaceful and at one with nature. He felt deeply about nature; he felt it reached right into your feelings. Yet thoughts (Ring 5). Thoreau felt that “Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings, and yet American scholars, having little or no root in the soil, commonly strive with all their might to confide themselves to the imported symbols alone. All the true growth and experience, the living speech, they would fain reject as ‘Americanisms’ ” (Paul 53).

Thoreau’s philosophy is we cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell beauty and strength as we can a flower or a rock. But by being close to nature, we can get a hint of the spirit that transcends material things. All we have to do is get away from useless, routine activities, go outdoors, and listen to nature as it speaks to us (Ring 25). Walden and Thoreau’s other writings have made people see nature in new ways that they never saw before. Nature, Thoreau explained, brought peace of mind and encouraged people to think for themselves (Reef 12). “We can never have enough of nature,” he wrote, “The wilderness, with its living and decaying trees, the thunder clouds, and the rain which lasts three weeks…” (Reef 12). To Thoreau, nature was a living being. He wanted to do more than just enjoy its beauty. Thoreau wrote, “Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it” (Hough 263).

Thoreau did not wish to live what was not life. Living is so dear. Nor did he wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. Thoreau stated, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole genuine meanness of it, and publish it meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion” (Daugherty 15).

The simple life, by whose judgment Thoreau measured men and economics, is aimed at the most complete realization of the perfectibility natural instinct in every person. In Thoreau’s youth, he sought the conditions for such a life in an idealized uprising. After his experiment at Walden Pond, he moved toward reconciliation between simplicity and an economy of machines and profit.

Most of the time, Thoreau did indeed live simply. He ate potatoes and corn that he raised, traded beans for sugar and rice, and He often dined on the fish he caught and wild plants he found. Thoreau lived his ideals in his own way. Thoreau considered himself rich, not in money, but in sunny days, and he spent them lavishly Thoreau did not care that he did not waste more of the sunny days in the workshop or the teachers desk.

Thoreau liked teaching, but soon ran into trouble. He was told he must discipline his students with a ruler in order for them to listen to him. But that was not his way at all. He liked and respected children too much to hurt them. Thoreau and his brother started their own school in Concord and often took the students swimming or sailing on the river there. The writer from Concord taught people to value natural world for more than the lumber, metal, and other goods that it could provide (Reef 12). Thoreau came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. Thoreau’s words have prompted many people to work to protect the environment, or other natural surroundings. They have inspired writers and artists to choose nature as their subjects.

From the start, Thoreau had looked critically at the lives of his neighbors. They were, it seemed to him, far more interested in “making a living” than “living.” Thoreau’s neighbors thought he was lazy. However, Thoreau was deep in thought; he did not believe he was wasting his time. Many people thought transcendentalism was for crazy people. Others always asked, “Why doesn’t he ever do anything? He’s always just walking around” (Burleigh 5).

He was always finding small insignificant, out of the way things to excite him, or call forth a memorable phrase. Thoreau believed that he had an advantage in his life over those people who were obligated to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theater, that in his life it became his amusement that never ceased to end. He wanted to prove something to himself and to the other people, too. He wanted to show that someone could live very, very simply. New clothes were not very important to him either. “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts” (Burleigh 18).

Thoreau was an independent thinker; he was less content to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and entirely apt to shock everyone with his own unconventional opinions. Thoreau argued once that in a time of injustice, “The true place for a man is…a prison” (Burleigh 24). Thoreau did not pay taxes for three years because he did not believe the government was using the money for a good cause. Instead, they were using the money to pay slave owners. Thoreau knew slavery was wrong. He and other local people helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. The money paid to the government was also being used to fight a war in Mexico.

Thoreau did not want his money paying for that. But the town thought he was setting a bad example for the other taxpayers. For his refusal, Thoreau once spent a night in jail. Thoreau argued in “Civil Disobedience” that “it is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the state, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar. If I could till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with, the dollar, is innocent,-but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance” (Thomas 239). Another point that Thoreau argues in “Civil Disobedience” is that there are good laws and bad laws. Unjust laws exist. Shall we be content to obey them, endeavor to amend them and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” (Thomas 231).

“The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to – for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a state at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A state which bore this kind of fruit , and suffered it to drop off as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious state, which also I have imagined, but not yet elsewhere seen” (Derleth 65-66).

But, he said, he believed there are times when you can disobey the government and obey the “higher laws” of your own conscience. You just have to be willing to pay the price, as he did in going to jail. He asked, “Is it not possible that an individual can be right and a government wrong?” As he grew older he found himself critical of the government of his country, too.

Many people in Concord and elsewhere found such ideas pretty hard to understand. They thought these transcendentalists must have been walking around with their heads in the clouds. A flower is a flower, they said. A rock is a rock. Period. But many other people liked the thought that all people and things in this world are part of one good, wise, gentle spirit. Thoreau himself lived by these ideals. But being Henry Thoreau, he never formally joined the groups that many of these thinkers formed. He just lived his ideals his own way. In September 1847, after 2 years and two months at Walden Pond, he decided to leave.

A serious student, Thoreau read constantly and copied passages that he liked into a notebook. Thoreau told his fellow students to be “true to their own natures” and to lead “independent lives.” He spoke against the “love and wealth” (Reef 24). The transcendentalists liked to keep journals in which they wrote down their ideas. Thinking about what they wrote helped them listen to their inner voice. Keeping a journal was a way of discovering their true selves, a way of finding out who they really were and what they really wanted to be.

Thoreau had an unusual way of estimating the worth of something. He did not count what it cost in dollars and cents. Instead, he counted what it cost in terms of “the amount of what I call life that must be exchanged for it.”

Thoreau was a writer, not just a man who lived in the woods or didn’t pay taxes or went to jail. He wrote bluntly and from his heart projecting his emphasis on nature, individuality, freedom, and following conscience.