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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

❶This position is his generic answer to lives of quiet desperation.

Why Did Thoreau Write "Civil Disobedience"?

by Henry David Thoreau
First-Person Narration
Poetic, with a dose of National Geographic

Intuitive understanding rather than reason provides the means to such cosmic comprehension. Thoreau expressed a clear vision of the unity of man, nature, and heaven. Following a description of moth cocoons resembling leaves suspended over the edge of the meadow and the river, he wrote in his journal entry for February 19, Each and all such disguises.

All the wit in the world was brought to bear on each case to secure its end. It was long ago, in a full senate of all intellects, determined how cocoons had best be suspended, — kindred mind with mine that admires and approves decided it so. This leap from the particular to the universal, from the mundane to the divine, is found throughout Thoreau's work.

Nature — its meaning and value — comprises one of the most pervasive themes in Thoreau's writings, expressed through both painstaking detail and broad generalization. Like Emerson, Thoreau saw an intimate and specific familiarity with the reality of nature as vital to understanding higher truth.

Thoreau's Transcendental quest toward the universal drew him to immerse himself in nature at Walden Pond from to It led him to observe the natural world closely in order ultimately to "look through and beyond" nature, as he wrote in his journal on March 23, Thoreau's attraction to nature went far beyond emotional appreciation of its beauty; he embraced its harshness as well.

Nature was, as he wrote in his essay "Walking," "a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. Thoreau was aware, however, that there was a fine line between inspiration through concrete knowledge of nature and fruitless preoccupation with masses of scientific detail. He saw that there was a danger of becoming "dissipated by so many observations" journal entry, March 23, , and recognized his own tendency to lose sight of the ultimate goal of higher understanding.

On August 19, , Thoreau wrote in his journal:. I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven's cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope.

I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. He perceived a world of difference between the natural philosopher and the more limited man of science. Approached with a sense of wonder and of high purpose, nature provided Thoreau with a means of transcending the distractions of everyday life and of focusing on what was important.

Thoreau's excursions in Concord and beyond were made through nature, toward loftier revelations. Nature, he felt, was a particular tonic to the human spirit in an age devoted to commerce, to politics, to the spread of dehumanizing industrialization and urbanization, to unfulfilling social interactions, and to the perpetuation of human institutions at best in need of change, at worst immoral.

His essay "Walking" is a coherent expression of the power of nature — of "wildness," in which he found the "preservation of the world" — to enlarge man's vision. If the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar. At length, perchance, the immaterial heaven will appear as much higher to the American mind, and the intimations that star it as much brighter.

For I believe that climate does thus react on man, — as there is something in the mountain-air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences?

I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky, — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains, — our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.

Perchance there will appear to the traveler something, he knows not what, of laeta and glabra , of joyous and serene, in our very faces. Else to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered? But the broad patterns visible through nature provide an antidote to the shortcomings of human existence only if a man is open to them.

The saunterer must "shake off the village" and throw himself into the woods on nature's terms, not his own. Admiration for the primitive or simple man — a common theme in Romantic literature — is corollary to the significance of the natural world in Thoreau's work.

Thoreau was fascinated by the American Indian, whom he described as "[a]nother species of mortal men, but little less wild to me than the musquash they hunted" journal entry, March 19, His attraction was founded on the Native's closer relationship to nature than that of civilized man.

He saw in the relics of Indian culture, which he found wherever he walked, evidence of the "eternity behind me as well as the eternity before. He wrote in The Maine Woods:. Thus a man shall lead his life away here on the edge of the wilderness, on Indian Millinocket stream, in a new world, far in the dark of a continent,.

Why read history then if the ages and the generations are now? He lives three thousand years deep in time, an age not yet described by poets. Can you well go further back in history than this? He glides up the Millinocket and is lost to my sight, as a more distant and misty cloud is seen flitting by behind a nearer, and is lost in space.

So he goes about his destiny, the red face of man. He found characteristics of primitive man as a whole in the representative individual. Thoreau also saw in other simple men who lived close to the woods and the earth a tacit understanding of the universal order that civilization obscured. In Walden "Higher Laws" , he wrote of the following:. Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, [who] are often in a more favorable mood for observing her.

Such men knew important things "practically or instinctively," through direct, intuitive means. They never consulted with books, and know and can tell much less than they have done. And the old Wellfleet oysterman in Cape Cod , whose only learning is what he had "got by natur [sic]," is presented as an archaic, bardic type.

Although Thoreau had mixed feelings regarding the farmer's capacity for higher understanding, he sometimes wrote in similar terms of those who cultivated the land. In his journal entry for January 20, , Thoreau presented hauling muck, the most prosaic of farm chores, as analogous to his own literary activity:. The scholar's and the farmer's work are strictly analogous.

When I see the farmer driving into his barn-yard with a load of muck, whose blackness contrasts strangely with the white snow, I have the thoughts which I have described. He is doing like myself. My barn-yard is my journal. Moreover, Thoreau found in certain specific Concord farmers strong individuals who possessed an elemental connection with nature. He wrote in his journal about Cyrus Hubbard December 1, Moderate, natural, true, as if he were made of earth, stone, wood, snow.

I thus meet in this universe kindred of mine, composed of these elements. Thoreau referred to George Minott, "the most poetical farmer," many times in his journals. The importance of simplicity is another of Thoreau's recurrent themes. By keeping his needs and wants few, the individual may realize spiritual aims instead of devoting his energies to the material.

Thoreau urged economy and self-reliance, the stripping away of luxuries and comforts down to the bare essentials. He wrote in "Economy," the first chapter of Walden , "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. If a man spends all day in mind-numbing work, he has no life left for the pursuit of higher understanding. By doing for himself, the individual maintains his freedom to live deliberately, to cultivate himself, and to explore nature and divinity.

At Walden, Thoreau achieved the simplicity that allowed a rich and meaningful life:. 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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. Just as Thoreau understood that living simply in nature allowed a man to live fully, he also recognized that society impeded both simplicity and the inner life. In "Life Without Principle," Thoreau cautioned against the conventionalism of business, church, state, politics, government, law, even of established science and philosophy, all of which encroached upon individual freedom and the ability to think clearly for oneself.

He exhorted, "Read not the Times. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Through simplicity and self-reliance, we may get beyond the conventional and come face-to-face with the universal. In "Walking," Thoreau pointed out the degeneracy of villagers, those who lived in the worldly commotion of town life: Thoreau himself assiduously avoided superficial social involvements and occupations, which he felt took "the edge off a man's thought.

The theme of travel is an important one in Thoreau's writings, operating on both literal and metaphorical levels, closely bound to the author's powerful sense of place. Thoreau took pains to emphasize that seeking exotic locations in pilgrimage toward higher understanding was unnecessary.

He repeatedly focused attention on the inward rather than the outward nature of the journey that was most important in the life of a thinking man. He wrote in his journal March 21, , for example, "Let us migrate interiorly without intermission, and pitch our tent each day nearer the western horizon. Actual travel provided a change of circumstance, but the journey of the mind toward the universal could take place anywhere, and in fact more easily in familiar territory as in a faraway place that could be reached only through effort and expense.

Thoreau unquestionably felt a strong emotional attachment to his native town. He knew its landscape, its people, and its past intimately. He sometimes expressed his love of the place passionately and lyrically. His journal entry for September 4, reads:. I think I could write a poem to be called "Concord. Thoreau saw Concord as the place where he could best visualize and communicate the universals that transcend place precisely because it was the place he knew best.

He wrote in his journal entry for November 20, If a man who has had deep experiences should endeavor to describe them in a book of travels, it would be to use the language of a wandering tribe instead of a universal language. The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself.

If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them.

The appreciation of the profundity and subtlety of his thought comes only after serious study, and only a few of the most committed students are willing to expend the necessary effort. Many, upon first reading him, will conclude: His difficult, allusive prose, moreover, requires too much effort.

All such judgments are at best simplistic and at worst, wrong. If an instructor is to succeed with Thoreau, strategies to meet these responses will need to be devised. The best, in my opinion, is to spend the time explicating to students key sentences and paragraphs in class and responding to questions. Above all, students must be given a knowledge of the premises of Romanticism that constitute Thoreau's world view.

What are Thoreau's premises, the hypotheses from which he reasons? Even the most recalcitrant young reader should be willing to acknowledge that the question of most concern to Thoreau is a fundamental one: All persons should live "deliberately," having separated the ends of life from the means, he argued; and the instructor should aid students to identify those ends. Accepting without examination current social norms, most persons give no thought, Thoreau charged, to the question of the values by which they live.

Thoreau's absorption with physical nature will be apparent to all students. Stressing the linkage of all living things, he was one of the first American ecologists. But the instructor should point out that for Thoreau nature was not an end in itself but a metaphor for ethical and spiritual truth. A walk in the woods therefore was a search for spiritual enlightenment, not merely a sensory pleasure.

One should look "through" nature, as Thoreau phrased it, not merely "at" her. Honest seekers would find the same truths. Belief in the existence of a Moral Law had had by Thoreau's day a venerable history. Jefferson , for example, opened the Declaration of Independence with an appeal to the "self-evident" truths of the Moral Law. Thoreau's political allegiance was first to the Moral Law, and second to the Constitution, which condoned black slavery. Thoreau's angle of vision is patently that of American Romanticism, deeply influenced by the insights of Kant and Coleridge and Carlyle.

But Thoreau's style differs markedly from that of Emerson , whose natural expression is through abstraction. Thoreau presents experience through concrete images; he "thinks in images," as Francis Matthiessen once observed, and employs many of the resources of poetry to give strength and compressed energy to his prose. Widely read himself, he is very allusive, particularly to classical literature, and is one of America's most inveterate punsters.

The recognition that Thoreau was one of America's greatest writers, like the recognition of Melville and Poe , has been a twentieth-century phenomenon. Emerson recognized Thoreau's importance when the younger man died in , detailing both the dimensions of his genius and his personal eccentricities in an extended obituary.

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In addition to poetry, Thoreau's writing style will veer into precise, naturalistic detail, going so far as to give us the genus and species of the animals, birds, and plants he .

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Henry David Thoreau was an exacting practitioner of the art of writing. Although he exulted in the intuitive, creative genius that he felt within himself, throughout his life he was a disciplined craftsman who worked hard to revise and refine his material.

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The best phrases that describe best of the writing style of Henry David Thoreau is that how the content of his writings are so truthful and idealistic. The significance of content greatly outweighed that of style.1/5(3). Extensive site devoted to the writings, philosophy, life of Henry David Thoreau; created by The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, definitive edition of Thoreau's works, directed by Elizabeth Hall Witherell.

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A literary writing style is one of the most elusive literary elements to clearly define. In that vein, it is very difficult to shove Henry David Thoreau, the most iconoclastic square peg of all authors, into a formal vs. conversational stylistic round hole. Though not a professional philosopher, Henry David Thoreau is recognized as an important contributor to the American literary and philosophical movement known as New England Transcendentalism. His essays, books, and poems weave together two central themes over the course of his intellectual career: nature and the conduct of life.