Henry David Thoreau

	Direct your right eye inward, and you'll find
	A thousand regions in your mind
	Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
	Expert in home-cosmography.
					-- William Habington

	I am too high-born to be propertied,
	To be a secondary at control,
	Or useful serving-man and instrument
	To any sovereign state throughout the world.
					 -- Henry David Thoreau

The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. -- Henry David Thoreau

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. -- Henry David Thoreau

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once. -- Henry David Thoreau

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with freedom and culture merely civil, - to regard man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of a society. -- Henry David Thoreau

I heartily accept the motto - 'That government is best which governs least;' and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, - 'That government is best which governs not at all' ..... -- Henry David Thoreau

There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognise the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all his own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. -- Henry David Thoreau

We need the tonic of wilderness - to wade sometimes in the marshes where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wild and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us, because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. -- Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) American essayist, natural history writer, philosopher, transcendentalist, dissident, social critic.

Born of French, Scottish, Quaker, Puritan stock, Concord, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his life, apart from an unhappy childhood in Chelmsford and Boston and 6 months in New York. Educated at Harvard, from where he graduated in 1837.

Together with friend, fellow poet, essayist and near-neighbour Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau founded the Transcendental Club.

Thoreau submitted articles to The Dial. The Dial commissioned Thoreau to write nature articles and studies on the local flora and fauna, 'Natural History of Massachusetts', 'A Walk to Wachusett' (1842), 'A Winter Walk' (1843). In total, The Dial published more than forty of Thoreau's translations, essays and poetry, including 'Ethical Scriptures' and 'The Preaching of Buddha'.

In 1842, Thoreau met Nathaniel Hawthorne, a fellow contributor to The Dial. Hawthorne and his young bride had moved into the Old Manse, near the Old Bridge from which the American militia men faced down the British Army during the War of Independence. Thoreau sold Musketaquid, the boat in which he and brother John made their trip along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, to Hawthorne for $7.

For two years, 4 July 1845 to 6 September 1847, Thoreau lived in a hut he built on the north side of Walden Pond. During the first year he built a log cabin, raised beans and wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), a description of a trip he and his brother John had taken a decade earlier (1839). The highlight of the second year was a day in prison for refusal to pay poll tax. An experience that led to the writing of 'Resistance to Civil Government' (1849).

My house was on the side of a hill, immediately on the edge of the larger wood, in the midst of a young forest of pitch pines and hickories, and half a dozen rods from the pond, to which a narrower footpath led down the hill. In my front yard grew the strawberry, blackberry, and life-everlasting, johnswort, and goldenrod, shrub-oaks and sand-cherry, blueberry and groundnut. Near the end of May, the sand-cherry (cerasus pumila), adorned the sides of the path with its delicate flowers arranged in umbels cylindrically about its short stems, which last, in the fall, weighed down with good sized and handsome cherries, fell over in wreaths like rays on every side. I tasted them out of compliment to Nature, though they were scarcely palatable.

Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond was twofold, to enable him to explore his own inner thoughts in solitude and to put into practice his ideas of living off the land. Walden (1854), a series of essays, is an account of the time spent at Walden Pond.

Life at Walden Pond was not that of a hermit living a solitary existence out in the wilderness. Walden Pond was a popular place of recreation for the townsfolk of Concord, friends visited, Thoreau would dine out with friends and frequently pop into town.

'Resistance to Civil Government' (1849), now known as 'Civil Disobedience', was to inspire Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protesters, environmental activists, and to underline the radical philosophy of Earth First!. The basic tenet is that what is right transcends laws made by the State, and that citizens have a moral duty to disobey the State. If an injustice of government is 'of such a nature that it requires injustice to another break the law let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.' Thoreau's protest, and for which he was to suffer a day in gaol for non-payment of poll tax, was against the US War against Mexico, which Thoreau saw as an excuse for land grabbing, and the refusal to support escaped slaves.

A few extracts illustrate the power of Thoreau's argument:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterwards. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, as so much for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of the undue respect for the law is that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?

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The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, gaolers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.

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All men recognise the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

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I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbour as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countryman now. 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. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.

With transnational companies, often dwarfing governments, becoming the global players, Thoreau's basic tenets of civil disobedience become equally applicable to direct action against companies. This is being seen world wide with the action against genetically modified crops, typified by the lead being taken in England by genetiX snowball. Consumers are equally recognising that, as Thoreau did with his tax-dollars, their consumer spending can make all the difference.

During the period 1849-53, Thoreau made several brief trips away from Concord. These trips were to provide the material for the posthumous publication of Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).

In his later life Thoreau became an increasingly active member of The Underground Railway, the organisation that helped hide and ship out to Canada escaped slaves from the South. Thoreau was also heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement and spoke at several of their rallies. 'Slavery in Massachusetts' (1854), was first read at at a rally organised by the abolitionist and editor William Lloyd Garrison. In 1847 Thoreau met John Brown at Emerson's house, later to be hanged for his abortive attack at Harper's Ferry. Three of Thoreau's lectures eulogised John Brown, 'A Plea for Captain John Brown' (1859), 'The Last Days of John Brown' (1860), 'After the Death of John Brown' (1860).

Thoreau made a few more trips in the last years of his life to Main and Cape Cod and New York (1856) where he met Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Whitman presented him with a 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. The last trip he made was to the Great Lakes and Mississippi (1861) in the hope of recovering his health.

In the year before his death, Thoreau met with members of the Sioux Nation concerned at their treatment by the Federal Government. Since 1850, Thoreau had taken an interest in Amerindian affairs and collected Amerindian artefacts.

Thoreau died 6 May 1862 of tuberculosis.

With his nature writings, Thoreau inspired many in the deep ecology movement, and is regarded by many as a deep ecologist a century before his time. John Muir, who instigated the National Parks movement in the US, was inspired by Thoreau. Thoreau's sense of place and community is reflected in the writings of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry.

Thoreau was a great traveller and observer, a traveller in his own space of mind and Concord.

Thoreau was a prolific writer. His journal and essays are more than two million words.

Thoreau was little known in his own lifetime, his books failed to sell, he managed to earn a living by teaching, helping to run the family pencil business, and working as a surveyor. His reputation slowly grew over the following century. He is now regarded as one of the major figures of American literature, with Walden regarded as the 19th century American classic.

Walden Pond, immortalised by Thoreau in Walden, is a small glacial lake in eastern Massachusetts, a couple of miles south of Concord. It now lies in the Walden Pond State Reservation. The spot on the north shore where Thoreau built his log cabin is marked by a stone cairn.

Concord, Massachusetts, twenty miles from Boston, is from where the American Revolution was plotted. It was from the Old Bridge that the American militia men faced down the British Army during the War of Independence, immortalised by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 'Concord Hymn', 'fired the shot heard round the world'. The Transcendentalists, founded and lived in Concord, saw themselves as the second revolution. Concord was a noted cultural centre with the homes of Thoreau, Emerson, the sculptor David Chester French and the novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louis Alcott (author of Little Women) - all lie buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Within Concord lies the Minute Man National Historic Park and the houses of Emerson, Hawthorne and the Alcotts, nearby lies Walden Pond State Reservation, within which is Walden Pond.

The Transcendentalists, also known as the Transcendental Club, were a New England group founded in Concord, Massachusetts by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Margaret Fuller, a fellow Transcendentalist, edited The Dial, the main vehicle for Transcendental thought and philosophy. Informal meetings took place at Emerson's house. The Transcendentalists had their roots in New England Puritanism and the English Romantics - Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Emerson met with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle (with whom he maintained a long friendship and correspondence) on a trip to Europe (1833); Thoreau gave lectures on the philosophy of Carlyle. The group's underlying philosophy was that there was two kinds of thought, logical and intuitive, of the two, intuitive was the more important. The group attempted to put their ideas into practice with the Brook Farm Institute, a failed experiment in self-sufficiency and communal living. Thoreau did not participate, preferring instead his log cabin on the side of Walden Pond, Hawthorne did for eight months, disliked the experience intensely, and was to later satirise the experiment in The Blythedale Romance (1852). The Transcendentalists were the most significant literary movement of 19th century America.

The Dial, the main vehicle for Transcendental thought and philosophy, was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley and Margaret Fuller. Margaret Fuller was its first editor.

American author Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), born Boston, Massachusetts, was a forceful proponent and pioneer of women's rights, a founder member of the Transcendentalists and a participant in the Brook Farm experiment. Among her close friends were Emerson, Hawthorne and the poet W E Channing (1818-1901). After editing The Dial for a couple of years she left for New York, where she contributed to the Tribune. She travelled to Europe, eventually settling in Italy where she married the Marquis Ossoli (1847). On her travels through Europe, before settling in Italy, she met Thomas Carlyle in London, Harriet Martineau and William Wordsworth in the Lake District, and George Sand and Adam Mickiewicz in Paris. Sailing back to America, she and her husband died when their ship was wrecked (1850). Margaret Fuller put forward her views on women's rights in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), an extended version of an essay originally published in The Dial as 'The Great Law Suit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women' (1843). Margaret Fuller appeared in Hawthorne's satire of Brook Farm, The Blythedale Romance, as the drowned Zenobia.

George Ripley (1802-80), former Unitarian Minister and social reformer, founder and director of the Brook Farm Institute. George Ripley appears in Hawthorne's satire of Brook Farm, The Blythedale Romance, as Hollingsworth.

The term deep ecology was coined by its founder and leading guru, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Deep ecology is the philosophy of environmental ethics, the spirituality of Gaia. Deep ecology leads to direct action.

Web Resources


John Arlidge & Nick Paton-Walsh, 'Do I look like an anarchist weirdo', The Observer, 6 June 1999

David R Foster, Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape, Harvard University Press

gXs, Handbook for Action, genetiX snowball, September 1998

John Hayward (ed), The Penguin Book of English Verse, Penguin, 1956

Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996

Russell Mokhiber & Robert Weissman, Corporate Predators, Common Courage Press, 1999

Keith Parkins, Deep Ecology, to be published

George Sessions (ed), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, 1995

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ed Stephen Fender, Oxford University Press, 1987

Henry David Thoreau, Essays and Other Writings, ed Will H Dircks, The Walter Scott Publishing Company

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States: From 1492 to present (2nd edition), Longmans, 1996

Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997

Literature ~ Wendell Berry ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Gary Snyder ~ Walt Whitman
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- July 1999 rev 1