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The life and times of henry david thoreau

John moved his family to Chelmsford and Boston, following business opportunities. In 1823 the family moved back to Concord where John established a pencil-making concern that eventually brought financial stability to the family.

Thoreau's mother, Cynthia Dunbar, took in boarders for many years to help make ends meet. Thoreau's older siblings, Helen and John, Jr. Harvard put heavy emphasis on the classics--Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar or composition for three of his four years. He also took courses in mathematics, English, history, and mental, natural, and intellectual philosophy.

More than the hermit of Walden: A new biography shows us a fully dimensional Thoreau

He was never happy about the teaching methods used at Harvard-- Ralph Waldo Emerson is supposed to have remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard, and Thoreau to have replied, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots" Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau [New York: Knopf, 1970], 51 --but he did appreciate the lifelong borrowing privileges at Harvard College Library for which his degree qualified him.

He had already begun to think of himself as a writer, however, and when he and John had to close their school in 1841 Thoreau accepted an offer to stay with neighboring Emerson's family and earn his keep as a handyman while he concentrated on his writing.

Thoreau knew himself to be a writer from the time he graduated from Harvard. He had begun keeping a journal in 1837 and had probably started writing poetry earlier than that; he also wrote and published essays and reviews. He soon found, however, that he would have to earn his living in some other way.

The Thoreau family became involved in manufacturing pencils in the 1820s, and Thoreau used his talent as an engineer to improve the product. He invented a machine that ground the plumbago for the leads into a very fine powder and developed a combination of the finely ground plumbago and clay that resulted in a pencil that produced a smooth, regular line.

Henry David Thoreau

He also improved the method of assembling the casing and the lead. Thoreau pencils were the first produced in America that equaled those made by the German company, Faber, whose pencils set the standard for quality. In the 1850s, when the electrotyping process of printing began to be used widely, the Thoreaus shifted from pencil-making to supplying large quantities of their finely ground plumbago to printing companies.

Thoreau continued to run the company after his father's death in 1859. Characteristically, Thoreau put the business letters and invoices associated with the company to a second use as scrap paper for lists and notes, and drafts of his late unfinished natural history essays. Thoreau taught himself to survey; he had, as Emerson noted in his eulogy, "a natural skill for mensuration," and he was very good at the work. In addition to working for the town of Concord, he surveyed house and wood lots around Concord for landowners who were having property assessed and those wanting to settle boundary disputes with their neighbors.

In 1859, he was hired by a group of farmers who filed suit against the owners of the Billerica Dam, claiming that the dam raised the water level in the river and destroyed the farmers' meadow lands.

  • The natural alternation of observation and reflection provided a rhythm that suited his temperament and style;
  • John moved his family to Chelmsford and Boston, following business opportunities;
  • Considering his neighbors' dismissive responses to Brown at the news of his death, Thoreau wrote, I hear another ask, Yankee-like, "What will he gain by it?
  • He had already begun to think of himself as a writer, however, and when he and John had to close their school in 1841 Thoreau accepted an offer to stay with neighboring Emerson's family and earn his keep as a handyman while he concentrated on his writing;
  • New York University Press, 1958], 186;
  • Walden, 52 The railroad was made the symbol of technology, and the language Thoreau uses to describe it expressed his ambivalence.

To help support the claim, Thoreau collected evidence from many sources. He interviewed people with long experience of the river, took extensive measurements of the water level at various points along its course, and inspected all of the river's bridges. He recorded his findings in a large chart and transferred appropriate information to an existing survey of the river that he had traced. The dispute was a bitter one, arousing ill-feeling in the town: Thoreau reported in his February 17, 1860, journal entry that one of those he interviewed testified in court the life and times of henry david thoreau the river was "dammed at both ends and cursed in the middle.

He lectured several times a year at lyceums and private homes from Maine to New Jersey. These lectures were important in his process of composition--most of the ideas and themes in his essays and books were first presented to the public in lectures--but they were not lucrative.

In 1847, responding to a request from the secretary of his Harvard class, he described his various employments: New York University Press, 1958], 186. He generalized about the advantage of making just enough money to supply his limited needs in the essay "Life without Principle": Thoreau was nineteen years old when Emerson published Naturean essay that articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the movement. Transcendentalism began as a radical religious movement, opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution that Unitarianism had become.

Many of the movement's early proponents were or had been Unitarian ministers, Emerson among them. They had found Unitarianism wanting both spiritually and emotionally, and, beginning in the late 1820s, had expressed the need for and conviction of a more personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to every person. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?

Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Emerson defined the soul by defining nature: As a reflection of God, nature expressed symbolically the spiritual world that worked beyond the physical one. Transcendentalism can be seen as the religious and intellectual expression of American democracy: Margaret Fuller visited Emerson often, and Franklin Sanborn boarded with the Thoreau family in the 1850s.

Thoreau was respected within this circle, but he was always a prickly individualist. He cared little for group activities, whether political or religious, and even avoided organized reform movements until the moral imperative of abolition commanded his attention.

In eulogizing Thoreau, Emerson said, "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. While many of his contemporaries espoused this view, few practiced it in their own lives as consistently as Thoreau.

Thoreau exercised his right to dissent from the prevailing views in many ways, large and small. He worked for pay intermittently; he cultivated relationships with several of the town's outcasts; he lived alone in the woods for two years; he never married; he signed off from the First Parish Church rather than be taxed automatically to support it every year.

Thoreau encouraged others to assert their individuality, each in his or her own way. When neighbors talked of emulating his lifestyle at the pond, he was dismayed rather than flattered.

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly the life and times of henry david thoreau it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead.

The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.

It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.

Walden, 71 If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. Walden, 326 Thoreau also believed that independent, well-considered action arose naturally from a questing attitude of mind. He was first and foremost an explorer, of both the world around him and the world within him. Walden, 321 Thoreau's celebration of solitude was a natural outgrowth of his commitment to the idea of individual action.

His neighbors frequently saw him heading out for his regular afternoon walk which took him to every stream and meadow in Concord and the surrounding towns. Contemporaries attest that Thoreau was gregarious, and he left an extensive correspondence which demonstrates the depth and perseverance of his friendships. And although he had many visitors at Walden, much of the time he was alone, a condition he savored.

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life”

He saw that most people measured their worth in terms of what they owned, and stood this common assumption on its head. I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.

Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Walden, 5 a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. Walden, 82 Thoreau proposed to determine what was basic to human survival, and then to live as simply as possible.

By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.

Walden, 12 Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind Walden, 14 my greatest skill has been to want but little.

Walden, 69 He grew some of his own food, including beans, potatoes, peas, and turnips. He ate wild berries and apples, and occasionally a fish that he had caught, and once killed and cooked a woodchuck that had ravaged his bean-field.

He so arranged his affairs that he had to work only a little at a time for his upkeep, and he kept a broad margin to his life for reading, thinking, walking, observing, and writing. For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living.

The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. Walden, 69 It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do. But these inventions were products of a larger movement, the industrial revolution, in which Thoreau saw the potential for the destruction of nature for the ends of commerce.

In Thoreau's view, technology also provoked an excitement that was counterproductive because it served as a distraction from the important questions of life. Walden, 21 Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.

They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Walden, 52 The railroad was made the symbol of technology, and the language Thoreau uses to describe it expressed his ambivalence.

I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and the life and times of henry david thoreau higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear.

  • He worked for pay intermittently; he cultivated relationships with several of the town's outcasts; he lived alone in the woods for two years; he never married; he signed off from the First Parish Church rather than be taxed automatically to support it every year;
  • If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life;
  • Nature is Thoreau's first great subject; the question of how we should live is his second;
  • Thoreau's mother, Cynthia Dunbar, took in boarders for many years to help make ends meet.

The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed.

Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off. If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snow-shoes, and with the giant plow, plow a furrow from the mountains to the seaboard, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed. All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber.

Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber. Walden, 116-117 NATURE Thoreau was a dedicated, self-taught naturalist, who disciplined himself to observe the natural phenomena around Concord systematically and to record his observations almost daily in his Journal.

The Journal contains initial formulations of ideas and descriptions that appear in Thoreau's lectures, essays, and books; early versions of passages that reached final form in Walden can be found in the Journal as early as 1846. Thoreau's observations of nature enrich all of his work, even his essays on political topics. Images and comparisons based on his studies of animal behavior, of the life cycles of plants, and of the features of the changing seasons illustrate and enliven the ideas he puts forth in Walden.

Walden, 273-274 The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire,--"et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata,"--as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame;--the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life below.

So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity. Walden, 310-311 Once it chanced that I stood in the very the life and times of henry david thoreau of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life.

Walden, 202 The love of nature that is evident in Thoreau's descriptions in Walden is one of the most powerful aspects of the book.