Thoreau is one of the most read and most influential of American authors, with a readership and a following around the world. His writings have been reprinted countless times, both in English and in translation into many foreign languages. His Walden is required reading in American literature courses at the college level. Much has been published about Thoreau's life and his work, both of which have been closely studied by scholars. The author himself has been idolized, and his image and quotations from his writings have been employed for a variety of purposes, including commercial use. In sharp contrast to his current popularity, during his lifetime there was only limited appreciation of Thoreau as a man and as a writer.
The way Thoreau was perceived by his contemporaries no doubt affected the reception of his work. Thoreau the man was easy to misunderstand. Even those who cared about him were conflicted in their feelings. He was not interested in making a good impression on others and did not care to correct false impressions. Thoreau's strong individualism, rejection of the conventions of society, and philosophical idealism all distanced him from others. He had no desire to meet external expectations if they varied from his own sense of how to live his life. Emerson, in his eulogy of Thoreau (printed in the August 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly), wrote:
Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.
But ambition was a word little used in Thoreau's writings. At the end of Walden he wrote, "Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?"
There was no reason why the merchants, lawyers, and church-goers of Concord — those who formed the fabric of society — should sympathize with Thoreau's outlook. Not only did he dismiss their values, but he wrote about it, too. Moreover, Thoreau made no attempt to conciliate those who felt threatened by his disregard of community concerns. When, in 1844, Thoreau and Edward Hoar unintentionally set fire to the woods in Concord, the disapproval of men who regretted the loss of property in the form of standing and cut wood was aggravated by Thoreau's lack of repentance. "I have had nothing to say to any of them," he wrote in his journal.
And yet, Thoreau was pragmatic as well as idealistic. His useful skills appealed to practical men. Emerson commented in his eulogy:
He grew to be revered and admired by his townsmen, who had at first known him only as an oddity. The farmers who employed him as a surveyor soon discovered his rare accuracy and skill, his knowledge of their lands, of trees, of birds, of Indian remains . . . which enabled him to tell every farmer more than he knew before of his own farm; so that he began to feel a little as if Mr. Thoreau had better rights in his land than he. They felt, too, the superiority of character which addressed all men with a native authority.
Emerson probably overstated the case in asserting the farmers' willingness to admit Thoreau's superior rights to their land. Nevertheless, through his residence in Concord from birth, his usefulness in his father's pencil business, and his range of skills as a handyman as well as a surveyor, Thoreau held a place in the community. And although he shunned superficial social connections (he referred to a party that he had attended as "a bad place to go"), he relished sympathetic companionship. He wrote in his journal entry for November 14, 1851, for example:
old Mr. Joseph Hosmer and I ate our luncheon of cracker and cheese together in the woods. I heard all he said, though it was not much, to be sure, and he could hear me. And then he talked out of such a glorious repose, taking a leisurely bite at the cracker and cheese between his words; and so some of him was communicated to me, and some of me to him
Thoreau clearly shared the common human craving for understanding.
Thoreau's idealism strained his relationships. Emerson wrote in his eulogy that "no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless," and went so far as to comment, "I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society." Moreover, there was an offputting thorniness to Thoreau's personality. Elizabeth Hoar said of him (as recorded in Emerson's journal and later incorporated into the eulogy), "I love Henry, but do not like him." Some of Thoreau's journal entries show a clear perception of the conflict between his need for friendship and closeness and his tendency toward disappointment with actual relationships. The fact that he never married (although he proposed once) likely indicates some level of understanding that his idealism worked against long-term intimacy.
Emerson wrote of Thoreau's combativeness in a June 1853 journal entry, later revised in the eulogy:
There was somewhat military in his nature not to be subdued [the words "stubborn and implacable" are found in the journal entry]; always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory . . . a little sense of victory . . . to call his powers into full exercise. It cost him nothing to say No; indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as if his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is a little chilling to the social affections
Emerson's comments cannot be accepted as unbiased. To some extent, they were written in an attempt to rationalize the failure of a friendship. Others were less harsh in their judgment of Thoreau. While living in the Old Manse in Concord (1842–1845), Nathaniel Hawthorne — no extrovert himself — enjoyed Thoreau's company. When Thoreau informed him of his plan to go to Staten Island in 1843, Hawthorne wrote in his journal (later published as The American Notebooks), "I should like to have him remain here." In "The Forester," Bronson Alcott called Thoreau "the most welcome of companions." But Emerson's assessment influenced opinion regarding Thoreau's character and, indirectly, his writings.
Other factors in addition to perceptions of Thoreau's personality — among them the realities of American literary publishing in the nineteenth century, the efforts of particular admirers, and changing cultural, political, and social values — have also affected the course of his reputation. His contemporary literary reputation began with the publication between 1840 and 1844 of some of his poetry, essays, and translations in the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial. Margaret Fuller edited The Dial from its inception until the spring of 1842, when Emerson took over from her. Frank in her criticism of what she did not like, Fuller did not accept all that Thoreau submitted to her. Emerson, then still Thoreau's literary advocate, published many more of Thoreau's pieces than had his predecessor. Emerson admired Thoreau's poetry as verse that "pleased, if not by beauty of particular lines, yet by the honest truth," as he wrote in his journal in November of 1842. Yet he also recognized the stylistic imperfection of Thoreau's poems: "Their fault is, that the gold does not yet flow pure, but is drossy and crude. The thyme and marjoram are not yet made into honey. . . ." Publication in The Dial identified Thoreau as a member of the Transcendental circle. However, it did not do much to establish a reputation beyond those directly involved with the magazine. The esoteric Dial had a very limited circulation.
Thoreau reached a broader audience through the more popular magazines that proliferated during the nineteenth century. Titles directed at the general reader — such as Godey's, Graham's, Harper's Monthly, Harper's Weekly, Knickerbocker, and The United States Magazine and Democratic Review — gave considerable exposure to the work of many writers, Thoreau included. In 1843, Thoreau published "A Walk to Wachusett" in the Boston Miscellany and two pieces in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. His article "Thomas Carlyle and His Works" was published in Graham's Magazine in 1847. Having delivered lyceum lectures based on his travels to various places, Thoreau knew that the popular appeal of such material was far greater than that of more abstract subjects. He consequently adapted his experience in the lecture hall to the literary world and submitted travel pieces to periodicals likely to publish them. His "Ktaadn and the Maine Woods" (initially presented in lecture form) appeared in The Union Magazine in 1848. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, whom Thoreau had met in New York in 1843, had taken a special interest in him and helped Thoreau to find a publisher for the piece. "Excursions to Canada" appeared in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853, "Cape Cod" in Putnam's in 1855, and "Chesuncook" in Atlantic Monthly in 1858. Although the appearance of these pieces did not create great demand for Thoreau's work, the general magazines provided a venue that allowed him to write with reasonable expectation of seeing at least some of his material brought before an audience.
Even before the appearance of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — his first book — in 1849, Thoreau's reputation as a writer suffered from his close connection with Emerson. Thoreau was sometimes presented as an imitator and a lesser version of Emerson. In his satirical Fable for Critics (1848), for instance, poet and literary critic James Russell Lowell lampooned Thoreau in verse:
There comes [Thoreau], for instance; to see him's rare sport,
Tread in Emerson's tracks with legs painfully short;
How he jumps, how he strains, and gets red in the face,
To keep step with the mystagogue's natural pace!
He follows as close as a stick to a rocket,
His fingers exploring the prophet's each pocket.
Fie, for shame, brother bard; with good fruit of your own,
Can't you let Neighbor Emerson's orchards alone?
Lowell did further damage after Thoreau's death with a piece published in the October 1865 issue of the North American Review. In reviewing the volume of Thoreau's letters edited by Emerson, he began his discussion of Thoreau's work by emphasizing Emerson's influence. He went on to charge Thoreau with "so high a conceit of himself that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on our accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself." He asserted that Thoreau had "no faculty of generalization from outside of himself"; that Thoreau condemned a world "he had never had the means of testing," had no active imagination, limited artistic control, and no sense of humor; and that he observed only what he wanted to see, grew cynical over time, was a sophist and a sentimentalizer, perverse and unhealthy in his thought. Whether any part of Lowell's harsh assessment of Thoreau was valid, it was strong criticism by an influential man, published in a respectable periodical. Lowell's words inevitably prejudiced readers, including potential readers of Thoreau's writings.
When A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers appeared in 1849, it was not badly reviewed — even James Russell Lowell had some good things to say of it — but neither was it widely reviewed. Thoreau had assumed the cost of its publication. The publisher, James Munroe of Boston, did not promote it vigorously, and the book did not sell well. Its financial failure prompted Munroe to back out of an agreement to publish Walden. "Resistance to Civil Government" appeared at the same time as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in Elizabeth Peabody's Aesthetic Papers — an idealistic and short-lived venture that, like The Dial, had a limited readership. Ultimately one of Thoreau's most influential writings, "Resistance to Civil Government" did not create much of a ripple on its first publication.
Although Thoreau sometimes complained in his journals of the level of comprehension of his lecture audiences, he nevertheless continued to lecture and to work lecture material into publishable form. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, he was presenting material that would be incorporated into Walden (1854). In 1852, he published "The Iron Horse" and "A Poet Buying a Farm" — both of them parts of Walden — in two issues of Sartain's Union Magazine. When it finally appeared, then, Walden had already received what amounted to significant advance publicity.
The book was published in an edition of two thousand copies in August of 1854 by the Boston firm of Ticknor and Fields. As the premier literary publisher in America in the mid-nineteenth century, the company was in a position to see that Thoreau's work was well promoted and distributed. A sufficient number of notices and reviews appeared to assure broad interest in the book, which sold well. Walden was praised not only by those who knew Thoreau and his writings, but also in a variety of newspapers and magazines around the United States and in England. The Boston Daily Bee urged, "Get the book. You will like it. It is original and refreshing; and from the brain of a live man." Pieces about Walden were published in, among other publications, the Boston Daily Journal and Daily Evening Traveller; Concord's own Monitor; the New Bedford Mercury; Dwight's Journal of Music; the Circular of the community at Oneida; the Worcester Palladium; the Newark Daily Advertiser; the Cincinnati Daily Gazette; the New Orleans Daily Picayune; the Philadelphia Register; the Daily Alta California; the New York Morning Express, Daily Tribune, and Times; in National Era, Putnam's Monthly, Knickerbocker, and Godey's; and in the British periodicals Westminster Review, Chamber's, and Critic. This reception of the book gave Thoreau greater recognition as an author between 1854 and his death in 1862 than his earlier literary efforts had brought him.
Walden was the second and final of Thoreau's books published during his lifetime. He continued to lecture in the mid- to late-1850s and to prepare pieces for magazine publication. The publication of "Chesuncook" in Atlantic Monthly, which was aimed at an educated general audience, indicated the degree to the publication of Walden had elevated Thoreau's status as an author.
Thoreau prepared and revised his manuscript material up until his death. In the last months of his life, he was preparing "Walking," "Autumnal Tints," and "Wild Apples" for publication, but died before they appeared in Atlantic Monthly. They were printed in the June, October, and November issues, respectively. A number of obituaries appeared after the author's death. Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers were soon reissued, and they were regularly reprinted after that. Sophia Thoreau, along with Emerson and Ellery Channing, undertook the job of editing her brother's unpublished material. Excursions appeared in 1863, followed in rapid succession by The Maine Woods in 1864, Cape Cod and Letters to Various Persons in 1865, and A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers in 1866.
In 1894, Houghton, Mifflin (successor to Ticknor and Fields) issued the first collected edition of Thoreau's writings, the eleven-volume Riverside Edition, which included the four volumes edited by Blake from the journals. In 1906, Houghton, Mifflin published the twenty-volume Walden and Manuscript Editions, which included the Journal in fourteen volumes.
The spread of Thoreau's reputation after his death was aided by a handful of early admirers. His Worcester friend and correspondent Harrison Gray Otis Blake kept his memory alive through readings from the author's journals, which he had inherited from Sophia Thoreau; Blake also edited four volumes of selections from the journals. Other devotees of Thoreau included Alfred Winslow Hosmer of Concord and Dr. Samuel Arthur Jones of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Fred Hosmer, a storekeeper and photographer, gathered an important collection of books by and about Thoreau at a time when few others thought to do so. (His collection was given to the Concord Free Public Library in the twentieth century.) Hosmer photographed many Concord places associated with Thoreau and corresponded with others who shared his enthusiasm for the author. Henry Stephens Salt, the English biographer of Thoreau, was one of Hosmer's correspondents. Frank Sanborn, who edited and wrote about Thoreau, wished to be viewed as keeper of the author's reputation. In the long run, however, Sanborn's scholarly carelessness offset the value of his efforts in increasing interest in Thoreau.
By the late nineteenth century, the work of naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir — both influenced by Thoreau — drew attention to Thoreau as a nature writer. Beginning in 1899, photographer and environmentalist Herbert Wendell Gleason worked to popularize Thoreau by capturing images of the places that Thoreau had known and about which he had written. Gleason's photographs of Thoreau's world were used to illustrate the 1906 editions of Thoreau's collected writings; some of them appeared in National Geographic. Gleason also presented slide lectures on Thoreau for general audiences. From the late 1960s, the rise of environmentalism focused interest not only on Thoreau's writings but also on the work of Burroughs, Muir, and Gleason. Naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edwin Way Teale helped to popularize Thoreau in the twentieth century.
The publication of Thoreau biographies began during the decade following the author's death and demonstrated growing interest in the man as well as his work. Ellery Channing's Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist appeared in 1873 and was reprinted in 1902. Thoreau: His Life and Aims, by H.A. Page (a pseudonym for A.H. Japp) was published in London in 1877. Sanborn's Henry D. Thoreau appeared in 1882, The Personality of Thoreau in 1901, and The Life of Henry David Thoreau in 1917. The Life of Henry David Thoreau by British biographer Henry S. Salt was first published in 1890. (Thoreau's nineteenth century British following was reflected in the publication of Walden in England in 1886 and of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1889. His late nineteenth and early twentieth century recognition in England was promoted by the Labour Party, which found support in his social views.) Henry Seidel Canby's Thoreau (1939) was a popular success.
In the twentieth century, Thoreau's reputation — popular and academic — burgeoned. Interest in his work rose during the Great Depression of the 1930s, economic hardship made the philosophy of the simple life attractive, during the rebellion of the nonconformist "beat generation" in the 1950s, and during the social turmoil and Vietnam War protest of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the 1930s, Thoreau also started to take on importance as a topic of academic study. The work of Raymond Adams from the 1930s and Walter Harding from the 1940s did much to enhance Thoreau's place in the study of American literature. In 1941, Harding played a key role in establishing the Thoreau Society, now affiliated with the Walden Woods Project (founded in 1990 to prevent development of the area near Walden Pond), both centered at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts. (The Society issues two periodical publications, the Thoreau Society Bulletin and The Concord Saunterer.) In 1971, the first volume of the authoritative "Princeton Edition" (now called the "Thoreau Edition") of Thoreau's collected writings appeared. The edition is ongoing today.
Thoreau's work is now available around the world. It has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese, among other languages. It is much read and respected in Japan, which has its own Thoreau Society. The influence of Thoreau's work was expressed in Holland in the 1897 founding of the utopian community "Walden" and in Russia in the interest of Tolstoy and Chekov.
In "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau presented his ideas about the individual's responsibilities in relation to government. In the twentieth century, this work powerfully affected Mohandas Gandhi, who applied the principle of nonviolent resistance in the struggle for independence in India, and Dr. Martin Luther King, in his leadership of the American civil rights movement. If Thoreau could have foreseen the importance that his work would take on after his death, he probably would have been amazed at the size and range of his future audience. He might not have thought much of intensive scholarly dissection of his life and his writings. But he would likely have taken satisfaction in the translation of his ideals and ideas into constructive individual action.