Henry David Thoreau Introduction to Thoreau's Writing


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. As a writer, he drew strength from an understanding of the inseparability of his life and his art. Thoreau wrote of this unity in his journal (February 28, 1841), "Nothing goes by luck in composition. . . . The best you can write will be the best you are. Every sentence is the result of a long probation. The author's character is read from title-page to end." Thoreau intended his writing to be a fit expression of a life lived according to high ideals and aspirations, guided by integrity and morality, spent in pursuit of spiritual development, of the universal truth that lay behind the particular and the personal. He strove to convey transcendent meaning, the "oracular and fateful," in all that he wrote.

Thoreau saw his writing as a confluence of all his powers — physical, intellectual, and spiritual. He wrote in his journal entry for September 2, 1851:

We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto. The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of the whole man, that our speech may be vascular.

He constantly revised his work not out of a fussy sense of perfectionism but because of the tremendous value that he placed on his writing as an embodiment of all that he was.

Thoreau was a versatile writer, capable of expressing stark reality in strong language and of conveying delicate detail and subtle nuance. His work is characterized both by directness of style and by the suggestion of far more than appears on the surface. He effectively employed a variety of techniques — paradox, exaggeration, and irony, for example — to create a penetrating prose. He brought considerable abilities and resources to his art — breadth of vision, closely examined personal experience, wide and deep reading, imagination, originality, a strong vocabulary and a facility for manipulating words (and even sometimes for minting new words to suit his purposes), an alertness to symbolic correspondences, and an aptitude for the figurative (simile, metaphor, allegory). He applied himself to translating what he observed of nature and humanity into words ("As you see, so at length will you say," he wrote in his journal on November 1, 1851). His writing, consequently, possesses immediacy.

Thoreau admired direct, vigorous, succinct, economical prose. For him, the importance of content far outweighed that of style. He avoided overemphasis on form at the expense of content. Romantic writer that he was, he cared little for observing the formalities of established literary genre. He wanted every word to be useful, to convey meaning, and he had no interest in the purely decorative. "As all things are significant," he wrote, "so all words should be significant." Thoreau felt that the very act of genuine expression elevated the written word: "A fact truly and absolutely stated is taken out of the region of common sense and acquires a mythologic or universal significance." Although Thoreau avoided obvious artifice, his highly crafted writing is anything but artless.

Thoreau's writing is full of mythological references and of illustrative passages from earlier authors with whom modern readers may not be familiar. Nevertheless, despite the obscurity of such allusions, it is hard even for those reading his work for the first time not to experience flashes of inspired understanding of his message. This is a tribute to Thoreau's effective use of language. He wrote carefully for an intelligent and thoughtful reader. His work appeals at least as much to such a reader today as it did in the nineteenth century. The lasting appeal of his work is due, too, to the breadth and timelessness of the major themes developed throughout his writings.

Thoreau put millions of words to paper over the course of his lifetime. He vacillated in the way he viewed and presented some of his themes in this massive body of his work. The reader of Thoreau must simply accept some degree of intellectual contradiction as evidence that the author was a complex man, constantly thinking and weighing ideas, open to a variety of interpretations, capable of accepting inconsistency. If Thoreau's thoughts on a subject did not always remain constant, at least there is coherence in his repeated exploration of certain basic themes throughout his writings.

The most central of Thoreau's themes is the idea that beyond reality — beyond nature and human existence — there is a higher truth operating in the universe. Reality — nature, in particular — symbolizes this higher truth, and, from its particulars, universal law may, to some degree, be comprehended. This idealism is consistent with the Transcendental concept of the ultimate connectedness of God, man, and nature in the great oneness of the Oversoul, and with the optimistic Transcendental sense that the absolutes and the workings of the universe can be grasped by the human mind. 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, 1854:

. . . it is startling to think that the inference has in this case been drawn by some mind that, as most other plants retain some leaves, the walker will suspect these also to. Each and all such disguises . . . remind us that not some poor worm's instinct merely, as we call it, but the mind of the universe rather, which we share, has been intended upon each particular object. 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 1845 to 1847. 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, 1853. 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." There could be no "great awakening light" of understanding without knowledge of the manifestations of the universal in the observable world.

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, 1853), and recognized his own tendency to lose sight of the ultimate goal of higher understanding. On August 19, 1851, 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. He wrote:

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, 1842). 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." Although he could not fail to notice that the remaining local Indians of his time had been degraded, Thoreau was able to visualize through the Native an earlier connection between man and nature that had been lost in the evolution of civilization. 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, . . . amid the howling of wolves; shall live, as it were, in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man. . . . 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? Ay! ay! — for there turns up but now into the mouth of Millinocket stream a still more ancient and primitive man, whose history is not brought down even to the former. . . . 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.

Thoreau wrote about the skillful Indian guide Joe Polis in The Maine Woods. 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 . . . than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.

Such men knew important things "practically or instinctively," through direct, intuitive means. In the chapter of Walden titled "The Pond in Winter," Thoreau described fishermen as follows:

. . . wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen . . . as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial. They never consulted with books, and know and can tell much less than they have done. . . . [The fisherman's] life itself passes deeper in Nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist.

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, 1852, 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, 1856):

. . . a man of a certain New England probity and worth, immortal and natural, like a natural product . . . a redeemer for me. . . . 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." Thoreau deplored the "waste of life" through the brutalizing manual labor that was required to lay railroad tracks, operate mills, and accomplish the manufacture of items of questionable necessity. 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. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. . . . Knowledge . . . [comes] to us . . . in flashes of light from heaven." Civilized life not only creates artificial needs but also provides pat answers to questions that individuals should confront directly. 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: "They are wayworn by the travel that goes by and over them, without traveling themselves." Confined by social demands and strictures, they never seek the eternal. 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, 1840), for example, "Let us migrate interiorly without intermission, and pitch our tent each day nearer the western horizon." He wrote in Walden that he had traveled "a good deal in Concord," meaning not just that he had explored every inch of the town but also that he had traveled inwardly toward higher reality there. 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, 1841 reads:

I think I could write a poem to be called "Concord." For argument I should have the River, the Woods, the Ponds, the Hills, the Fields, the Swamps and Meadows, the Streets and Buildings, and the Villagers. Then Morning, Noon, and Evening, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, Night, Indian Summer, and the Mountains in the Horizon.

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, 1857:

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.

Thoreau also wrote of the tendency of travel away from the familiar to distract and dissipate the traveler.

But Concord was for Thoreau representative as well as concrete, and his sense of place in relation to Concord was generic as well as specific. In an undated journal entry recorded after July 29, 1850, he wrote:

I, too, love Concord best, but I am glad when I discover, in oceans and wildernesses far away, the materials out of which a million Concords can be made, — indeed, unless I discover them, I am lost myself, — that there too I am at home.

The critical fact about place is how the individual internalizes and interprets the reality around him, no matter where he is.

And yet, seemingly inconsistently, Thoreau did travel some actual distances at various times in his life — up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with his brother John, to New York, Maine, Cape Cod, Quebec, Mount Monadnock, the White Mountains, and Minnesota. Moreover, in keeping with the Romantic impulse to write about travel to faraway places, Thoreau incorporated into his work what he observed on his journeys. He traveled partly "to give our intellects an airing," partly to seek out locations possessing greater wildness than could be found in Concord. Moreover, he was interested in examining the particular relationship between a man and his environment, the affinity between man and place. In his travel narratives, Thoreau delineated certain individuals who seemed to have been organically shaped by landscape and occupation.

Transcendentalism incorporated the Romantic emphasis on the individual and the Unitarian belief in the goodness and perfectibility of man. These ideas are expressed throughout the writings of its proponents. The importance of the individual in relation to God, nature, and human institutions is at the heart of Thoreau's work. Thoreau wrote in his journal entry for August 24, 1841, for instance:

Let us wander where we will, the universe is built round about us, and we are central still. By reason of this, if we look into the heavens, they are concave, and if we were to look into a gulf as bottomless, it would be concave also. The sky is curved downward to the earth in the horizon, because I stand in the plain. . . . The stars so low there seem loth to go away from me, but by a circuitous path to be remembering and returning to me.

Thoreau embraced the subjectivity of perception that followed from man's central position. He accepted that the individual's vantage point in some sense defined the universe.

If the individual enjoyed centrality in the cosmic view of things, however, Thoreau found him less fortunate in relation to human institutions. The author wrote in Walden of "an important distinction between the civilized man and the savage . . . in making the life of a civilized people an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed." Thoreau distrusted all threats to individuality. He perceived that the community intruded upon the individual and, similarly, that the individual guided by principle and high purpose threatened community complacency. He felt that the individual's first duty was to himself — to know and to cultivate himself and to seek knowledge of how he fit into the universal picture. Solid citizens of the community, however, saw things otherwise. Thoreau spent his life living up to his responsibilities as he understood them. The judgment of the community mattered little to him. Thoreau was aware that some of his townsmen had no idea why he moved to Walden Pond in 1845, but their opinion did not deflect him.

Thoreau's antislavery and reform writings focus on the obligations of the individual in relation to society. A person was bound to observe a higher standard of morality when obedience to temporal law would diminish his integrity or that of others. Thoreau saw that the institutions of society tended to preserve the status quo, and so it fell to the individual to speak out against the shortcomings of human government and law. Civil Disobedience, first published in 1849, was written in response to his jailing in 1846 for nonpayment of the poll tax. Thoreau refused to support a government that he felt tolerated and abetted slavery, permitting the treatment of individuals as physical property, denying their humanity and spirituality. Although Thoreau disdained politics and was not inclined to take political action under ordinary circumstances, he could not overlook the immorality of slavery and of allowing slavery to continue. He wrote explicitly of the individual's authority at the end of Civil Disobedience:

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect. . . .

Here and elsewhere in Thoreau's writings, the individual is paramount.Thoreau spoke out publicly in defense of John Brown, leader of the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. In his "A Plea for Captain John Brown," he again emphasized individual responsibility to higher law, asking "Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong?"

Thoreau wrote harshly of reform and reformers. However much he may have agreed with the principles behind particular movements, he believed that moral responsibility lay ultimately with the individual. Reform movements, like political affiliations, reduced the individual to membership in the group and restricted his freedom to make independent judgments. Thoreau felt that the reform of society would best be accomplished through the individual. He wrote in his journal on April 9, 1841, "I can do two thirds the reform of the world myself. . . . When an individual takes a sincere step, then all the gods attend. . . ." Thoreau was consummately Transcendental in his elevation of the individual.

Thoreau's writing presents a synthesis of optimistic idealism and earthy enjoyment of the here and now. He focused on ultimate meaning, but at the same time reveled in the sensuous details of nature and life as he lived it. Thoreau has sometimes been viewed as an ascetic who denied himself the pleasures of life, but his work does not bear out this judgment. Certainly, Thoreau was selective about the pleasures he chose to enjoy and to celebrate in words. But his writings reveal a healthy capacity to live joyfully in the moment. The endurance and increasing popularity of his work over time is due, in large part, to this ability to unify reality and idealism.