Still upon the Shores of Walden

The young Henry David Thoreau

The young Henry David Thoreau

Picking up from last week, while Emerson was in England meeting his intellectual hero William Wordsworth, a young 18 year-old-man called David Thoreau was taking his entrance exam to get into Harvard University. He was accepted, barely. While at Harvard, Thoreau studied a broad range of subjects. He focused though mostly on languages, learning Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. In Thoreau’s penultimate year at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his seminal work, ‘Nature’. ‘Nature’ contends that society, which takes us away from nature, destroys our sense of wholeness; that our own spiritual well-being is intrinsically wrapped up with nature. We are part of nature. No human being, no matter how much history has elevated them, or even deified them, is above nature. Take the genteel Wordsworth we met last week. The temptation is to read his poetry, and elevate him in our minds; imagining his verse being of such splendour - coming forth from the mind of a profound genius - the temptation is to imbue Wordsworth with an almost mythic status. But in truth, the Wordsworth we met last week was a gentle and relatable, kind, man, but he was just a man. Nature then is like a great leveller. Nature is in you and I, just as it was in Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau. We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow the weight of the perceived greatness of our forebears to shut down the possibility of individual originality. We must think for ourselves, and not simply conform to the status quo, or traditions, for their own sake. We must live from within, trusting in our own intuitions, reconnecting afresh with the sublime Nature has on offer. When Emerson’s ‘Nature’ was published in 1836, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. Anyone who read it could not help feeling more wide awake to the beauty and meaning of creation. And this was certainly the case for David Thoreau, or as he came to be known, Henry David Thoreau, who was enamoured by the book; it shaped everything which was to follow.

Engraving of Harvard College, 1767

The subsequent year, in 1837, Thoreau graduated from Harvard University. That year’s commencement speech was given by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his speech, titled ‘The American Scholar’, Emerson restates the central ideas of ‘Nature’, emphasising the need for America to throw off its reverential attitude to European intellectual culture. It was time for America to forge its own literary destiny; to read books, yes, but to no longer mimic them. To find its true inspiration within the immensity of Nature. Inspired by Emerson’s work and address, Thoreau began to keep a journal, in which he recorded his daily life, thoughts, and observations of nature. This journal was the basis for everything Thoreau is now notable for - all his subsequent lectures and published works were first drafted in his journal. For next few years, Thoreau helped his father in his business as a pencil maker, and set up a small school he ran with his brother. But increasingly he was becoming active within Emerson’s Transcendental Club, becoming good friends with Emerson, despite being 14 years his junior. And in 1841 he was invited to move into Emerson’s household in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived off and on for the next decade, officially as the ‘live-in handyman’, but evidently the real purpose was for Thoreau to benefit from Emerson’s support and advice, focusing, as he was, more and more on his writing. There were times when Emerson and Thoreau’s relationship became a bit strained, the primary cause of this tension though seems to have arisen due to the extent to which they idealised one another. They thought so highly of one another that they could not help falling short of each other’s expectations. To Emerson, Henry David Thoreau was a man of such potential, any idle moment was an insult to that potential. Indeed, at times the intellectual intensity between the two men must have been unbearable.

The woods by Walden Pond

It was during this period that Emerson purchased the land around Walden Pond, and in March of 1845 Thoreau began building himself a small cabin there. As he most famously put it “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; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...” And so began the two year, two month, two day, Walden pond experiment. As I mentioned last week, the Romanticism movement was in reaction against the industrial revolution, against applying a mechanistic, cold logic to life, working to a clock, in which you measured productivity by the hour, and divided labour into delineated tasks. Was society, and industry, and the clock, and maximising productivity, not diminishing our humanity? Thoreau, in going to the pond, was able in a small way to step back in time, to worry less about everyday affairs, and so devote more time to his writing. It also of course gave him the opportunity to put Emerson’s words to the test, to live in closer proximity to the divine, closer proximity to nature, to live to the rhythm of nature. In his actions we find a model of how to live simpler lives, free of excess, living sustainably, in an environmentally conscious way. Thoreau has been regarded as the first modern environmentalist. In 1847 Thoreau left the pond, going back to live in Emerson’s household, and then a year later moved back to his parent’s home. However, it is worth pointing out that all these places around the town of Concord, Massachusetts, are within small area. The walk from Emerson’s home to Walden pond is only 30 minutes, and similarly the walk from Emerson’s house to Thoreau’s parents’ house was about 40 minutes.

A box of pencils from J. Thoreau & Company.

In this period then, after the Walden experiment, when Thoreau was in his early 30s, he once again began working in the production of pencils. Thoreau’s pencils are actually very notable. At this time, his pencils were considered the best. The reason for that was that his pencils did not merely contain graphite, but rather a combination of New England graphite and clay, making them stronger. The combining of graphite and clay in pencils was invented, or at least reinvented, by Thoreau, and is still used to this day. When he wasn’t making pencils, he was working on his most notable book, ‘Walden’, about his time by Walden Pond. Unlike Emerson’s ‘Nature’, which was a big success on publication, when Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ eventually came out, it was a flop. Despite being a more notable book today, at the time it was met with indifference. As Thoreau moved into his late 30s, he had to come to terms with the fact that he would not be the major proponent of transcendentalism he longed to be. And so, disheartened, he turned his attention towards more practical matters, political issues of justice in his own day, most importantly the abolitionist cause. He wrote his second most notable work, ‘Essays on Civil Disobedience’, in which Thoreau advocated for a non-violent, passive resistance approach to slavery. He wrote this essay against the backdrop of America’s 11th president, James K. Polk, who believed strongly in the necessity of slavery. His was a strongly militaristic presidency; he declared war on Mexico to secure the Texas border, and came close to launching the states into a third war with Britain. Thoreau defined himself politically in opposition to Polk. At the heart of this essay, Thoreau asks the question, which again seems exceedingly pertinent to now, what should citizens do when confronted with a president they wholly disagree with? After all, the president was elected, and therefore he was the rightly and democratically appointed man for the job. The prevailing sentiment was that as the majority had spoken, everyone in opposition was obliged to keep silent and respect the will of the majority. Thoreau wanted to challenge this kind of thinking. He believed people should not be blind nationalists following obediently the authority structures in place, but rather be individual thinkers, directed by their own conscience - not just on polling day, but every day. And as such, as individuals directed by our own conscience, we should, when confronted with political authority we disagree with, find our own ways of resisting said authority by non-violent means. To sing our opposition, to march in opposition, to speak in opposition. In 1908, a lawyer from India read Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’. It was to have a lasting impact on him, and ultimately upon his country of India. His name was Mahatma Gandhi.

His grave in Sleepy Hollow cemetery

By Thoreau’s late 30s he had begun to sufferer from tuberculosis. He grew weaker, and died in 1862, when he was only 44 years old. His death was not widely reported. Despite today being regarded as one of America's greatest literary artists, he died practically unknown. Thoreau's funeral eulogy was given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a eulogy which focused almost entirely on all that was worst about the man. Emerson painted a picture of a man who was cold, brittle, and anti-social, a picture which tainted Thoreau’s reputation, and resulted in his work not being read for a century. Thoreau's work was never about building a linear or logical argument, it was about one’s personal experience in the face of nature, it was about those isolated moments of sudden awareness. Thoreau’s work differs from Emerson’s in a number of ways, most obviously in being far more grounded, and practical. Thoreau invites us afresh to consider our relationship to Nature, one another, and also to the state.

‘Mist’ - a poem by Henry David Thoreau

Low-anchored cloud,
Newfoundland air,
Fountain-head and source of rivers,
Dew-cloth, dream-drapery,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the daisied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers,—
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields.