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Featured Books

Walden (Everyman's Library)Summary and Reviews of Walden (Everyman's Library)
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)Summary and Reviews of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)
The Maine Woods: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)Summary and Reviews of The Maine Woods: (Writings of Henry D. Thoreau)
Cape CodSummary and Reviews of Cape Cod
Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (Library of America)
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Henry David Thoreau

Click the banner or the individual items listed to buy and read Thoreau's work.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was born to a father of French Huguenot descent and a mother of Scottish descent. He was born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts where Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne both lived but, unlike them, barely ventured away from the area surrounding Concord and then only to Canada, Maine, and Minnesota. He spent much of his time in Concord recording the vegetation and animal populace of the area in his meticulously kept and almost encyclopedic journals. Early literary critics would categorize Thoreau as a naturalist because of this laborious cataloguing.

Critics today realize that to read Thoreau's work as the work of a naturalist is to glean only what is on the surface. When the reader digs deeper, he finds that Thoreau thoroughly immersed himself in the work that Emerson had pleaded in his manifesto, Nature, for someone to do--even spending two years, two months, and two days in a homemade shack in the woods. Emerson had admonished his readers to see the spiritual in the natural, and Thoreau went to Walden Pond to do just that. The experience produced one of the most significant books of the nineteenth century, Walden.

In many ways, Thoreau was a man of his time. He blossomed under Emerson's tutelage into the consummate reform-minded Transcendentalist, writing polemic pieces against industrialization and black slavery. He was also ahead of his time in, again, his railing against industrialization but also materialism and the human degradation of the environment. In economics and science, he also looked ahead to twentieth century thinkers.

Thoreau produced four books during his lifetime but only saw two published before he died. Thoreau called the first book he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He actually based it, though, on a two-week trip that he and his brother took down the nearby rivers. The book is really a collection of essays that take the trip as their point of departure and deal with unrelated topics that Thoreau was interested in from his wide reading. The next book he published had more cohesiveness and was his masterpiece. Walden was a description of his two-year, two-month, and two-day stint in his shack on Walden Pond. Thoreau used many poetic devices in this prose work to express insights into the business and complexity of city life, foreshadowing current hand-wringing over the "rat race." Maine Woods and Cape Cod, also insightful books based on places Thoreau visited, were published after he died at age 44.

Thoreau's reformist bent produced the other body of work that put him in the top echelon of American authors that occupy scholarly energy, his essays. "Resistance to Civil Government" is his most famous. It describes a night he spent in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his poll tax because he did not want to relinquish money to a government that sanctioned and even assisted in enslaving human beings. He established a line between what a government should be allowed to do in its capacity as an "expedient" to keep order and what an individual had a right to do to adhere to his personal moral code. Though in this essay, he advocated peaceful resistance, commonly called "civil disobedience," a phrase attached incorrectly as the essay's title, he eventually lost confidence that this would end slavery and condoned John Brown's raid of and unsuccessful attempt at a slave uprising at Harper's Ferry. Thoreau's lecture, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," defended the abolitionist's radical actions, during which he killed at least two people, as the only way to wake the country up to the evil system it maintained by law. While many activists from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. have taken Thoreau's advice given in the earlier essay, many feel that Thoreau may have gone too far in defending the actions of a man they feel was the original "militiaman" terrorist that this country now struggles to contain. Whatever the truth is, all of Thoreau's writings are thought-provoking and bear the mark of a first class American author.


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