Henry David Thoreau “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.” These words of Thoreau’s are perhaps his most well-known statement of philosophy. The integrity of each individual was, for him (and Emerson, too), the primary concern in his beliefs. Let each person be (and become) her or himself and go about it in the way most suited to each as a person.
Born in Concord in 1817, he later became a protégé of Emerson • He attended Harvard, and became a teacher in Concord, but resigned when he was expected to whip his pupils. • He worked as a a pencil maker, a handyman, a farmer, yet was at the same time an accomplished Greek scholar. • He remains one of the most accomplished and deliberate writers in the country. • Yet, as a person, he had only one goal—to live as honestly and wisely as he could. Thoreau’s birthplace Thoreau at 39 • Timeline
Though essentially a friendly person, Thoreau seemed not to fit in. While other young men pursued typical paths of career, marriage, and family, Thoreau spent his time wandering about the fields surrounding Concord village. He had liked teaching, and after resigning his position with the Concord school board, he and his brother established their own experimental school. It was successful, but his brother’s illness and early death caused the school to close in 1842.Thoreau's School His brother’s death and the closing of his school left Thoreau with no means of support. It was then that his relationship with Emerson blossomed.
Emerson’s kindness toward and fondness for Thoreau led to the offer of various odd jobs around his Concord estate. At one point shortly after his brother’s death, Thoreau lived with the Emersons for a while, not the only time he would be welcomed into their home. Emerson’s home Emerson introduced Thoreau to the Concord intellectual group (including Hawthorne, Alcott, Ellery Channing and Margaret Fuller) and published Thoreau’s essays in his Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial.
In 1843, Emerson secured a position for Thoreau as a tutor for his brother William Emerson in New York, where Thoreau met Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and who published many of Thoreau’s essays. After only one year in Staten Island, Thoreau could no longer try to fit in to the mold of society. In 1844, he returned to Concord where, on July 4, 1845, he began the 26-month experiment that made him famous. On the banks of Walden Pond, on property owned by Emerson, Thoreau built a cabin.
At Walden, Thoreau intended to reduce life to its bare essentials, forgoing what others considered “necessities.” He grew only as much food as he could eat, worked only enough to provide himself shelter, and led the “deliberate life,” apart from the impediments of “civilization.” He spent his time roaming the woods, observing nature and his fellows.
He kept his journal and nearly completed the draft of his most renowned work, Walden. In his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau turned out essays on any subject that appealed to him and wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
During his two year experiment, Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax, which he had withheld in protest against the Mexican War. Out of his night spent in jail, he wrote Civil Disobedience, questioning which has primacy—the laws of a state or a man’s conscience?
After his experience with civil disobedience, Thoreau left Walden to move in with the Emersons. He continued his activism, protesting the Fugitive Slave Act and, in 1859, delivering a passionate appeal asking justice for abolitionist John Brown, who was condemned and later executed for his raid on Harper’s ferry. Abolitionist John Brown
In the remaining years of his life, after leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau also continued his observations of nature, traveling about New England, collecting specimens and writing in his journal. It was on one of his winter forays into the woods that he contracted a cold so severe cold that his tubercular lungs could no longer function.
Henry David Thoreau died in 1862, at the age of 45. Five more of his works were published after his death.
On Materialism “ I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place in communities where some have more than is sufficient, while others have not enough.” On Philosophy “To be a philosopher is . . . so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”
On Work/Labor “. . . Everywhere, in shops, and offices,and field, men have appeared . . . to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. . . . I am convinced. . . that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. It is not necessary that man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”
On Government “We should be men first and subjects afterwards. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law so much as for the right . . .” “In a government which supports injustice, the proper place for a just man is in jail.” “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. “The mass of men serve the state . . . Not as men mainly, but as machines.” “A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be clay . . .”
Credits Concord: A Nation’s Conscience. Guidance Associates of Pleasantville, N.Y., 1971. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo; and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo. Images courtesy of the Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library. Concord Free Public Library, Esther Howe Wheeler Anderson Slide Collection (purchased from William Wheeler Anderson, Jr., 2006). Photographs courtesy of Tom Brosnahan, http://www.newenglandtravelplanner.com/