When John endured a lengthy illness in , the school became too much for Henry to handle alone, so he closed it. He returned to work in the pencil factory but was soon invited to work as a live-in handyman in the home of his mentor, neighbor, and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson was by then already one of the most famous American philosophers and men of letters. Transcendentalism was an American version of Romantic Idealism, a dualistic Neoplatonic view of the world divided into the material and the spiritual. For Emerson, "Mind is the only reality, of which all other natures are better or worse reflectors. Nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena. Thoreau must have imbibed Transcendentalism through almost every pore during his two years living with Emerson, though he would modify it to suit his own temperament by granting nature more reality than Emerson did.
But life in his parents' home held problems for the budding writer. Work in the pencil factory was tedious and tiring, and, since his mother took in boarders, there was little quiet or privacy in the house. Remembering a summer visit to the retreat cabin of college friend Charles Stearns Wheeler, Thoreau developed a plan to build such a house for himself where he could find privacy to write. In , he received permission from Emerson to use a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond.
He bought building supplies and a chicken coop for the boards , and built himself a small house there, moving in on the Fourth of July. Thoreau stayed in the house at Walden Pond for two years, from July to September That same year he also took a trip to Maine to see and climb Mount Katahdin, a place with a much wilder nature than he could find around Concord.
Thoreau returned to the Emerson home and lived there for two years, while Emerson was on a lecture tour in Europe. For much of his remaining years, he rented a room in his parents' home. He made his living by working in the pencil factory, by doing surveying, by lecturing occasionally, and by publishing essays in newspapers and journals. His income, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication.
A canoe trip that he and his brother John took along the Concord and Merrimack rivers in confirmed in him the opinion that he ought not be a schoolmaster but a poet of nature.
As the s began, Thoreau formally took up the profession of poet. Captained by Emerson, the Transcendentalists started a magazine, The Dial. In Thoreau fell in love with and proposed marriage to an attractive visitor to Concord named Ellen Sewall. She accepted his proposal but then immediately broke off the engagement at the insistence of her parents.
He remained a bachelor for life. Confirmed in his distaste for city life and disappointed by his lack of success, he returned to Concord in late You are using an outdated browser.
The Writings Of Henry David Thoreau Volume V
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Thank you for your feedback. That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long. Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!
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I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment? He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth. Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum.
Thoreau regarded humor as he regarded salt, and did without. He chose to live in a somewhat larger box at Walden, but austerity prevailed there, too. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil. I am not aware of any theology which holds that the road to Hell is paved with doormats, but Thoreau, in fine Puritan fashion, saw the beginnings of evil everywhere.
Try going out to dinner with a vegan who is avoiding gluten. The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.
Henry D. Thoreau
No feature of the natural landscape is more humble than a pond, but, on the evidence of Thoreau, the quality is not contagious. And he looked down on his entire town. By what method, one wonders, could a man so disinclined to get to know other people substantiate an allegation about the majority of humanity? By none, of course; Thoreau could not have been less interested in how the mass of men actually lived. On the contrary, he was as parochial as he was egotistical. Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people.
Objects of charity are not guests.
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It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. What he really wanted was to be Adam, before Eve—to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden. One wonders how he would have learned about the law, the raid, or any of the rest without a newspaper, but never mind.
But one may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs.
Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—indeed, obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. The first concerns the problem of fallibility. But as a broader theory of governance, which it was, it is troubling.
People routinely perpetrate wrongs out of obedience to their conscience, even in situations when the law mandates better behavior.
1. Life and Writings
Consider the Kentucky county clerk currently refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Like public institutions, private moral compasses can err, and different ones frequently point in different directions. Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. Emerson famously counselled against maintaining a foolish consistency, but Thoreau managed to get it wrong in both directions. For one thing, Thoreau never understood that life itself is not consistent—that what worked for a well-off Harvard-educated man without dependents or obligations might not make an ideal universal code.
Life and Legacy
Those failings are ethical and intellectual, but they are also political. This is not the stuff of a democratic hero. Yet for a man who believed in governance solely by conscience, his own was frighteningly narrow. Thoreau had no understanding whatsoever of poverty and consistently romanticized it.