Henry David Thoreau (b. 1817–d. 1862) is best known as the author of Walden (1854), a pivotal work in American nature writing, and “Civil Disobedience” (1849), an influential call to resist war and slavery. Soon after graduating from Harvard College in 1836, Thoreau was befriended by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose Nature (1836) depicted the natural world as a book of spiritual and ethical wisdom. Emerson encouraged Thoreau’s writing and journal keeping, and provided space on his property near Walden Pond for a writing retreat. The book that Thoreau wrote there, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), was a disappointing commercial failure. However, Thoreau’s effort to explain his experiment in solitude to his Concord neighbors yielded Walden, a literary masterpiece. Walden presented not only a moving description of a life close to nature as the seasons move through the year, but also a scalding critique of social institutions, conventional politics, and the deadness of conformist life. The writing of Walden, completed after Thoreau’s 1847 return to Concord, was an extended process in which Thoreau worked through seven drafts. Midway through the composition, in the early 1850s, Thoreau underwent an intellectual reorientation that can be described as a conversion from poet-philosopher to naturalist-scientist. He devoted effort to his Journal as a record of nature observation during his daily hikes. The gathering and organization of the particular facts of natural history gradually became his principal task until his death in 1862. His developing naturalist sensibility is evident in essays such as “Walking,” “Wild Apples,” and “Autumnal Tints.” These works retained his descriptive craft and vital prose style, and demonstrated his observational practice in the natural world. These essays were published in the early 1860s, but other projects such as Wild Fruits and his seasonal “Kalendar” of Concord remained unfinished. These and other works have been brought to life by recent research and scholarly editing of his surviving manuscripts. The recent discovery that Thoreau’s seasonal records could serve as a source for the scientific measurement of climate change has brought a new attention to the value of his later natural history investigations, showing him as a naturalist fully in step with the developments of 19th-century science. Thoreau’s antislavery fervor increased as the Civil War approached, and he followed the publication of “Civil Disobedience” with political essays characterized by an ardent condemnation of slavery and an impassioned defense of abolitionist John Brown.
Thoreau’s career as a writer and lecturer centered on nature but also included influential writings on ethics, politics, and religion. All these works were grounded in the transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, and other members of this reform movement, which emerged in 1830s New England. Because of Emerson’s influence, and his continuing interest in Romantic literature, Thoreau’s naturalist and scientific studies are closely intertwined with his spiritual, ethical, and political thinking. Research on Thoreau in the 1980s began to register his more scientific focus on the natural world, and his reputation as a literary figure expanded to include his post-Walden work, much of it unpublished. This work included his systematic recording of nature observations. Richardson 1986 elucidates the philosophical, theological, scientific, and literary basis for Thoreau’s transcendentalism, and Buell 1995 shows the emergence of what would come to be known as ecology in Thoreau’s thinking. Peck 1990 emphasizes the importance of Thoreau’s Journal in shaping his writing, Milder 1995 explains Thoreau’s efforts to integrate the philosophical and naturalist dimensions of his thought, and Robinson 2004 analyzes Thoreau’s successive works and their deepening engagement with both natural history and politics.
Buell, Lawrence. 1995. The environmental imagination: Thoreau, nature writing, and the formation of American culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Buell’s study, highly influential in the field of literature and environment, traces Thoreau’s maturation from a pastoral appreciation of nature’s beauty to an environmental concern for nature’s well-being.
Milder, Robert. 1995. Reimagining Thoreau. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Milder examines Thoreau’s development as a writer and a naturalist, stressing his struggle to correlate his observations of natural processes with their implications for his philosophy.
Peck, H. Daniel. 1990. Thoreau’s morning work: Memory and perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.
Peck connects Thoreau’s fist two books with his growing reliance on the experience and insight that his Journal entries provide.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. 1986. Henry Thoreau: A life of the mind. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Richardson’s biography of Thoreau’s mind stresses his extensive reading and suggests the intellectual acumen and theoretical breadth that sustains his major works. He offers a perceptive explanation of the concept of universal laws that connects Thoreau’s naturalist observations with his spiritual, ethical, and political principles.
Robinson, David M. 2004. Natural life: Thoreau’s worldly transcendentalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.
Robinson traces Thoreau’s dual efforts to study and understand the laws of the natural world, and to live a correspondingly natural life. The book identifies and provides analyses of Thoreau’s most significant texts.
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