“However mean your life is, meet it and live it: do not shun it and call it hard names. Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Things do not change, we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” Conclusion of Thoreau’s Walden
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a writer and voracious reader, philosopher, government-critic, “crank and hermit saint,” as described by author John Updike. His bread-and-butter work included improving his family’s pencil making business in Massachusetts, tutoring his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family, and land surveying. As a young man he took a turn running a school with his brother, John, refusing to administer corporal punishments, and introducing nature walks and visits to local businesses into the curriculum. After his brother’s early demise from an infected self-inflicted shaving wound in 1842, Thoreau’s school closed and his focus shifted toward publishing his writings.
A restlessness that he could not shake led a friend to advise he go out into nature – and his most famous work was conceived. The essays compiled in Walden are a reflection on a 2 year, 2 month and 2 day stay in a cabin Thoreau built himself on Emerson’s land. Removing the unnecessary and living with the bare essentials Thoreau hoped to “live deep, and suck out all the marrow of life.” His observations of the surrounding second-growth forest became a part of his later writings. His second most-famous piece is Civil Disobedience, originally a lecture titled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government,” outlines the citizen’s responsibility to hold the government accountable. Thoreau’s call is for conscience and citizen protest of unjust behavior by government, such as legal slavery and the invasion of Mexico. Thoreau says, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
Thoreau contracted tuberculosis as a young man, and lived with it, until contracting bronchitis on a late night walk led to an illness of a terminal nature. Aware of his coming death, Thoreau edited and sought publishing for old and new projects while bedridden until peacefully dying at the age of 44. Thoreau was a man who lived in a transitional time – the self-sufficiency of American homesteads were following Europe into the excesses of industrialization, and he witnessed the shifts with a critical eye. We highly recommend reading Emerson’s eulogy for a first hand account of the man that stood apart from his society, but embraced his natural surroundings. In his eulogy, Emerson writes of Thoreau’s aversion to a single profession, seeking instead “a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.”