Photo: Henry David Thoreau, 1879, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3a02153
With the words above, Henry David Thoreau declared the purpose of his Walden experiment–the two years he spent in the Concord woods testing his belief in the ability of man to transcend his senses and attain a higher understanding of life. By the shores of Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived from the land, he meditated, wrote poetry, and developed a philosophy of pacifism and reverence for all living things, which profoundly influenced 19th and 20th century thought.
Thoreau, the Concord-born poet, philosopher, naturalist, essayist and educator, is one of the most authentic and individualistic voices in all of American thought. “No truer American ever lived,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson of his friend. Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and returned to his hometown in search of an occupation. Befriended by Emerson, who appreciated his purity and originality of thought and deed, Thoreau gave his first lecture before the Concord Lyceum in 1838. The next year, Thoreau and his brother John embarked on Henry’s first fluvial excursion, along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, where he gathered material for a book.
During the same period, he launched his career as a teacher. He began a brief tenure at Concord’s elementary school, but resigned after refusing to administer corporal punishment. Rebelling against the repressive educational system, he and his brother John founded their own academy in 1838, where they taught not only classical literature and languages, but also mathematics, physics, natural science, and natural philosophy. Like Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, Thoreau preferred to teach by conversation, and he also stressed exploratory field trips. John’s weakening health forced the brothers to close the school in 1841. Thoreau spent the subsequent year as a handyman, friend and protector to Lidian Emerson while her husband traveled abroad. After John’s death in 1842 from lockjaw, Thoreau resumed teaching, this time as a tutor to the children of Emerson’s brother William, in Staten Island, New York. Between 1840 and 1842, Thoreau published poetry and essays in the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial.
In 1845 Thoreau accepted Emerson’s invitation to build a cabin on the Emerson property at the northwest end of Walden Pond in Concord. On July 4th of that year, friends held a roof-raising for the one-room hut, which measured 10 feet by 15 feet. For the next two years, Thoreau planted his bean field, chopped his wood, wandered the forest studying the flora and fauna, and received a steady stream of visitors, among them educator Bronson Alcott (who came every Sunday evening), Emerson, and poet William Ellery Channing.
Thoreau also made regular forays from Walden; not only did he walk into town to visit his family or purchase supplies, he also took an extended study trip to the Maine woods in 1846, and he even spent a night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to support what he considered the immoral Mexican-American War. When he left Walden in 1847, it was not because the experiment had failed or because he had tired of the simple life, but rather because, for Thoreau, it had been a completely fulfilling success, and it was now time to move on: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one,” he wrote in the conclusion of Walden, which he published in 1854. And, assessing the value of what he had accomplished, he added: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in uncommon hours.”
For the remainder of Thoreau’s days, that life was rich and varied. He published with intensified vigor: The Maine Woods (essays from 1848, 1853, and 1857), Civil Disobedience (1849), A Yankee In Canada (1853), Walden (1854), Cape Cod (1855), and a final group of essays (1861).
In addition to his ongoing passions and pursuits–boating, hiking, gardening, pencil-making, handiwork, surveying, studying Native American culture, wandering the woods like Pan with his flute, reading, conversing, and lecturing–Thoreau devoted himself increasingly to activist social concerns. The philosophical stance he articulated in Civil Disobedience–that of passive resistance–was to have far-reaching repercussions on world thought, profoundly influencing both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. From his Walden days, when he offered his cabin as a stop on the Underground Railway, to 1851, when he publicly aligned himself with the Anti-Slavery Movement, Thoreau was a passionate advocate for abolition and one of the most outspoken defenders of John Brown.
The outbreak of the Civil War, however, found Thoreau’s own health failing. He managed one more journey to Minnesota, in hopes of finding cleaner air and better health, but he was already enfeebled by the same disease that had claimed his brother. On May 6, 1862 he died of tuberculosis at home in Concord. Bronson Alcott dismissed the schools so that 300 children could join the cortege that laid Henry David Thoreau to rest on Authors Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. One year later, the aging Alcott would again spearhead a memorial for Thoreau. He led a contingent of townsfolk to Walden Pond, where they gathered stones from the water and climbed the ridge to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. There, in ancient tradition, they began a cairn, to which pilgrims from Walt Whitman to the present have continued to contribute.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing