Henry David Thoreau: Contribution to American Literature

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      Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was of the French and Scottish I’ rent. Born in Concord, Massachusetts and made it his permanent home, he spent his life as a writer, teacher and analyst and orator in this area. From a poor family, like Emerson’s, he worked his way through Harvard education. He became known as an ‘individualist’ who was often scornful of authority. Nevertheless, he was much influenced by many of the men he came across during those years - ward Charming and Orestes Brownson and especially I. W. Emerson. He and his brother John opened their school Concord. When he became ill in 1841 Henry was unable to find another position whereupon he lived in Emerson’s house as a handyman. Emerson encouraged him to keep the Journals which formed the basis of most of his prose writings. Throughout his life, he reduced his needs to the simplest level and managed to live on very little money; thus, maintaining his independence. In essence, he made living his career.

      He was a non-conformist an attempted to live his life, At all times, according to his own rigorous principles. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was published in 1841. This heroic attempt was the subject of many of his major writings. Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, or, Life in the Woods (1854), is the result of two years, two months, and two days (from 1845 to 1847) he spent living in a cabin he built at Walden Pond on property owned by Emerson. In Walden, Thoreau consciously “shapes this time into one year, and the book is carefully constructed so the seasons are subtly evoked in order.” The classic of a book also is organized so that the simplest earthly concerns come first (in the section called “Economy,” he describes the expenses of building a cabin). By the ending, the book has progressed towards meditations on the stars.

      In Walden, Thoreau, a great lover of travelogues and the author of several books, gives us an anti-travel book that paradoxically opens the inner frontier of self-discovery as no American book had up to his time. As deceptively modest as Thoreau’s ascetic life, it is no less than a guide to living the classical ideal of the Good simple life. Both poetry and philosophy, this long poetic essay challenges the reader to examine his or her life and live it authentically. The building of the cabin, described in great detail, is a concrete metaphor for the careful building of a soul. In his journal for January 30, 1852, Thoreau explains his preference for living rooted in one place: “I am afraid to travel much or to famous places, lest it might completely dissipate the mind.”

      Thoreau’s method of retreat and concentration resembles the Asian meditation techniques. The resemblance is not accidental. Like Emerson and Whitman, he was influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. His most treasured possession was his library of Asian classics which he shared with Emerson. His ‘eclectic’ prose style draws on Greek and Latin classics and it is crystalline, punning, and richly metaphorical as the English metaphysical writers of the late Renaissance.

      In Walden, Thoreau not only tests the theories of Transcendentalism. He re-enacts the collective American experience of the 19th century, living on the frontier. Thoreau felt that his contribution would be to renew a sense of the wilderness in language. His journal has an undated entry from 1851: “English literature from the days of the minstrels to the Lake Poets, Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton included, breaths no quite fresh and in this sense, wild strain. It is an essentially tame and civilized literature, reflecting Greece and Rome. Her wilderness is a green wood, her wild man a Robin Hood. There is plenty of genial love of nature in her poets, but not so much of nature herself. Her chronicles inform us when her wild animals, but not the wild man in her, became. There was need of America.”

      Walden inspired William Butler Yeats, a passionate lush nationalist, to write “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. I bureau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” with its theory of passive resistance based on the moral necessity for the just Individual to disobey politely the unjust laws, was an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian independence movement and Martin Luther King’s struggle for black Americans’ civil rights. His later works are - Maine Woods, Cape Cod (1865) and A Yankee in Canada (1866) all based on the various journeys. Excursions (1863) is an Election of pieces previously published in magazines.

      H. D. Thoreau is the most attractive of the because of his spiritual and ecological consciousness, do-it-yourself independence, ethical commitment to abolitionism, and political theory of civil disobedience and peaceful passive resistance. His ideas are still fresh, and his incisive poetic style and habit of close observation are still typically modern.

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