19 February 2019

Life of Thoreau and Transcendentalism

Henry D. Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He grew up in a financially stable family and went to Harvard College as did his grandfather before him. At Harvard, Thoreau studied Latin and Greek composition among other variety of courses, such as English, mathematics, history, philosophy, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. Thoreau became an aspiring writer after college, starting to keep a journal in 1837, writing and publishing numerous essays and reviews. However, to make ends meet, he had to work at other jobs. According to The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, he wrote: “I am a Schoolmaster–a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer–a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.” (Walter Harding and Carl, 186) He expressed the advantage of making just enough money to supply his simple living so that he could concentrate on his writing.

Thoreau came of age during the Transcendentalist movement that started in New England in the late 1820s. He was 19 years old when his mentor Emerson published Nature, an essay stating the philosophical foundation of the movement: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;” wrote Emerson in Nature, “we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” The Transcendentalists believe a personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to everybody, and the reliability of one’s conscience because God dwells within the soul of each individual. They believe two indispensable parts, the soul and nature, consist the universe. While Thoreau is a prominent member of the Transcendentalists’ circle, he is also a nonconformist. He values solitary more than group activities; and believes in the power and obligation of the individual to discern right from wrong, independent of the social orders. 

The life experience and the conviction of Transcendentalism prepared and enabled Thoreau to write his best-known work Walden, or Life in the woods, which was published in 1854. In Walden, he declares, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” As Gray points out, this “was not only the creed that Thoreau preached in his writings, along with Emerson, Fuller, and the other Transcendentalists. It was also the creed that he embraced, and tried to follow, in his life.” (121) In the solitary sojourn of the Walden woods for over two years, Thoreau kept up journaling, by then a life-long habit, and used it years later to recreate the experience on paper. Not only the content but also the style of Walden manifests Thoreau’s vision of individualism. It defies any strict genre categorization, such as an autobiography, a spiritual diary, a narrative of philosophy, a journal of nature, and stands by itself on its own uniqueness.

Work Cited:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. http://transcendentalism-legacy.tamu.edu/authors/emerson/nature.html. Digital. Accessed on October 30, 2018.

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. 2nd Ed. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK. 2012.

Harding, Walter. Bode, Carl. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau. New York University Press, New York. 1958.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, and On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/205?msg=welcome_stranger#linkW1. Digital. Accessed on October 30, 2018.


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Posted February 19, 2019 by Laura Zhang in category "Personal Commentary

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