Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau Introduction

If Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he would probably live in Montana, or Tucson, or a small rural town in New England with beautiful hiking trails. He'd be the scruffy guy in sandals who pads down to the public library once or twice or day to check his email, read the New York Times online, maybe surf a blog or two. You can see him scavenging a sandwich - he would say, "Can you believe it, a perfectly good sandwich that someone just threw away!" - from the trashcan as he walks home to write in his journal, admiring the blue sky, the birdsong, and a dozen other things that every one else takes for granted.

The Concord, Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau was a writer, poet, naturalist, handyman and prophet of simple, sustainable living. Before you could purchase magazines with titles like Real Simple, Thoreau was exhorting his fellow man to live with less stuff and more time for things that really matter. In 1845, he built a cabin on the shores of Concord's Walden Pond (on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) and proceeded to live a Spartan life for two years. His memoir of the experience, Walden, has since become a bible for simplicity-seekers everywhere. As Emerson wrote after Thoreau's death in Concord in 1862, "He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself."

Thoreau's message has as much relevance today as it did in the 1860s. Thoreau was writing during tough economic times, when formerly self-reliant farmers were being displaced by an increasingly industrialized economy. Thoreau exhorted his readers to be thrifty, to do without unnecessary things, and to live with an appreciation for the simple things in life. We need his message now more than ever.

Henry David Thoreau Trivia

While cooking his dinner on a hike in Walden Woods on 30 April 1844, 26-year-old Thoreau set a fire that burned more than 100 acres. Way to go, nature boy!

The next time you pick up a pencil, you can thank Thoreau. At his father's pencil factory, Thoreau developed a stronger, superior pencil by mixing clay with the graphite. It was a major development in pencil engineering. Quit laughing! It was.

Thoreau planted a vegetable garden as a wedding present for his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, and his new wife Sophia.

The Compromise of 1850 made it illegal to assist runaway slaves escaping their owners. Thoreau opposed the law, in word and practice. He continued to hide escaped slaves in his family's Concord home and helped them flee to Canada.

Thoreau was a good money manager during his tenure as treasurer of the Concord Lyceum. The club ended the year in the black, with a balance of $9.20.

According to his receipts for the building materials for the cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau purchased way more nails than needed for such a small structure. When Walter Harding excavated the cabin site in the 1940s, he discovered the reason why - Thoreau was a bad carpenter. There were a number of bent nails around, Harding wrote, "indicating that Thoreau's aim with a hammer was not all it might have been."

In an effort to remove some of the modern trappings that cropped up around Thoreau's wilderness retreat, the state of Massachusetts undertook a $600,000 renovation of Walden Pond in the 1980s. In an effort to make it look more like it did in Thoreau's time, the state knocked down concrete bathhouses and fences and covered other concrete stuff in shingles and local rock. Which is kind of cheating, but whatever.

Henry David Thoreau Resources

Books

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
This is the book that established Henry David Thoreau as the writer, environmentalist and all-around hardy soul we know him as today. Thoreau's account of his years living on Walden Pond is touching, insightful and at times hilarious. Definitely a must-read.

Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
By the late 1840s, Thoreau was fed up with his government. He abhorred both slavery and the Mexican-American war and saw no reason why he should have to support those activities. As a result, he refused to pay his poll tax and spent a night in jail. This essay arguing that citizens have a duty to oppose an immoral law became inspiration for peaceful resistors from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mohandas Gandhi.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
In 1839, Thoreau and his brother John took a rafting trip down the Concord and Merrimack rivers. After John died tragically in 1842 at the age of 27, Thoreau wrote this book in memory of his brother and best friend. It sold so poorly when first released that Thoreau was forced to buy back 700 of the 1,000 books the publisher had printed.

Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (c. 1940)
Harding wasn't Thoreau's first biographer, but he was definitely among the most intrepid. In the 1940s, he excavated the site along Walden Pond where Thoreau's cabin once stood. His in-depth research into the writer's life led to some interesting discoveries (including the realization that Thoreau was not a great carpenter) and the Thoreau Society, an organization dedicated to the writer's legacy.

Robert Sullivan, The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant (2009)
To the uninitiated, Thoreau can come off as stodgy, dull and preachy. Under the guidance of writer Robert Sullivan, however, Thoreau is a trailblazing environmentalist whose charming mix of curiosity, compassion, humor and nerdiness wins you over. This recent biography is a unique perspective on the author.

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury (2005)
Thoreau was a major player in the American intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism. Cheever's book looks at the philosophical movement that sprung out of Concord and involved Thoreau and many of his friends, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and Thomas Carlyle.

Music

Charles Dibdin, "Tom Bowling"
This ballad, also known as "The Sailor's Epitaph," was Thoreau's favorite song. Many of Thoreau's friends recalled him singing this tune while playing the piano accompaniment. Why was this particular tune his favorite? We don't know.

Charles Ives, Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60
Modernist American composer Charles Ives was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists. He wrote this piano sonata in tribute to the bards of Concord, including Emerson and Thoreau. This album also features spoken-word performances of the authors' works in addition to Ives' composition.

Vic Hochee, A Musical Portrait of Henry David Thoreau's Walden
Vic Hochee was a lawyer by trade, but music was his great passion. Before his death in 2009 at the age of 70, Hochee produced and recorded this musical tribute to Thoreau's Walden.

Poetree: Thoreau
Poetree is a CD series that brings writers' works to life through music evocative of their writing. This album on Thoreau features musical selections from the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Rachmaninoff, interspersed with quotations from Thoreau's writing.

Melodies for Flute and Harp
Thoreau greatly enjoyed music. He played the flute for his own amusement and would get up and dance when he heard the Scottish melodies his family enjoyed during his childhood. This collection features the types of songs Thoreau may have heard at parties and in parlors. It includes one of his favorites, "The Campbells Are Coming."

Images

Henry David Thoreau
An 1856 photograph of the author, age 39.

Thoreau at Forty
A photograph of Thoreau from 1860.

Clean-Shaven Thoreau
The author post-shave in 1862.

Walden
Cover page of first 1854 edition of Walden, with an illustration by Thoreau's sister Sophia.

Thoreau on Library Way
A quote by the author on New York City's Library Way.

The Cabin
A replica of Thoreau's cabin, now located near Walden Pond.

Grave
Thoreau's grave in the family plot at Concord's Sleeping Hollow Cemetery.

Movies & TV

Little Women (1994)
Okay, so Thoreau isn't actually in this movie. But if you want a sense of what Transcendentalist life might have been like in 1860s Concord, then this movie is for you. It's based on the book by Louisa May Alcott, a student of Thoreau's at Concord Academy, and whose father Bronson was a major player in the Transcendentalist movement.

Marbles With Thoreau (2009)
In this short film set in 1847, two impoverished children from the Boston slums stumble upon a strange cabin in the woods near Walden Pond. Its enigmatic resident helps them to see that though they are poor in worldly goods, they are rich in the things that really matter. Guess who it is!

Into the Wild (2007)
In 1992, 24-year-old Christopher McCandless hiked into the Alaskan outback to live solo off the land. He was heavily influenced by Thoreau and hoped to accomplish in Alaska what Thoreau did on Walden Pond. His story ended tragically. This film is based on that true story.

Henry David Thoreau: Role Model (2001)
Ritch Duncan is a comedian from Concord, Massachusetts. In this very short (12 minute) documentary film, he travels back to Concord and visits Walden Pond to see what's left of Thoreau's cabin. (Spoiler answer: Nothing.)

New Walden (1991)
Filmmaker Bruce Merwin's own website calls him the "Father of Transcendental Cinema." We're not sure how many other contenders there are for that title, but his first film tackled Thoreau's experiment at Walden. The film crew camped out at Walden Pond during shooting. The film was panned, and Merwin is working on another one.

Websites

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau
This site from the University of California at Santa Barbara is a great online resource for Thoreau students. Its best feature is "Ask a Thoreau Edition," a super-useful research tool that allows you to ask questions of the Thoreau Institute (it's currently down for renovation) and a searchable quotations database.

The Thoreau Reader
The Thoreau Reader is a must-read site for all students of Thoreau. It is an annotated online library of all of Thoreau's works, plus some of the most interesting essays ever written about Thoreau. It is a project of the Thoreau Society.

The Thoreau Society
Founded in 1941, the Thoreau Society is an organization devoted to the study and philosophies of Thoreau. They take field trips to places associated with the author, put on education programs and maintain great online resources about Thoreau and his works.

American Transcendentalism Web
This great site from Virginia Commonwealth University offers an overview of the Transcendentalist movement in America. It is a really helpful resource if you're trying to understand the broader context of how Transcendentalism came to be, and what it gave to America. A hyperlinked breakout page focuses on Thoreau.

The Walden Woods Project
The cabin where Thoreau once lived is long gone, but the beautiful woods he lived in still remain. The woods around Walden Pond are actually more lush today than they were when Emerson hired Thoreau to plant trees in the area, thanks largely to the attention Henry D. brought to the area. The Walden Woods Project is an organization that works to sustain the woods and Thoreau's memory.

Thoreau's WaldenM, Present at the Creation
This is the website for an NPR program dedicated to Thoreau. In addition to great reporting from NPR, it contains links to multimedia resources related to the author, like video of an actor portraying Thoreau and an audio clip of "Tom Bowling," Thoreau's favorite song.

Video & Audio

"Civil Disobedience"
Actor Mark Ruffalo reads from Thoreau's 1849 tract.

Thoreau's Influence
While the premise that Thoreau invented civil disobedience may not be right, this video of subsequent acts of civil disobedience is awesome.

Walden Pond
Here you can watch video of the pond, with Thoreau's observations.

Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau
This is the intro for a documentary about Thoreau.

Thoreau & Walden Pond
A brief documentary about Thoreau's experiences on the pond.

Sunrise at Walden
Watch this video and imagine that you're Thoreau, waking with the sun at Walden Pond.

Primary Sources

Walden
Thoreau's classic about life on the Pond.

"Civil Disobedience"
The essay Thoreau wrote about his experience in jail for refusing to pay his taxes.

The Maine Woods
Thoreau's 1864 book on his sojourns in, um, the Maine woods.

"Slavery in Massachusetts"
Thoreau's abolitionist essay.

Thoreau
Emerson's 1862 essay in The Atlantic eulogizing his late friend.

Ellery Channing on Thoreau
The author's contemporary remembers his friend.

Updike on Thoreau
An essay by writer John Updike on Thoreau and his Walden.

Henry Thoreau: Transcendental Economist
An excerpt from a book by Vernon L. Parrington that won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize.

Ten Volumes of Thoreau
An 1891 essay by Thoreau-hater Joshua Caldwell.

19th Century Outsider
A 1958 essay in Time Magazine about Thoreau.