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Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study of nature. Two
years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a shack in the woods near
a pond. Who would choose a life like this? Henry David Thoreau did, and he
enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau, what did he do, and what did others
think of his work? Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on
July 12, 1817 ("Thoreau" 96), on his grandmother's farm. Thoreau, who
was of French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry
Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry David.
Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother John, and younger
sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that Thoreau was interested in
literature and writing. At a young age he began to show interest writing, and he
wrote his first essay, "The Seasons," at the tender age of ten, while
attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4). In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry
David was accepted to Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the
cost of tuition so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts
offered to help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of
Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on September
first. "He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of his class, but he went his
own way too much to reach the top" (5). In December 1835, Thoreau decided
to leave Harvard and attempt to earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted
about a month and a half (8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and
graduated on August 16, 1837 (12). Thoreau's years at Harvard University gave
him one great gift, an introduction to the world of books. Upon his return from
college, Thoreau's family found him to be less likely to accept opinions as
facts, more argumentative, and inordinately prone to shock people with his own
independent and unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his
secret desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with
freedom to think and act as he wished. Immediately after graduation from
Harvard, Henry David applied for a teaching position at the public school in
Concord and was accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He
opted instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the
community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They decided that
the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered Thoreau to flog
recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up six children after school
that day, flogged them, and handed in his resignation, because he felt that
physical punishment should have no part in education (Derleth 15). In 1837 Henry
David began to write his Journal (16). It started out as a literary notebook,
but later developed into a work of art. In it Thoreau record his thoughts and
discoveries about nature (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Later
that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy Jackson Brown, who
just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson's sister-in-law. She read his Journal,
and seeing many of the same thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told
Emerson of Thoreau. Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a
meeting, and they quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not
long after their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson's help, delivered his first
lecture, "Society" (21). Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single
most portentous person in Henry David Thoreau's life. From 1841 to 1843 and
again between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson's household,
and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and many
other members of the "Transcendental Club" ("Thoreau" 696).
On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left Concord on a
boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal, into the Merrimack
River and into the state of New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau's first
book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25). Early in 1841, John
Thoreau, Henry's beloved older brother, became very ill, most likely with
tuberculosis, and in early May a poor and distraught Henry David moved into the
upstairs of Ralph Waldo Emerson's house (35). On March 11, 1842 John died, and
Henry's life long friend and companion was gone (40). In early 1845 Thoreau
decided to make a sojourn to nearby Walden Pond, where Emerson had recently
purchased a plot of land. He built a small cabin overlooking the pond, and from
July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847 Thoreau lived at Walden Pond
("Thoreau" 697). When asked why he went to live at Walden Pond Thoreau
replied: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front
only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to
teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not
wish to live what was not life, living is dear, nor did I wish to practice
resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out
all the marrow of life... (Thoreau 75- 76). One night in July 1846, during his
stay at Walden, Thoreau was walking into Concord from the pond when he was
accosted by Sam Staples, the Concord jailer, and charged with not having paid
his poll tax. Thoreau had not paid a poll tax since 1843 when his friend Bronson
Alcott spent a night in jail for not paying his. He didn't see why he should
have to pay the tax, he had never voted, and he knew that such a purely
political tax had to be affiliated with the funding of the Mexican War and the
subsistence of slavery, both of which he strongly objected to (Derleth 66). The
following morning Thoreau was released because someone, probably his Aunt Maria
Thoreau, had paid his back taxes (68). This imprisonment compelled Thoreau to
write "Civil Disobedience," one of his most famous essays. On May
6,1862 ("Thoreau" 697), after an unavailing journey to Minnesota in
1861 in search of better health, Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis.
Thoreau was buried in Sleep Hollow Cemetery in Concord near his friends Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott (The 1995 Grolier
Multimedia Encyclopedia 2). Thoreau never earned a livelihood by writing, but
his works fill twenty volumes. His first book, A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers, was a huge failure selling only 219 of the original 1,000
copies ("Thoreau" 697), but his doctrine of passive resistance
impacted many powerful people such as Mahatma Gahndi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
(The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Thoreau's essay, "Civil
Disobedience," accentuated personal ethics and responsibility. It urged the
individual to follow the dictates of conscience in any conflict between itself
and civil law, and to violate unjust laws to invoke their repeal. Throughout his
life, Thoreau protested against slavery by lecturing, by abetting escaped slaves
in their decampment to freedom in Canada, and by outwardly defending John Brown
when he made his hapless attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859 (2). Walden is
conceivably Thoreau's most famous work, however, for nearly a century after it's
publication it was considered to be only a collection of nature essays, as
social criticism, or as a literal autobiography. Walden is now looked upon as a
created work of art ("Thoreau" 697). In Walden Thoreau expresses his
sentiments on varying subjects such as, the attitudes of society, age, and work.
Thoreau felt that society had no right to judge people on the basis of their
appearance: No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in
his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have
fashionable, of at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound
conscience (Thoreau 27). Thoreau believed in relaxation and simplicity, and he
said: "As for work, we haven't any of any consequence" (78). Thoreau
also believed that older people should not tell younger people how to live
because: Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth,
for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the
wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living (16). Walden is
filled with sarcasm, criticism, and observations of nature, life, and society,
and is written in a very unique style. Walden has been described as an elaborate
system of circular imagery which centers on Walden Pond as a symbol of heaven,
the ideal of perfection that should be striven for ("Thoreau" 697).
Thoreau has been called America's greatest prose stylist, naturalist, pioneer
ecologist, conservationist, visionary, and humanist (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia
Encyclopedia 2). It has also been said that Thoreau's style shows an
unconscious, but very pointed degree of Emerson's influence. However, there is
often a rudeness, and an inartistic carelessness in Thoreau's style that is not
at all like the style of Emerson. Thoreau possessed an amazing forte for
expressing his many observations in vivid color: No one has ever excelled him in
the field of minute description. His acute powers of observation, his ability to
keep for a long time his attention upon one thing, and his love of nature and of
solitude, all lend a distinct individuality to his style (Pattee 226). Thoreau's
good friend Bronson Alcott described his style as: More primitive and Homeric
than any American, his style of thinking was robust, racy, as if Nature herself
had built his sentences and seasoned the sense of his paragraphs with his own
vigor and salubrity. Nothing can be spared from them; there is nothing
superfluous; all is compact, concrete, as nature is (Alcott 16). Most of
Thoreau's writings had to do with Nature which caused him to receive both
positive and negative criticism. Paul Elmer More said that Thoreau was"The
greatest by far of our writers on Nature and the creator of a new sentiment in
literature," but he then does a complete turn around to say: Much of his
[Thoreau's] writing, perhaps the greater part, is the mere record of observation
and classification, and has not the slightest claim on our remembrance, --
unless, indeed, it posses some scientific value, which I doubt (More 860).
Thoreau was always very forthright in everything he said. Examples of this can
be found throughout Walden, one of which being his statement in chapter
two"To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who
edit and read it are old women over their tea" (Thoreau 79). There is
certainly no ersatz sentiment, nor simulation of reverence of benevolence in
Walden (Briggs 445). Thoreau was a philosopher of individualism, who placed
nature above materialism in private life, and ethics above conformity in
politics (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). His life was marked by
whimsical acts and unusual stands on public issues ("Thoreau" 697).
These peculiar beliefs led to a lot of criticism of Thoreau and his work. James
Russell Lowell complained the Thoreau exalted the constraints of his own
dispositions and insisted upon accepting his shortcomings and debilities as
virtues and powers. Lowell considered: "a great deal of the modern
sentimentalism about Nature...a mark of disease" (Wagenknecht 2). In some
ways Walden is deluding. It consists of eighteen essays in which Thoreau
condenses his twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond into the seasons of a single
year. Also, the idea is expressed in Magill's Survey of American Literature
that: Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a pioneer; his hut was within
two miles of town, and while at Walden, he made almost daily visits to Concord
and to his family, dined out often, had frequent visitors, and went off on
excursions. Walden is a testament to the renewing power of nature, to the need
of respect and preservation of the environment, and to the belief that"in
wildness is the salvation of the world" (Magill 1949). Walden is simply an
experience recreated in words for the purpose of getting rid of the world and
discovering the self ("Thoreau" 697). Henry David Thoreau strived for
freedom and equality. He was opinionated and argumentative. He stood up for what
he believed in and was willing to fight for it. His teachings and writings had
an amazing affect on people and the world, and will have for centuries to come.
affect on people and the world, and will have for centuries to come.

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