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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

[5678] Currier & Ives, Battle of Buena Vista. Fought Feby. 23rd, 1847. In Which the American Army Under Gen. Taylor Were Completely Victorious (1847), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-2957].

Best known as one of the first proponents of American Transcendentalism, Henry David Thoreau was also one of the first American naturalists and eco-literature writers. He was the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar and spent most of his life in and around Concord, Massachusetts. His father operated a pencil manufacturing business in the area. Thoreau attended Concord Academy and graduated from Harvard College in 1837. The next year he and his brother John opened an innovative school, which operated until 1841. Afterward, Thoreau worked as a tutor, handyman, carpenter, surveyor, essayist, and speaker. At the outbreak of the Mexican War, Thoreau protested slavery by refusing to pay his poll tax and was jailed for one night. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government” was written as a response to that event. During his life, he was an outspoken abolitionist and wrote a number of popular antislavery tracts. His books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854), and his journals, record observations of nature and meditations on humanity’s place within it. Thoreau’s most widely read book, Walden, documents two years he spent living in a small cabin beside Walden Pond just outside of Concord. This experiment in self-reliance gave Thoreau a way to practice his philosophy of living. (Recent scholars have noted that Walden conveniently neglects to acknowledge the extent of the domestic and practical help Thoreau’s mother and sister provided.) Thoreau believed that people were too concerned with materialistic desires and that they should lead simpler and more purposeful lives. His rejection of the values of a rising consumer society complemented his reverence for nature and belief that humankind should live in harmony with it.

Considered by many of his fellow townspeople to be a loafer, Thoreau worked from time to time in his father’s pencil factory, but the dust from the graphite aggravated the tuberculosis he would later die from. His legacy continues to inspire social and environmental activists. Thoreau’s early biographies and published works attracted the attention of European socialists and Labor Party members, and his essays “Resistance to Civil Government” and “Life Without Principle” influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence and were also inspiring to Martin Luther King Jr. in his efforts to gain broader civil rights for African Americans. Edward Abbey, naturalist and author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, is among the many environmental writers Thoreau inspired. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the story of a young man who journeys alone into the Alaskan wilderness, pays homage to Thoreau’s naturalist philosophy but shows what can happen if his ideas are taken too far.

Teaching Tips

  • After students have read selections from Thoreau’s works, have them write about how Americans should properly “use” nature and lead their lives. Have them share their own beliefs regarding wilderness, technology, progress, success, and independent thinking. Offer them several Thoreau quotations with which to agree or disagree.
  • Have students cite recent instances of “civil disobedience” in the news. Discuss why individuals found it important to break the law and whether their action was justified. Debate the effectiveness of these instances of civil disobedience.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does Thoreau see the idea of “owned” property as immoral?
  2. Comprehension: Take a look at the two introductions to Walden (“Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”). How does each of these chapters introduce what is to follow? What kind of readers does each ask us to be? Why wasn’t “Economy” enough of an introduction? What does “Where I Lived . . .” add to our understanding of how to read Walden?
  3. Context: Machine tools, steam engines, steamboats, railroads, textile machinery for factories, and the telegraph were all being developed and used more widely during Thoreau’s lifetime. Thoreau’s family owned a pencil factory, in which he worked from time to time. What changes in American society and culture were brought on by the Industrial Revolution? What were Thoreau’s specific objections to those changes?
  4. Exploration: Thoreau makes clear in his works how dependent industrialization is on cheap labor. He points to the role of slavery in developing the South’s agricultural production and the abuse of Chinese and Irish immigrants in building the railroads as two examples. In “Life without Principle,” he writes, “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward.” Was Thoreau right in believing that for one person to succeed economically, he or she has to exploit others? Does that seem to be illustrated by the works discussed in this unit? What about bankers? Lawyers? Mechanics? Plumbers? Professors? Can you think of cases where one person’s economic success does not depend upon the exploitation of others?

Selected Archive Items

[1031] Anonymous, Emerson’s Grave (1850-1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D4-72358]. 
Emerson is buried on Author’s Ridge in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery of Concord, Massachusetts, alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. His epitaph, “The passive master lent his hand to the vast soul that o’er him planned,” comes from his poem “The Problem.”

[5678] Currier & Ives, Battle of Buena Vista. Fought Feby. 23rd, 1847. In Which the American Army Under Gen. Taylor Were Completely Victorious (1847), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-2957]. 
Painting of the Battle of Buena Vista, led by General Zachary Taylor. This popular scene of one of the major American victories of the war spoke to America’s belief in Manifest Destiny. Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax, which would have helped finance the Mexican War.

[6964] Anonymous, Thoreau’s Cove, Lake Walden, Concord, Mass. (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D4-34878DLC]. 
Photograph of woods and pond. Henry David Thoreau lived in a small cabin by Walden Pond for two years and wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden.

[7226] John Carlos Rowe, Interview: “Nature in the Slave Narrative Versus the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau” (2001), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Professor of English and comparative studies John Carlos Rowe discusses the differences between the depiction of nature in Transcendentalist works and in slave narratives: in one genre, nature is a place for calm meditation; in the other, it is a place of terror.

[8581] John Carlos Rowe, Interview: “The Transcendental Critique of America” (2002), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Professor John Carlos Rowe discusses the way in which the Transcendentalists criticized the American thirst for profit at the expense of nature and a high quality of life.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6