Born David Henry Thoreau, Thoreau chose to legally change his name at the age of twenty, to make it the name that would later become the highly recognized and respected name of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau chose a different path for his life than many other individuals during his time, he rejected the normal ideas of a democratic government and based his life on the ideas of transcendentalism. Thoreau is best known for living two years of his life at Walden Pond, but there are more aspects of his life that have reached the people of America.
When Thoreau was a young child, he deeply immersed himself in nature. It was evident to his elders that he took a great interest in literature and writing. Thoreau began his writing at a young age, with his first essay at the age of ten, entitled “The Seasons.” Showing great intelligence, Thoreau was accepted to study at Harvard University at the age of sixteen, and with help from his family he was able to raise the money he needed to attend. While there, Thoreau had a good chance of being at the top of the class, but it was said “he went his own way too much to reach the top.” (Foerster, 26).
Thoreau graduated from college on August 16, 1837, and then began a teaching career in Concord, Massachusetts. Not long after he began teaching, Thoreau retired. He had long been criticized for the way he punished his students. Instead of choosing to flog them, or to beat them when they did something wrong, Thoreau instead chose to deliver moral lectures to the children. The parents and elders of the community did not think this was enough to properly punish the children to let them know that what they were doing was wrong. It was for this reason that Thoreau resigned, he did not believe in the idea of physical punishment taking any part in education. It was at this time that Thoreau began to write and was first introduced to the idea of transcendentalism. Thoreau’s sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy Jackson Brown, who happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sister-in-law. (Foerster, 35).
When Emerson read Thoreau’s Journal he realized they had many of the same ideas in common, and Emerson requested to meet with Thoreau. The meeting resulted in a close friendship between the two, and Emerson later became Thoreau’s mentor. During his time with Emerson, Thoreau became familiar with members of what was known as the “Transcendental Club.” Transcendentalism is a newly founded belief and practice that involves man’s interaction with nature, and the idea that man belongs to one universal and benign omnipresence know as the oversoul. (Edwards).
Transcendentalism is described as a natural religion of democracy because it claims that divinity is in every human and therefore the universe. This suggestion that the individual is potentially divine can also support the religion of aristocracy. (DeVoile). The major influences are romanticism, idealism, self-examination, democratic individualism, nature, and mankind among others.
Thoreau took this belief to straight to heart when his brother, John, whom Henry was very close to, died on March 11, 1842 of complications of lockjaw. After building a cabin on a plot of land that Emerson had recently bought on Walden Pond, and preparing it for the time ahead, Thoreau began his two year recluse from normal American society on July 4, 1845.
For two years Thoreau observed, wrote about, and lived among nature at its fullest. 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). )
Thoreau immersed himself into nature, allowed his mind to create a alertness of divinity, and he “transcended” to spiritual fulfillment. As a true transcendentalist, Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond signified the start of his process toward his own spiritual rebirth. Later, once his goal was accomplished, he wanted to share his exhilaration and findings with others who did not realize the rewards of his experience with true transcendentalism. When Thoreau returned from Walden Pond, he collected his writings, put them together, and edited them to be published in what he called “Walden, or Life in the Woods.” Thoreau did not live exclusively in his cabin and the surrounding lands, as most people tend to think.
In fact, Thoreau left frequently to make trips to Concord for food and other items he found he needed at Walden. On one visit there, Thoreau was questioned about a poll tax he had refused to pay in 1843 and 1844. When Thoreau again refused to pay this tax he was apprehended and sat in jail for a night. Thoreau refused to pay the tax because first of all, he had never voted, and he knew that such a purely political tax had to be associated with the funding of the Mexican War and the continuance of slavery, both of which he strongly objected to. In the morning, Thoreau was released because an anonymous person had paid his bail, Thoreau believed this person to be his Aunt Maria.
While Thoreau was in jail, he wrote an essay titled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” This essay reflected Thoreau’s views on the American system of government. In it he states “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have.” (Thoreau, 222).
This shows Thoreau’s belief that the government should stay out of the private lives of those they govern, for it is no concern of theirs. In fact, the government is simply there for stability, and when man can handle it, they will rule themselves on their own without a government always taxing them and ruling over them. He expresses his belief in the power and the responsibility of the individual to determine right from wrong, independent of the decree of society.
One of Thoreau’s main beliefs seems to be that the individual is stronger than the mass. A government can govern and rule, but “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate.” (Thoreau, 222-223). Thoreau did not necessarily want the government to disband and disappear, and he did not believe that man could handle if it did. But he did call for the government to become better at once, not sporadically and spread out over time. Thoreau believed that a man cannot be associated with the government without some touch of disgrace. It did not seem fair or right that his government was the very same government of the slaves in America.
Thoreau also believed that it could soon be time for a revolution. If a government was run by those who had previously overthrown another government because of unfair taxation and unequal rights to all men, then what was happening in America then? The American government was posing unjust taxes onto Thoreau himself, an example being the poll tax he was put into jail for not paying in 1845.
The very same American government was forcing African-Americans into slavery while they let white men rule these slaves and run the land, which they themselves did not care for. Thoreau saw this to be very hypocritical and these were very definite signs of needs of improvement within the government at that very moment. Thoreau simply did not agree with most views the American government took and acted upon, and tried to persuade people to see things the way he did in some of his essays.
Overall, Thoreau did indeed have a positive and definite affect on people. While he was alive, his works weren’t accepted very well by the public, but over time young people became more interested in his ideas of transcendentalism and the government, and his works began to become more well-known and noticed. Today Thoreau is best known for Walden and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau is also seen as one of the first and most purely transcendentalists of his time, and of today.