Henry David Thoreau

Zachary Quist


Henry David Thoreau (pictured to the right) born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist. Thoreau graduated Harvard in 1837, where he would meet Ralph Waldo Emerson and begin his writing career. He is best known for being one of the most famous American writers, whose major work was Walden. His literary works included topics involving natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, and philosophical austerity. Thoreau was fascinated with nature and spent much time writing about it. He wanted to explore what values should one live by. He would be remembered as one of the central figure of New England transcendentalism.

19th Century American Romanticism

The European Romantic movement reached America in the early 19th century. American Romanticism was individualistic as it was in Europe. American Romantics demonstrated a high level of moral enthusiasm, commitment to individualism and the unfolding of the self, an emphasis on intuitive perception, and the assumption that the natural world was inherently good, while human society was filled with corruption. Romanticism became popular in American politics, philosophy and art. The movement appealed to the revolutionary spirit of America as well as to those longing to break free of the strict religious traditions of early settlement. The Romantic Movement gave rise to New England Transcendentalism (Thoreau was a central figure) which portrayed a less restrictive relationship between God and Universe. This led to the creation of a more personal relationship with God. A traditional American Romanticism painting is pictured above.

Common Themes and Subject Matter

Henry David Thoreau’s writing fit right into the 19th century American Romanticism because of his focus on nature and conduct of life. Thoreau interest in nature was apparent in his masterpiece Walden. He lived on Ralph Waldo Emerson's land in a small self made cabin for two years, where he wrote the novel, He put nature as the center of American life and made nature seem a godly force which correlates with common American Romanticism ideals. Thoreau was also interested in why life was so sort and what values should one live their life by. These questions influenced his writing and made him a central figure in New England transcendentalism.

Thoreau also had political views that were motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War. This made him have thoughts that the government should not control the people to strictly and the best type of government is a relaxed one where the people govern themselves. This is reflected in "Resistance to Civil Government". These political views are in line with reforms happening at this time such as abolition and other common thoughts in 19th century American Romanticism.

Major Works

Walden- Thoreau masterpiece was Walden it was published in 1854. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self-reliance. These ideals fit in perfectly into the American Romanticism. The major theme of the book was nature and how it was the center of American life.

The video below has a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, Annette Woodlief, explain Thoreau's Walden.

Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience) - is an essay by Thoreau that was first published in 1849. Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. This essay came around when Thoreau spent a night in jail because he refused to pay taxes that were going to a fund the Mexican- American War.

Henry David Thoreau's Walden: A Lecture by Professor Annette Woodlief