This Day In Literary History
On July 12th, 1817, the legendary American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts. The Thoreau family had their own business - a pencil factory founded by Henry's grandfather.
Henry David Thoreau graduated from Harvard University in 1837. According to legend, his first act of rebellion was refusing to buy one of the honorary Master's degrees that Harvard would bestow on its graduates.
To receive one of these degrees, one would give a $5 (the equivalent of $95 in today's money) donation to the university. It was a long held tradition that graduates bought these worthless degrees.
At the time of Thoreau's graduation, the employment opportunities for college graduates were typically limited to business, medicine, and the church. None of these interested Thoreau.
He became a schoolteacher, but his first teaching job only lasted three weeks. He resigned in disgust rather than carry out his superiors' order to administer corporal punishment to his students.
Thoreau and his brother John then founded their own school. It was a progressive elementary school where they introduced a new, then revolutionary activity to their educational curriculum - the field trip.
Students would partake in everything from nature hikes to visits to local shops and businesses and see the real world in action. Sadly, the school would close in four years, following the sudden death of John Thoreau from tetanus.
When he wasn't running the school with his brother, Henry David Thoreau spent time with legendary poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had become not only his close friend, but also his literary mentor and father figure.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was a ferocious abolitionist and had no use for organized religion. He followed Emerson's Transcendentalist philosophy. When he became fascinated with his idol's practice of keeping a journal, Emerson encouraged him to keep a journal of his own.
After Thoreau lost his brother and closed their school, he tried to begin a literary career. With Emerson's encouragement and assistance, he began publishing essays, poems, and journal excerpts.
For a time, he lived with Emerson, tutored his children, and served as his assistant, editor, gardener, and handyman. Later, he worked at his family's pencil factory, where he perfected a graphite recycling process.
Thoreau would make good pencils from inferior, reject graphite by using clay as a binder. He would later produce plumbago at the factory - a type of graphite used for typesetting machine ink.
By the spring of 1845, after a period of restlessness, Thoreau decided to write full time. To do this, he required solitude, a quiet place away from the rest of the world.
He began an experiment in simple living, building a cabin on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson near Walden Pond, a beautiful wilderness that would inspire him to write his most famous book.
The following year, Thoreau ran afoul of the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who demanded that he pay six years of back poll taxes. The poll tax was a tax one paid for the privilege of voting in federal elections.
Some state and local governments imposed additional poll taxes for their elections. The poll tax was hugely controversial; it took away the voting rights of poor people who couldn't afford to pay the tax.
It was another way for the wealthy elite to maintain their power and oppress the working class. After the Civil War, the Southern states imposed steep poll taxes to prevent freed blacks from voting. The poll tax wouldn't be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1937.
Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes for a different reason: he refused to pay any taxes to support a federal government that allowed slavery to remain legal. He also refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War.
That unpopular conflict, which took place from 1846-1848, was instigated by President James K. Polk and fought to allow Americans to expand into the West. We wanted land that belonged to Mexico, so we decided to take it by force.
War was declared on Mexico, bolstered by a recent, successful armed insurrection by American settlers living in a Mexican territory that would become the state of Texas. The insurrection was waged so the settlers could keep both their stolen land and slaves to work it. The Mexican government had banned slavery.
During the Mexican-American War, heavy American casualties and the skyrocketing cost of the conflict drove the government to sign an armistice with Mexico which called for certain territories to be sold to the United States.
These territories, which would become the states of New Mexico and California, were turned over to the United States in exchange for $18 million (the equivalent of $450 million in today's money) and the forgiveness of all Mexico's debts.
For Henry David Thoreau and other abolitionists, achieving the goals of the Mexican-American War meant that the new territories would be built on the backs of slaves. This is why Thoreau refused to pay his taxes.
He was taken to jail, but released a day later when his aunt paid his taxes, which infuriated him. The entire ordeal would change Thoreau forever. He would develop an anarchist philosophy of which he would become a noted and popular lecturer.
In January of 1848, Thoreau gave a lecture at the Concord Lyceum that was attended by writer and philosopher Bronson Alcott, the father of legendary writer Louisa May Alcott.
Bronson wrote that he "took great pleasure" in Thoreau's lecture. Thoreau would become a close friend of the Alcott family. He would also rework his lecture material into a classic essay, Civil Disobedience.
Civil Disobedience (1849) was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley's classic political poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819) and by Thoreau's anger at legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act was a Congressional compromise to appease the South. It prohibited all people - even those living in free states - from helping runaway slaves. Thoreau opined:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her,– the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.
If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.
When he wasn't lecturing or doing odd jobs to pay his bills, Henry David Thoreau lived in his beloved wilderness, kept up his journal, and worked on the book that he would become most famous for.
Walden, or Living in the Wilderness (1854) was a memoir of the two years that Thoreau spent living in his cabin in a wilderness located about two miles away from his family home.
The purpose of his experiment was to see if he could live a simple life under minimal conditions and away from what he called "over-civilization." He did not, however, intend to become a hermit. He received many visitors and would leave his cabin to make visits of his own. He summed up his objectives this way:
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 so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Steeped deep in philosophy, spirituality, and satire, and featuring some of the finest writings about nature, Walden became an all-time classic nonfiction book. The legendary poet Robert Frost said of it, "In one book... [Thoreau] surpasses everything we have had in America."
The experience would kindle within Thoreau lifelong interests in natural history and botany. He came to admire the work of naturalists William Bartram and Charles Darwin.
Henry David Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835. Amazingly, the disease would come and go, and he suffered from it only sporadically. This enabled him to conduct his Walden experiment.
Unfortunately, in 1859, after getting caught in a rainstorm one night, Thoreau contracted a bad case of bronchitis which brought his tuberculosis back with a vengeance. His health began to decline until he was bedridden.
Realizing that he was dying, Thoreau spent his last years revising unpublished manuscripts, writing letters, and keeping up his journal until he was too weak to do so.
Henry David Thoreau died in May of 1862 at the age of 44. His old friend Bronson Alcott planned the funeral service. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the eulogy.
Quote Of The Day
"Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience." - Henry David Thoreau
Today's video features a complete reading of Henry David Thoreau's most famous book, Walden. Enjoy!