Thoreau, Man of Concord

Thoreau, Man of Concord

Thoreau, Man of Concord

Thoreau, Man of Concord

Excerpt

People seldom react to Henry David Thoreau mildly. For a century his writings have been a center of controversy, with his partisans ardently hailing him as the major American writer and their opponents vehemently denouncing him as a second-rate imitator of Emerson. To some, his philosophy of simplicity offers the only antidote to the evils of modern civilization; to others, his ideas seem nothing more than a reversion to primitivism and a negation of the hard-won victories of man in his battle against his environment.

Here, however, we are going to deal only in part with Thoreau's ideas. We will concentrate chiefly on Thoreau the man. And here again we find him a center of controversy. His contemporaries reacted no less violently to Thoreau as a person than our contemporaries do today to his ideas. In fact, so violently did they react that their descendants in Concord, Massachusetts, his home town, today-- a century later--are still debating his personality as though he were still alive. I know of one dear old lady who once each year makes a pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord where Thoreau is buried, and there, after laying wreaths of flowers on the nearby graves of Emerson and Hawthorne, turns to Thoreau's grave, and shaking her fist, says, "None for you, you dirty little atheist." In direct contrast is the Concord librarian who each day, as soon as the library is opened, sets out on a pedestal Thoreau's journal opened to the entry for a century ago that day for all the patrons of the library to read.

Because his contemporaries reacted so violently to Thoreau, they often took particular pains to write down their opinions. Thus, despite the fact that Thoreau never in his lifetime achieved anything approaching national or international prominence, as did for example his neighbors and friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, nonetheless, upon searching the records--the journals, diaries, letters, autobiographies, memoirs, and even the newspapers of Thoreau's day--we are able to find a large body of contemporary . . .

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