Critics & Crusaders: A Century of American Protest

By Charles A. Madison | Go to book overview

HENRY DAVID THOREAU
TRANSCENDENTAL INDIVIDUALIST

PERHAPS no other major writer has concerned himself so consciously and so effectively as Henry David Thoreau with the ever-pressing problem of how one might earn a living and yet remain free. This is understandable: poverty abetted principle in accentuating his keen yearning for the full life. The son of an unsuccessful pencil-maker, he discovered quite early in life that most men cannot provide for their daily needs without giving up what seemed to him the better part of themselves. Concord born and bred, of a rebellious, reflective nature, an earnest admirer and later an intimate friend of Emerson, he was readily influenced by the ideals of transcendentalism which had become current during his adolescence. While still a student at Harvard he underwent a spiritual revolution after reading Emerson essay on "Nature.""In the woods is perpetual youth," he read. "Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith." After this exhilarating vision, college studies became even more barren and fatuous than before. He longed to become a guest at nature's festival, to take to the woods rather than follow his classmates in the beaten groove of custom.

It was easier to dream than to do. When Thoreau graduated from Harvard College in 1837 he had to begin earning his living and so became a teacher in the Concord public school. After a fortnight, however, he resigned rather than submit to the school committee's

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