September 6, 2011
On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau decided it was time to be alone. He settled in a forest on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and built himself a tiny cabin. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he famously wrote in Walden. This work–along with Civil Disobedience, also inspired by his time at the pond–would go on to become one of the most influential writings in American history, sparking political movements from abolitionism to environmentalism to civil rights. After two years, two months, and two days in relative solitude, Thoreau left his post on this day in 1847.
“It’s really the most famous vacation in American history,” says David Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “What he did in the book was he took those two years of experiences and condensed them into a work of art.”
For one of the country’s most celebrated writers and philosophers, Thoreau came from humble beginnings. “His father was a pencil maker, and wasn’t doing very well,” Ward says. But he was discovered to be gifted at an early age, and his parents scraped together enough money to send him to private schools, including Harvard, where he read voraciously and excelled academically. After graduating, Thoreau drifted between several different teaching posts before becoming immersed in the transcendentalist movement, finding himself a mentor in its leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Emerson and Thoreau had a kind of relationship where Emerson took him under his wing and guided him,” says Ward. “He starts to write and Emerson recognizes his talent.” In part because of Emerson’s prodding, Thoreau began keeping a journal and submitting his writing to the magazine Dial. As his intellectual development continued, he lived with and worked for Emerson, branching out into new genres. “He stopped writing poetry and started writing about his personal experiences,” Ward says. “You could almost call it intellectual journalism”
Eventually, finding himself restless and in need of inspiration, Thoreau decided to carve out a new life in nature. “He wanted to get away from the rat race of manufacturing and commerce,” Ward says. Embarking on his now-famous experiment in living simply, he did his best to survive without money, growing crops and foraging what he could from the forest at Walden Pond. But, contrary to popular belief, Thoreau’s exile was not intended as a complete escape from society. “The point was for him to cultivate himself, not cultivate some sort of alternative to America,” says Ward. “He stays involved with society. What he’s trying to do is reform it, not run away from it.”
The most notorious episode of his time at Walden Pond was the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay poll taxes. He felt that providing support to the government would indicate that he condoned all of its actions, including the Mexican American War, which could have potentially spread slavery westward. This experience became the core of the ideas in the essay Resistance to Civil Government, commonly known as Civil Disobedience. “Metaphorically, Thoreau is living alone because he’s morally living alone, he’s relying only on his own conscience,” Ward says. “Which is the point of civil disobedience–that one man alone, by making a statement of conscience, can overturn a corrupt government.”
This concept, along with others expressed in his later work Walden, were enormously radical for their time. “It was a very radical statement of American individualism, which at that point, in the 1840s and 50s, was not the norm,” Ward says. Thoreau’s support of John Brown, the abolitionist who openly advocated the use of force in ending slavery, made him something of a fringe figure. “As America considered the slavery question, from the 1840s on, Thoreau was staking out the most radical position,” says Ward.
But decades and even centuries later, the impact of his words would be distinctly felt throughout society. Civil Disobedience, in particular, has been cited by leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as an inspiration for their social movements. In Walden and elsewhere, many see the seeds of the modern environmentalist movement, years ahead of their time. “He does really spark the idea of nature as something that needs to be protected,” Ward says. “Very early on, he got the idea that the division of labor, and commerce, and making and spending might have detrimental effects on both individuals and society.”
After living simply at Walden Pond, Thoreau went on to travel widely as an amateur naturalist, writing prolifically. Very few photos of him remain, but one, a small daguerreotype from 1956, is in the Portrait Gallery’s collection. It was made, in typically Thoreau-ian fashion, frugally. “A reader sent him a $5 bill and said he admired his work so much, he’d like a photograph to go with the book,” Ward says. “Thoreau went into town, went to the daguerreotyper, and had this small daguerreotype taken, probably the cheapest variety you could have made. He sent it and the change back to this man in Ohio.”
Today, Thoreau’s influence in American culture is unmistakable. Ironically, this stems from the fact that he was content to think on his own terms, at times completely outside of society. “He seems a very solitary and self-contained man,” Ward says. “But he’s not by any means a hermit, or a crank. He was very sociable and good-humored and involved in the world, it’s just that his slant on it was very different from others.”
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