Today marks the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth. We offer a snapshot of this extraordinary individual and his influence on natural history and American literature.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
So wrote Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his most famous published work, which has become a staple in high school reading lists all across America. The basis of Walden began in July 1845 when Thoreau decided to live in the woods at Walden Pond to find meaning in nature and to understand the human soul. For two years, Thoreau lived in solitude and recorded his observations of his natural surroundings. He advocated for people to move away from urbanized, industrialized areas, which coerced humans to obsess over economic prosperity and where overpopulation stripped Mother Nature of her resources.
But Thoreau was considered an oddity of his day, even to those who supported his ideas. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and mentor, admitted that he loved Thoreau but did not like him much. It was true: Thoreau did not care for socializing in groups, and he was known for being prickly in nature and an extreme idealist. Yet out of such a difficult man came a great wealth of knowledge, insight, and a fervent celebration of the natural world, as well as praise to those conscious individuals who dared to live in concert with it. Thoreau’s wisdom was born out of his revelry for solitude. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote in Walden. “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Although Thoreau did not experience fame in his lifetime, his published works on nature and simple living would have a fundamental influence on writers, scientists and philosophers in the next century and beyond. He is hailed as a pioneer of the modern-day conservation movement and a thought leader on existential and pragmatic philosophies. He is also famous for his ideas on individualism, civil disobedience and his ardent dedication to the abolitionist movement. In total Thoreau wrote over 20 volumes of books, poetry, essays and the like before his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 44.