You may have known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist, and merely pitied or despised him, and despaired of the world; but the sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world, and you meet him at some serene work, and see how his exhausted and debauched veins expand with still joy and bless the new day, feel the spring influence with the innocence of infancy, and all his faults are forgotten. There is not only an atmosphere of good will about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for expression, blindly and ineffectually perhaps, like a new-born instinct, and for a short hour the south hill-side echoes to no vulgar jest. You see some innocent fair shoots preparing to burst from his gnarled rind and try another year's life, tender and fresh as the youngest plant. Even he has entered into the joy of his Lord. Why the jailer does not leave open his prison doors�why the judge does not dismiss his case�why the preacher does not dismiss his congregation! It is because they do not obey the hint which God gives them, nor accept the pardon which he freely offers to all.
--from Walden, "Spring"

Daguerreotype of Thoreau, age 39
Courtesy of The Thoreau Society, Lincoln, Mass.



Student Permission to Quote  |  Note to Teachers

Click to learn...

Who he was

Why he matters

When he lived

What he wrote

Best Web sites


Thoreau's Environmental Ethos was the topic of the Thoreau Society�s 2011 Annual Gathering in Concord, July

Start by reading:

"Why has every man a conscience then?" (Civil Disobedience)


Read about the 2009 "Modernities" Conference
on this web site: Click here.


Read about the 2011 Annual Gathering (July 7-10)
on the Thoreau Society Web Site




Who was Thoreau, and why does he matter?

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) exerted a profound, enduring influence on American thought and letters. His famous experiment in living close to nature, and his equally famous night in jail to protest an inhuman institution and an unjust war, are distilled in his best known works, Walden and "Civil Disobedience."

Thoreau's elevation of conscientious integrity in an era of social conformism, his passionate opposition to the institutional degradation of human life and values, and his enduring literary production as an author, public speaker, and natural scientist - all expressed in a distinctive prose style at once classic and personal - place him at the heart of the era we call the American Renaissance.

Almost buried beneath the weight of Thoreau's status as a literary classic and popular icon is an extraordinary wealth of thought and insight for people today. The philosopher Stanley Cavell writes that Thoreau's achievement "is still, if one can imagine it, not fully recognized." And literary scholar Lawrence Buell predicts Thoreau will be "an even more luminous and inspirational figure in the 21st century than he has been in the twentieth."

Henry David Thoreau was...

1. A philosopher and creative artist. Of the inspired intellectuals he lived among and worked with - his elder friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, his sometime editor Margaret Fuller, his fireside companions Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne among others - Thoreau was second to none in dedicating his life, skills, and classical learning to the Emersonian call for the creation of an original American literature and philosophy, in an era when "writer" was not yet a specialized profession.

  • Thoreau's retreat to Walden was not the misanthropic withdrawal that is too often pictured; it was motivated by the urgent need to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," just as he writes in Walden. And the book that resulted, far from being a straightforward chronicle, is the work of a literary artist - a multi-layered, orchestrated text alive with wordplay and humor.

2. A founder of environmentalism. Thoreau dedicated his life to the exploration of nature - not as a backdrop to human activity but as a living, integrated system of which you and I are simply a part. He became an expert on wildlife and an experienced botanist. In his later work, Thoreau explored "the economy of nature" (today known as ecology). He theorized about the dispersion of plants, read Darwin's Origin of Species soon after it was published, and became a pioneer voice of today's urgent moral-environmental concerns.

3. A scientific originator. He was a skilled engineer, surveyor and inventor. He created the modern pencil by introducing clay into the manufacture of graphite (pencil "lead"). His "nature writing" progressed from the poetic symbolism of Walden to the scientific method in his later journals: (1) observation and information-gathering; (2) stating a hypothesis; (3) verifying the hypothesis with testing.

4. An antislavery activist. Despite his deep-rooted individualism, Thoreau was readily moved to activism against injustice. In the 1850s he was a risk-taker on the underground railroad, and an outspoken defender even of extremism to defeat proslavery forces in a divided America. "Henry Thoreau more often than any other man in Concord" looked after the underground railroad's night passengers in Concord, another activist recalled.

  • The well-known essay "Civil Disobedience" was never Thoreau's final word on resistance against injustice and oppression. His strongest critique of America's constituted society lay in his subsequent public addresses "Slavery in Massachusetts," "Life Without Principle," and his defenses of John Brown.

5. A contributor to community life. Remembered personally for his perennial humor, love of music, and easy way with children, Thoreau was a busy, committed member of his family and community - caring for loved ones, improving the family business (pencil-making and graphite processing), surveying property, innovating as an educator during his brief, stormy employment in Concord's one-room schoolhouse and later at the alternative school he ran with his brother. He contributed to "continuing education," as we call it today, by booking lecturers for the public Lyceum.

6. A restless river that ran deep. Not only high-minded principle but a deep-running emotional life nourished Thoreau's art and prompted his actions. He filled a lifelong Journal -- thousands of pages -- with feelings as well as factual observations. (See A Page in Thoreau's Journal.) Thoreau's Journal was fully published only in the twentieth century and is now recognized as a brilliant work in its own right.

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) this page -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows:

Calliope Film Resources. "Henry David Thoreau." Copyright CFR.  
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

Teachers! Thoreau is your gateway to the "American Renaissance," the Transcendentalists, environmental science, the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War... and key figures and episodes in African American history. Use these Thoreau pages and links provided by Calliope to enhance your curriculum.