Henry David Thoreau
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Reading Thoreau

Basics | Trends | Nutshells | Online Library

Teachers! More books at Teaching Thoreau. And Click here to read reviews of recent critical studies.

1. What to Read - The Basics

Thoreau's two most striking works have always been Walden and "Civil Disobedience." They represent Thoreau's two sides - individual and social - and they have spoken to every generation. Definitely, read those two. (You can find them online at the Thoreau Reader website - but first, bookmark this page so you can get back here.)

However, Thoreau's two sides have turned into stereotypes that are not true - Thoreau "the Hermit" and Thoreau "the Passive Resister." Actually, Thoreau and his philosophy are far more varied.

Thoreau & Transcendentalism: Then and Now” is the topic of this year's Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society, July 8 – 11, 2010, in Concord. More

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2. Trends in Reading Thoreau

Scholars today are rediscovering the importance of other Thoreau works, and emphasizing new aspects of his life and times. For example:

  • Thoreau's late natural history writings. These are now considered among Thoreau's most important contributions to literature, science, and nature writing. They include "Walking," "Autumnal Tints," "The Dispersion of Seeds," and other lectures and essays.
    • Start with: Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, Island Press paperback, 1996.
  • Thoreau as a scientist. Far from being a scenic "nature writer," Thoreau made observations and formed conclusions using the scientific method (data, hypothesis, conclusion). He was an early reader of Charles Darwin. Among today's scholars, Laura Dassow Walls, Michael Benjamin Berger, and Daniel B. Botkin have examined Thoreau as a man of science.
    • Start with:
      A page in Thoreau's Journal. And then read:

      Laura D. Walls' introduction to Material Faith: Henry David Thoreau on Science (Houghton Mifflin paperback, 1999).

  • 21st Century Tools for Comprehending Thoreau. Moving beyond traditional humanist dualisms and polarities to gain a holistic view of Thoreau's relationship to nature and culture, scholars at a recent conference in Europe proposed a rich assortment of new heuristics and diagnostic tools.

  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This was Thoreau's first published book, unusual for its symbolism and structure, its dissing of Christian institutions, and its many-layered storytelling..
  • Thoreau's lifelong Journal. Thoreau's two-million-word diary was once viewed merely as the sketchbook for more accomplished works. Today it is appreciated in itself - for its unstructured freedom, its many styles, and its modern character.
    • Start with: A Year in Thoreau's Journal: 1851, Penguin Classics, 1993.
    • The Thoreau Project (this web site) always features pages from the Journal.
  • Thoreau's other antislavery writings. "Civil Disobedience" was never Thoreau's final word on resistance against injustice and oppression. He voices an even stronger criticism of America's constituted society in his public addresses "Slavery in Massachusetts," "Life Without Principle," and his defenses of John Brown.
    • Start with: Our summary of scholar Lawrence Rosenfeld's analysis of "Civil Disobedience" (2000)
    • "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad" -- our online fact sheet
    • For further reading, we highly recommend: Sandra H. Petrulionis, To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord (Cornell U. Press, 2006); Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord (U Penn Press, 2009); Janet Kemper Beck, Creating the John Brown Legend (McFarland, 2009).
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  • Thoreau as a contributor to the community. Thoreau swung between his need for solitude and his need for community. In contrast to the "hermit" stereotype, biographers are now emphasizing the professional skills Thoreau exercised as a citizen of Concord - surveyor, civil engineer, and inventor. Even Walden has been viewed - persuasively, too - as a contribution to the "country residence" movement.
    • Start with: Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Knopf paperback, 1999). Chapter 9: "An American Pencil-Making Family" [i.e., the Thoreau family].
    • For further reading: Mary Elkins Moller, Thoreau in the Human Community (U. Mass Press, 1980)
  • Thoreau and Native Americans. The evolution of Thoreau's ideas about American Indians was the subject of thoughtful scholarship in the mid-20th century, and has emerged again as a topic of dispute in this era of multicultural awareness and environmentalism. How much did Thoreau learn - or fail to learn - from the Maine Penobscots?
    • Start with: "The 'Domestic Air' of Wilderness," a groundbreaking article by poet and scholar Tom Lynch (1997) that plunges us into the heart of the matter. It is available online - but first, bookmark this page so you can get back here.
      Continue with: "In the Company of Savagists," an impressive article by Josh Bellin in The Concord Saunterer (2009) critiquing the idealism of a current scholarly trend regarding Thoreau's unpublished "Indian Notebooks."

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  • Thoreau and spirituality. The spiritual side of Thoreau's life is being explored by contemporary scholars. Although Thoreau rejected organized religion, his entire life was nourished by spiritual currents and marked by peak experiences.
    • Alfred I. Tauber (Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing, 2001) views Thoreau as not only longing for union with nature (life in the infinite present) but even trying to move "from an observer to an actor" while united spiritually with the universe.
    • Alan D. Hodder (Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness, 2001) explores Thoreau's writings as reflecting the irreplaceable and indescribable moments of "ecstasy" or oneness with the world.
    • Michael Sperber, (H. D. Thoreau: Cycles and Psyche), 2004) is a sympathetic study of Thoreau's lifelong creative techniques for coping with mood swings.
    • Thoreau's Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, edited by Bradley P. Dean (2004), is an annotated collection of his important correspondence with his spiritual disciple, Harrison Blake. More

      Teachers! More books at Teaching Thoreau.

3. Thoreau Boiled Down

  • If you seek Thoreau in a nutshell - for yourself or students - get the excellent "Spirit of Thoreau" paperback anthologies published by Houghton Mifflin (1999) and sponsored by the Thoreau Society. Each one is filled with copious quotations on one theme, and is edited and introduced by a leading expert. The first three are the best:
  • Elevating Ourselves: Henry David Thoreau on Mountains. Edited by J. Parker Huber.
  • Material Faith: Henry David Thoreau on Science. Edited by Laura Dassow Walls.
  • Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education. Edited by Martin Bickman.
    • Along the same lines, a great sourcebook is A Thoreau Profile, "drawn largely in his own words with 250 pictures," by Milton Meltzer and Walter Harding (1962), reprint (Lincoln, MA: Thoreau Society, 1998). Order this and many other books from the Shop at Walden Pond on-line booklist.

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    4. Virtual Books 

    (Note: many of these links take you off-site. Bookmark this page to make sure you return here.)

  • If you like online reading (or need a handy source for printing customized classroom assignments), start with Richard Lenat's Thoreau Reader.

    Complete online texts (many of them annotated and illustrated) include Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, Civil Disobedience, Life without Principle, Slavery in Massachusetts, and Walking.

    This site is loaded with images, biographical sketches and studies, spoofs, references (including an unabridged Webster's), links to many good Thoreau sites, and excellent teacher/student aids such as the Walden Express.
  • Two world-class sites for online Thoreau texts and related links are walden.org, home of the Walden Woods Project and the Thoreau Institute, and thoreausociety.org, home of the Thoreau Society.

    walden.org also provides Resources for Educators and a searchable Catalog of the Institute's immense library. Here you will find, among many original pieces, Corinne Smith's new research on Thoreau’s journey to Minnesota in the last year of his life.
  • A really huge Thoreau bibliography (although it stops around 1906!) is at bartleby.com, an online bookseller. Another online bookseller operates a "Philosophy Research Database" - go to "19th century."
  • Definitely visit the Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (the "Princeton Edition" website) to experience Thoreau's Correspondence, Handwriting, Manuscripts, and Life & Times, as well as Reflections on Walden, Frequently Asked Questions about Henry, Suggested Further Reading (seven bibliographies), and links to other Thoreau sites.
  • Click here to read selected reviews of 21st-century critical studies.
  • Read Thoreau's Natural History of Massachusetts, (1842), his first major prose work, online.
  • "Concord Writers on the Web" - Links to texts by & about Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcotts, provided by the town of Concord.
  • The late conservation activist Stephen Ells published superb natural history bibliographies; profiles of many locations in "Thoreau country"; an appreciation of the 1896 edition of Thoreau's "Cape Cod" with sketches by Amelia Watson; and much more. (Ells's Personal Home Page is worth your visit.)
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    Updated Feb. 20, 2010