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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
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.
& Transcendentalism: Then and Now” is the topic of this year's Annual Gathering of
the Thoreau Society, July 8 – 11, 2010, in Concord.
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
- 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,
- 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
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
- Start with: Our summary of scholar Lawrence Rosenfeld's analysis
of "Civil Disobedience" (2000)
- "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground
Railroad" -- our online fact
- For further reading, we
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
- 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
- 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
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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
- Michael Sperber,
(H. D. Thoreau: Cycles and Psyche),
2004) is a sympathetic study of Thoreau's lifelong creative techniques for
coping with mood swings.
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
More books at Teaching
3. Thoreau Boiled Down
Elevating Ourselves: Henry David Thoreau
on Mountains. Edited by J.
Material Faith: Henry David Thoreau on
Science. Edited by Laura Dassow
Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau
on Education. Edited by Martin
- 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
- 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
at Walden Pond on-line booklist.
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4. Virtual Books
many of these links take you off-site. Bookmark this page to make sure you
If you like online reading (or need a handy source for printing
customized classroom assignments), start with Richard Lenat's
Complete online texts (many of them annotated and illustrated) include
The Maine Woods,
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
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.
also provides Resources
and a searchable Catalog of the Institute's immense library.
Here you will find, among many original pieces, Corinne Smith's new research
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
Database" - go to "19th century."
Definitely visit the
Writings of Henry D. Thoreau
(the "Princeton Edition" website) to experience Thoreau's Correspondence,
Manuscripts, and Life & Times, as well as
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,
Writers on the Web" - Links to texts by & about
Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcotts, provided by the town of Concord.
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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