Henry David Thoreau was an American Transcendentalist, naturalist, and political activist most famous for his book Walden and essay "Civil Disobedience".
Henry David Thoreau was a nineteenth century American Transcendentalist best known for his essay “Civil Disobedience” and his later novel Walden. A writer, philosopher, naturalist, and abolitionist, Thoreau lived according to strict moral principles and attempted to simplify his life by living in harmony with nature and the dictates of his individual conscience.
Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau graduated from Harvard University at twenty, but struggled to find a suitable career. Throughout his life, he worked as a teacher, writer, inventor, surveyor, lecturer, and employee in his father’s pencil factory. His friendship with the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson strongly influenced his thinking and inspired him to redirect his life. Convinced that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he sought to shake off the shackles of convention by reversing tradition and working only one day a week. This led to his famous experiment in which he spent two years living in solitude on Walden Pond.
On Walden Pond, Thoreau lived out his Transcendentalist ideas, believing that man’s spiritual identity transcended material existence. He lived an ascetic life and rejected meat, alcohol, tobacco, sensuality, and music. Instead, he focused on the life of the mind and his close connection with nature. Thoreau also had scientific interests and kept detailed records of the flora and fauna he observed around Concord. Writing about his experience in Walden, Thoreau encouraged his readers to “live deliberately” and advised that “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”. Thoreau’s theme of self-confidence was reinforced by his essay “Civil Disobedience” in which he recounts his time spent in jail after refusing to pay a poll tax that helped finance the pro-slavery goals of the Mexican-American War. Although modern familiarity with his work is often reduced to a few famous adages, Thoreau’s radical ideas of individualism have strongly influenced Americans over the years. Today, we find traces of his philosophy in American spirituality, environmentalism, and political thought.
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