Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalist MovementThis is a featured page

Portrait of Thoreau Biography

Henry David Thoreau was a great American author who excelled in poetry, prose, and philosophical reasoning. Born in 1817, Henry David Thoreau began his life in Concord, Massachusetts. Living in the picturesque countryside, Thoreau was intrigued by the magnitude of nature at a young age. After attending school at Concord Academy and Harvard, Thoreau channeled his efforts into his career as a schoolteacher as well as helping with the family business. Thoreau was labeled at a young age as an individual and an unconventional scholar, pioneering a new way of thinking. Along with poets Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley, Thoreau began meetings with this group, known as the Transcendentalist Club.

The Transcendentalist Movement

Pioneering ideas of freedom, religion, and spirituality, the Transcendentalist movement in Literature took its first steps. As a historical movement, Transcendentalism began in the mid 1830’s and lasted through the late a 1840’s, but its effects on American culture resonated for years and years after. The beginning of Transcendentalism as a whole was rooted in opposition to the Unitarian church. According to “An Overview of American Transcendentalism” by Martin Bickman, "Beginning as a quarrel within the Unitarian church, Transcendentalism's questioning of established cultural forms, its urge to reintegrate spirit and matter, its desire to turn ideas into concrete action developed a momentum of its own, spreading from the spheres of religion and education to literature, philosophy, and social reform. While Transcendentalism's ambivalence about any communal effort that would compromise individual integrity prevented it from creating lasting institutions, it helped set the terms for being an intellectual in America."

The Transcendentalist poets were a new generation of authors that sought to break away from the traditional way of thinking that was present during the time. During the period of Enlightenment in American History, new ways of rational thinking were presented and individual self-reliance was a newly talked about and acknowledged concept in society. The Transcendentalists embraced freedom, knowledge, truth, and social reform. Taking part in movements such as women’s rights and the abolitionist movement, Transcendentalists believed that every individual had divine inspiration. The movement is summed up perfectly by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

Effects and Influences of the Movement

The Transcendentalist Movement and ideas permeated into other areas of expression besides literature, as revolutionary ways of thinking took root. The Transcendentalist period was represented in artwork such as Regis Francois Gignoux’s “Indian Summer." Like Gignoux, during this time period many artists began painting landscape and nature in a realistic manner. The movement also had lasting impact on American culture and literature. Authors such as Sinclair Lewis and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others, were greatly influenced by Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement as a whole.

Walden Pond
A Brief Look at Thoreau's Works

The majority of Henry David Thoreau’s work that is studied today is prose, although the author considered himself a poet. From works on social ideas to praising nature, Thoreau was a master at his craft. A major compilation of Thoreau’s is “Walden,” a collection of many works. Walden Pond was a place where Thoreau spent two years in a small cottage “living deep and sucking out the marrow of all life.” Writing and devoting his time to nature, Thoreau created a detailed journal of all his time at Walden Pond. One passage in this compilation “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau says, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." “Walden” seeks to point out how important simplicity in life is, and Thoreau tried to steer away from materialistic goods. In "Walden" Thoreau says, "Our life is frittered away by detail." In regards to our lives, he also stresses that we need to, "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

Another prominent work of Thoreau’s is “Civil Disobedience.” This essay concentrates on individual responsibility and actions when government laws are wrong and unjust. The aggressive tone in which Thoreau wrote the essay has stirred emotions and action into many individuals that have experienced or have witnessed injustice in society. According to http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil.html , "Civil Disobedience” has more history than many suspect. In the 1940's it was read by the Danish resistance, in the 1950's it was cherished by people who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960's it was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970's it was discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists. The lesson learned from all this experience is that Thoreau's ideas really do work, just as he imagined they would.” Thoreau wrote this piece after he was put in jail for not paying his taxes, which he rebelled against because the money supported slavery. Thoreau asks individuals to speak out against injustices caused by governing power. These very ideas influenced the teachings of prominent figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Gandhi, “His essay has been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable." It is evident that Thoreau and his works have had a lasting impact on literature and society.

Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalist Movement - IntertextualityConclusion

Henry David Thoreau truly broke new ground in the literary and philosophical world. As an author he wrote masterfully, and as a philosopher he developed a sufficient moral code. He championed freedom and equality for all individuals. He influenced the thinking of authors, political figures, social activists, as well as many other individuals. He was a true individualist, and the world is a richer place because of his unique and masterful works. As a close friend of Thoreau’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

"He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh; he drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature.... No truer American existed than Thoreau."

Works Cited

Bickman, Martin. "An Overview of American Transcendentalism." American Transcendentalism Web. 3 May 2007.

"Henry David Thoreau." Academy of American Poets. May 3, 2007.

"Indian Summer by Regis Francois Gignoux." AllPosters.com. May 3, 2007

McElroy, Wendy. "Henry Thoreau and 'Civil Disobedience.'" July 30, 2005.

"Outwardly Simple, and Inwardly Rich." Teekampagne. May 3, 2007

"Transcendentalists." May 3, 2007.

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