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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Thoreau, Henry David

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THOREAU, thō′rō, Henry David, American “poet-naturalist”: b. Concord, Mass., 12 July 1817; d. there, 6 May 1862. He was graduated at Harvard in 1837 and began in that year the copious journal with which in 1850-60 he filled 30 manuscript volumes, did some teaching at Concord and on Staten Island, N. Y., appeared occasionally as a lyceum lecturer in Concord and other New England towns that chanced to call him, and, until his death, practised at intervals and with great skill his art of pencil-manufacture, making, Emerson said, as good an article as the best English. In 1839 he took the excursion recorded in ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers,’ which was published in 1849 in an edition of 1,000; the return of 700 as unsalable (1853) afforded him the humorous boast that he had now a fair-sized library all of his own writing. In the course of the voyage there are many phases for speculation and opinion, the result being less a narrative than a collection of essays and discussions. Chiefly for the preparation of this work, but also to undertake an experiment in simplicity of living, and to have opportunity for his observation of wild nature, he lived alone, in a house built by himself, from July 1845 to September 1847, at Walden Pond, not far from Concord village. There, too, he wrote several, of his papers and gathered material for his ‘Walden, or Life in the Woods’ (1854), the best known and probably the most nearly classic of his books. After this episode, which some folk professed to think very odd, “he preferred,” says Emerson, “short work,” building boats, grafting, surveying and other odd jobs, writing meanwhile for current periodicals. In 1846, 1853 and 1857 he went to the Maine woods, and his accounts, partially printed in magazines in his lifetime, were posthumously collected in book form, constituting what is perhaps, after ‘Walden,’ his most interesting work. Other jaunts to Cape Cod (1849) and Canada (1850) were also described. The titles of these posthumous volumes are ‘Excursions’ (1863); ‘The Maine Woods’ (1864); ‘Cape Cod’ (1865); ‘Early Spring, in Massachusetts’ (1881); ‘Summer’ (1884); ‘Winter’ (1888); ‘Autumn’ (1892); ‘Miscellanies’ (1894); ‘The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau, lately discovered among his unpublished Journals and Manuscripts,’ edited by Sanborn (Boston 1905). He refused in 1841 to pay taxes to a government concerned in slavery and war, and was jailed for a few hours. He was said to have aided the escape of fugitive slaves when at Walden. At any rate he sounded the bell to announce Emerson's first anti-slavery address at Concord, and on 30 Oct. 1859 made there a bold public defense of John Brown, later repeated in Boston. As a scientist, it is said that he made few discoveries. His exact knowledge in this domain, however, was gained at first hand; his works abound in interesting observation and fragments of natural history; notwithstanding that when he came to report nature he seems to have valued it largely for what it interpreted to him. He was much of a poet, but lacked metrical facility, and wrote little. Some of his work in verse, such as ‘Smoke,’ which Emerson thought finer than anything of Simonides, is of a high order. In prose, despite exaggerations and other rhetorical defects, he attained greater certainty of expression. Throughout his writings there is a tonic quality which may in part arise from what John Burroughs, the chief later representative of the school of literary naturalists which Thoreau inaugurated, calls his “stimulating contrariness.” The 20th century has brought a greater appreciation of Thoreau, especially of his prose works, which now appear destined to outlive those of his contemporaries. (See Walden). There is a ‘Riverside’ complete edition (1893); an edition of the ‘Letters’ by Sanborn (1894). A complete edition appeared in 1906. Consult also Channing, W. E., ‘Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist’ (1873; new ed., 1902); Sanborn's ‘Life’ (‘American Men of Letters Series,’ 1882); the ‘Lives’ by Page (1877) and Salt (1890; 1896); Japp, A. H, ‘Thoreau: His Life and Aims’ (Boston 1877); Marble, A. R., ‘Thoreau: His Home, Friends and Books’ (New York 1902); More, P. E., ‘Shelburne Essays, First and Fifth Series’ (New York 1907-08); Payne, W. M., ‘Leading American Essayists’ (New York 1910); Rickett, A., ‘The Vagabond in Literature’ (New York 1906); Sanborn, Frank B., ‘A Life of Henry D. Thoreau’ (New York 1916); Torrey, Bradford, ‘Friends on the Shelf’ (Boston 1906); an essay by Burroughs in ‘Literary Values’ (1903), and also lives of Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott and Hawthorne.