Henry David Thoreau

By: Mark Kingwell
July 12, 2015

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The too-short life of HENRY DAVID THOREAU (born David Henry, 1817–62) was so crammed with writing, travelling, and politicking that his exceptional talent for idling is at risk of loss. Nathaniel Hawthorne said that he “repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men”; Robert Louis Stevenson called him a “skulker” given to “womanish solitude.” Thoreau completed a Harvard degree and worked on and off at the family pencil factory in Concord, but he was by nature a gypsy scholar, an itinerant natural philosopher whose works of genius are driven by seclusion both forced and self-imposed. Civil Disobedience (1849), composed after his imprisonment for refusing to pay taxes financing the Mexican-American War, sketches a casual anarchism that would inspire generations of non-violent resisters including Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Walden (1854), that deathless, detailed account of his two years living alone in a hut near Walden Pond, offers a sometimes riveting, sometimes punishing, exercise in self-awareness. It is a book that John Updike said “risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” But it must be read, to savour the blessings of individual consciousness, the essential choice “to live deliberately.” Thoreau wrote verse and prose in profusion, enjoyed canoeing, and enjoyed an imagination as big as the continent; his last words are said to have been “moose” and “Indian.” No life of quiet desperation for him.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: R. Buckminster Fuller, Pablo Neruda, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven.

READ MORE about members of the Retrogressivist Generation (1815–24).

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HiLo Heroes, Philosophy

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