Posthumous Fame Naturalist Henry David Thoreau

About the famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau, biography and history of the man who achieved fame after only death.


HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1817-1862), U.S. naturalist, philosopher

"The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost," spoke Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau's funeral in Concord, Mass. The thorny, Harvard-educated Thoreau, who supported himself by pencil-making, surveying, and tutoring, openly defied the work ethic and conventional morality, though his own character was puritanical in the extreme. At his death, he had authored two obscure books, and his influence extended only to a scattered circle of admirers. His A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), whose publication he paid for out of his own pocket, was a dismal failure: "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself," he recorded. Walden (1854) sold out its first printing of 2,000 by 1859 and has never been out of print since. Probably his most influential work, however, was an essay entitled Resistance to Civil Government, written after he had been jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax to a proslavery government. Retitled Civil Disobedience, it became the classic statement of anarchist political doctrine, which deeply impressed such activists as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thoreau was mainly considered a somewhat eccentric nature writer until the late 1920s, and first wide recognition of his literary and political value came from abroad. The early British Labour party used Walden as a manual. Today his published works number more than 20 volumes, including his 24-year Journal. As a prose stylist, he has few equals in American literature. Yet even Emerson shortsightedly saw Thoreau as an unfulfilled man: "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition . . . instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party."

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