With their call for "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”, for self-honesty, and for harmony with nature, the writings of Henry David Thoreau are perhaps the most influential philosophical works in all American literature. The selections in this volume represent Thoreau at his best. Included in their entirety are Walden, his indisputable masterpiece, and his two great arguments for nonconformity, Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle. A lifetime of brilliant observation of nature--and of himself--is recorded in selections from A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods and The Journal.
Walden - This book in particular is often cited as one of the origins of the environmentalist movement. What struck me from the beginning is that Thoreau's a truly impressive writer. I was often entranced by the sheer beauty of the prose even when he was expressing ideas antithetical to my worldview. Frequently I'd come across familiar lines such as the "mass of men live lives of quiet desperation" and "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps he hears a different drummer." And how can I not appreciate his "Reading" chapter with its lyrical praise of books? The first chapter though, "Economies," often had me lifting a cynical brow. His mantra in the book is simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! And though I can see his point about the futility of yearning after many superfluous things just because they're in fashion, some of his encomiums on his frugality... Well, he's at his worst in the "Baker Farm" chapter where he lectured this poor hard-working Irish immigrant with several children on how he should live. Given Thoreau was squatting on Emerson's land and bringing his laundry home to his mother, it sounded like this guy ranting about how to make ends meet while he's living in his parent's basement rent-free. And all his talk about self-sufficiency and living the natural way? As much as we take such objects for granted today, such things as Thoreau used to make his cabin such as panes of glass, nails, screws, planks, are products of specialization and even industrialization--at least produced cheaply for use of the ordinary men, and I could wish that Thoreau would, if not appreciate that, acknowledge it. I don't resonate with a lot of the book's messages--and was at times bored with Thoreau's lengthy rhapsodies on nature. There's definitely gorgeous writing and food for thought here nevertheless. If you'd call yourself an environmentalist or naturalist I think that's worth adding at least an additional star in rating. 298 pages Four Stars
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers - A travelogue of Thoreau's travels on the river with his brother. I've read claims this is second only to Walden in importance among Thoreau's works. I think if you loved Walden, and I mean loved it and you can't get enough Thoreau, by all means read this and the others below--especially if you love Nature studies studded with loads of classical allusions. That said, even though some parts bored me, other parts definitely were worth the read. Especially the chapter "Atlantides" dealing with friendship that featured the line: "It takes two to speak the truth,--one to speak and another to hear." I loved the discussion of Chaucer too. One where I liked the digressions more than the main narrative. 138 pages Three and a Half Stars
Cape Cod - My edition included four of the chapters. The first chapter, "The Shipwreck" was interesting for it's depiction of tragedy but then subverts the seeming compassion of the account in a disconcerting way. "The Wellfleet Oysterman" is interesting for it's title character--an elderly man who can remember the Revolutionary War. "The Highland Light" and "Provincetown" is vintage Thoreau--in other words, I at times found myself bored. 66 pages Two and a Half Stars
The Allegash and East Branch - The final of three essays collected in The Maine Woods. Definitely for those nature groupies who loved all that stuff about the loons and the ants on Walden or just like to revel in a bit of 19th century history. I skimmed. A lot. 92 pages One and a Half Stars
Walking - Thoreau's ode to walking. Reading it I couldn't help but think of a book by Rory Stewart I recently read. The Places in Between recounts Stewart's 22 month walk across Afghanistan beginning weeks after the Taliban fell. Thoreau walks to commune with Nature (definitely with a capital "N.") Stewart to understand the people. I prefer Stewart. 38 pages Two Stars
On Civil Disobedience - This is an enormously influential and eloquent essay. Gandhi said of it that, "It left a deep impression on me" and Martin Luther King also was influenced by it. It doesn't always make for comfortable reading. In its main thrust it seems to support anarchy. I think there's a difference between civil disobedience against a specific unjust law or institution, such as the boycott of the segregated Montgomery buses, or even refusal to fight in what you believe is an unjust war, and to do as Thoreau suggests and refuse to pay taxes altogether. To refuse to pay taxes (unless a specific tax itself or what it specifically is earmarked for is inherently unjust) is to protest government itself, and I'm not quite willing to go that far. Because if the test as to whether I have a moral imperative to refuse to pay taxes is whether I agree with everything the government does, then I can't imagine any government on Earth meeting that standard--for anyone. For a libertarian the issue might be the drug war, a liberal the latest military intervention abroad and for a conservative abortion. And again, it's not simply that Thoreau says you have the right to withhold taxes, but that if you're a person of conscience you must not pay them if you disagree with government policy--and be ready to go to jail for the privilege. Nevertheless, I can appreciate Thoreau's passion on the issue of slavery at the heart of this essay published in 1848. And two of his tax protests even meet my test above. One was a poll tax--which I consider inherently unjust, and the other was earmarked to pay a minister's salary even though Thoreau wasn't a member of the church. And he did spend time in jail as a result. I can't help admire that. Yet I admit in his situation I would have probably just paid the tax. That's part of what makes the essay unsettling--because at times I wondered. Is it so much that I really think Thoreau is wrong--or is it just I don't have his courage? Given how thought-provoking and challenging to complacency I found this work, I can't help but give it top marks. A must read. 28 pages Five stars
Slavery in Massachusetts - A passionate fire-eating speech condemning the state of Massachusetts for it's support of the Fugitive Slave Law. Interesting as a slice of history that demonstrates the incendiary atmosphere that flamed into the American Civil War in less than a decade. Three stars 20 pages
A Plea for Captain John Brown - This was Thoreau's elegy for John Brown, who helped spark the American Civil War. An abolitionist who preached (and practiced) armed resurrection, he was responsible for the murder of several men and has the distinction of being called America's first domestic terrorist. He was obviously Thoreau's hero. He's not mine. Color me unmoved at this panegyric. It's ironic that the man who inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King to develop forms of non-violent resistance would count John Brown a hero--and could end this essay calling for "revenge." 28 pages Half Star
Life Without Principle - I found this Thoreau at his very worst. Cranky and a crank, misanthropic and dismissive of work whether of physical labor to make a living or building a commercial enterprise. Anyone, in other words, not living the way he does. Hated it. 21 pages. One Star
Thoreau has influenced more great thinkers, as well as plain citizens of the Earth, than has been fully calculated. His life of 45 years is markedly representative of both Mother Nature and Humanity.
"So that was a big deal too..."
Whenever I pick up Walden, I always expect an ecstatic tract a la Muir, and forget how humorous Thoreau is. He uses awful puns, he jibes at his own lack of commercial success, he makes fun of his fellow Concordians. What a wonderful dinner guest he must have been — stubborn and entertaining.
The episode would be little noted but for the essay that Thoreau proceeded to write, an essay that would become one of the great Western statements on the importance of conscience. The essay is now known as "On Civil Disobedience" although its original title was "Resistance to Civil Government". It is short, less than twenty pages in the edition I read, but it lays out Thoreau's thoughts on the nature of Government: where it gets its authority, when it must be resisted, and more.
He begins the essay with the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" and he immediately makes a case for a government that "governs not at all", at least when men are "prepared for it". He will go on to identify three objections that he, and others, have against the government: namely, maintaining a standing army, the mistreatment of native Americans, and the institution of slavery. He claims that the American government has lost some of its integrity and is not worthy of our respect. However he quickly notes that he is not a "no-government man", because "to speak practically and as a citizen" he does not want no-government but merely "better government". That is he wants a government he can respect.
How does he recommend that he and his friends should resist a government that has lost his respect? He does not speak of a "call to arms". He is not a man like John Brown would become in less than a decade; rather he lays out a pacifist strategy of civil resistance to the government. He describes this resistance in several ways throughout the essay, including: refusing allegiance to the state of Massachusetts; receding from government (withdrawing his association with it); resigning your office (for those who have been appointed); refusing to pay taxes; and refusing to serve in an "unjust war" (the Mexican-American war had begun in April, 1846 and would continue until February, 1848).
To a great extent the essay is both anti-war and anti-slavery. Thoreau references sources as disparate as Confucius and the Bible to under gird his arguments. Although he makes an effort to sound practical at times his primary tendency is one of dissociation from the current American government. His rhetoric demonstrates a moral absolutism that is reminiscent of the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. He is a genuine radical as he makes statements like: "If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself . . . The people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people." He castigates as "the most serious obstacle to reform" those liberals who personally disapprove of slavery or the war yet still support the government. Moreover, he observes that "action from principle . . . is essentially revolutionary". His personal episode in jail is one small example of the consequences of his adherence to principle. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."
These are strong words that suggest why the ideas presented in this essay have continued to have a profound effect until our own day. It is why the essay has influenced subsequent thinkers like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others. It is why this essay is considered one of the "great essays" of Thoreau's era and our own.