Synopses & Reviews
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, Henry David Thoreau's vision of personal freedom, is indelibly etched on the American consciousness. Included here with the complete text of Walden are selections from Thoreau's first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; " "A Plea for Captain John Brown", his eloquent defense of the American abolitionist's rebellion at Harper's Ferry, and such masterpieces as his famous essay "Civil Disobedience", in which he describes a night spent in prison for refusing to pay a poll tax to a government that condoned slavery. This edition is edited by Brooks Atkinson, with a new Introduction.
About the Author
Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 — "just in the nick of time," as he wrote, for the "flowering of New England," when the area boasted such eminent citizens as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman and Melville. Raised in genteel poverty — his father made and sold pencils from their home — Thoreau enjoyed, nevertheless, a fine education, graduating from Harvard in 1837. In that year, the young thinker met Emerson and formed the close friendship that became the most significant of his life. Guided, sponsored and aided by his famous older colleague, Thoreau began to publish essays in The Dial
, exhibiting the radical originality that would gain the disdain of his contemporaries but the great admiration of all succeeding generations.
In 1845, Thoreau began the living experiment for which he is most famous. During his two years and two months in the shack beside the New England pond, he wrote his first important work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax to a government that supported slavery (recorded in Civil Disobedience) and gathered the material for his masterpiece, Walden (1854). He spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing and died, relatively unappreciated, in 1862.
Reading Group Guide
1. Walden, thought by many to be Thoreau's masterpiece, contains the famous lines, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." What lessons does Thoreau learn, in your view, through his experience of living in simple near isolation at Walden Pond?
2. At the end of two years, why does Thoreau leave Walden? Does he himself provide or imply an adequate answer?
3. Discuss Thoreau's ideas about living simply, without material luxuries. Do his ideas still apply? Is the kind of freedom and self-reliance Thoreau sought possible in societies other than the America of Thoreau's time? Is it possible in America today?
4. In the essay "Nature," Thoreau writes: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil-to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." Discuss the meaning of this statement, and Thoreau's relationship to nature, one of the great themes running through all of his work, as both "absolute freedom and wildness," and as something that has, for Thoreau, definite spiritual associations. What is to be gained by living as "part and parcel of Nature?" What is given up? Discuss other writers you've read that might be said to record similar attitudes toward nature.
5. The essay "Civil Disobedience" proved to be one of the most admired essays ever written; it influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, among others. In it, Thoreau distinguishes between "the law," and "the right," and here as elsewhere takes strong issue with government injustice, and even government altogether. In the essay's first paragraph he writes, "That government is best which governs not at all," and elsewhere, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." Still elsewhere, he writes, "I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion." Discuss Thoreau's attitude toward government, politics, and morality, in "Civil Disobedience" and elsewhere in his writings.