Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau

by Jeffrey Cramer

Cramer“You would find him well worth knowing.” These are the words Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about “a man of thought and originality,” Henry David Thoreau.

July 12th marks the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in Concord, Massachusetts. Although at the time of his death in 1862 he was little more than a Ralph Waldo Emerson wannabe, today he is known around the world for his thoughtful writings on our place in the world. His writings on social reform inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and protesters against the war in Vietnam. His natural history writings were a great impetus to John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben, and he is considered by many to be the father of the American environmental movement. His words in support of John Brown or against the Fugitive Slave Law are as courageous and as forthright as any written by our founding fathers. And as the man who “hears a different drummer” he has emboldened many readers to pursue their own unique paths with independence and confidence.

The world in which Thoreau lived was not so very different from ours. It was a time in which everything he believed and everything for which his country stood was being challenged. We live in hard times of a different character, when our country, when the world, is being divided politically, morally, and ethically. It is a time of deep personal reflection, deliberate and attentive questioning, and perhaps the most necessary thing of all, open dialogue and conversation. “We are all schoolmasters,” Thoreau wrote, showing us that we all have something to share. But he also said that we should “seek to be fellow students,” reminding us that we all have something to learn.

Thoreau can teach and inspire and antagonize and outrage, but ultimately give us something against which to try our own lives and that is what great writing offers the reader. In reading Thoreau we may not always find the answer to our questions, but we find the question. We may find words we agree with or we may find words we cannot agree with, in part or at all, but we do find a challenge to our complacency.

When George Eliot reviewed Walden, she said she would “Let Mr. Thoreau speak for himself.” Following Eliot’s advice, here are a few phrases in which Thoreau speaks for himself.

 

Nothing is so much to be feared but fear.

It costs us nothing to be just.

How insufficient is all wisdom without love.

What does education often do! It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.

I have sometimes heard a conversation beginning again when it should have ceased for lack of fuel.

A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughingstock of the world.

Any truth is better than make-believe.