Happy Birthday, Henry

To my mind, the exemplar of America is Henry David Thoreau, who was born on this day in 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Christened “David Henry,” he changed the order of his given names when he was twenty. He was closely associated with Concord and didn’t sell many books in his lifetime, but his influence as an environmentalist and a political thinker has branched and blossomed widely since. Natural history and moral history were intertwined in his mind, the observations inseparable from the politics; his last two published essays were “The Succession of Forest Trees,” written under the influence of Charles Darwin, and “The Last Days of John Brown,” in which he states: “I commonly attend more to nature than to man, but any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects. I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised whenever I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still, or met persons going about their affairs indifferent.” (The mass of men, and women, are still blockheads.) Indeed, the central question of philosophy from the beginning, and really, the only one of interest, pardon all the academics delving in abstractions — how does one live in the world? (or, conversely, how does one die?) — might be said to be his whole topic. As a young Harvard graduate, he quit the school he was working in because he thought the floggings he was supposed to administer were cruel and unusual. He was a lifelong Abolitionist, in thought and, crucially, deed. His essay “Civil Disobedience,” originally called “Resistance to Civil Government,” influenced Gandhi and King and countless others peacefully battling the illegitimate and immoral within states. His detailed notes on local natural history have been used to compare his Concord’s species and blooming times to today’s.

He died on May 6, 1862 of the tuberculosis that haunted his entire adulthood. There are some wonderful deathbed scenes recorded, sounding like pure encapsulations of his spirit. When asked how he was preparing for a supposed afterlife, he shot back, “One world at a time.” When asked by a relative if he had made his peace with God, he said “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” In a culture positively swimming in opiates, he refused the wistful embrace of Morpheus’s draughts of laudanum in his final hours. His last intelligible words are said to have been “moose” and “Indian.”

Reading Thoreau, one needs a commonplace book at hand to capture all his sly wisdom.

“What journal do the persimmon and the buckeye keep, and the sharp-shinned hawk?”

“Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.” “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

“A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.”

(More about Thoreau here at Backyard and Beyond.)

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1 Response to “Happy Birthday, Henry”


  1. 1 Paul Lamb July 13, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Thanks for this post! Never can get enough of Thoreau.


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