Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Thoreau, Henry David [1817-1862]
Author:
Roberson, Susan L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Henry David Thoreau, best remembered for his stay at Walden Pond, was one of the Concord school of writers, a transcendentalist, and a naturalist. In addition to Walden (1854), Thoreau's major works include A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), "Resistance to Civil Government" (later known as "Civil Disobedience") (1849), and his prodigious Journal (1906). The standard edition of Thoreau's works is the 1906 Walden edition, but it is being superseded by the new, controversial Princeton edition, to run to twenty-five volumes (1971). 

Earning a living at odd jobs, teaching, lecturing, pencil making, and surveying, Thoreau never realized the success of his writing, dying of tuberculosis at age forty-four. He was, however, well-regarded by his friends, who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, and the children of Concord. An ardent admirer of nature, Thoreau devoted much of his time to sauntering through its domain and closely observing its inhabitants. Composed initially to explain his two-year stay at Walden Pond while composing the memorial to his brother John (A Week), Walden is regarded as America's best example of nature writing. A critic of American life and politics, Thoreau infused Walden with biting commentary on the mundane life, and in "Civil Disobedience" he argued for the individual's right to resist government when it runs counter to higher laws. Though "Civil Disobedience" has been one of his most influential pieces, making an impact on the politics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the lectures on his excursions to the Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and Canada were popular with his contemporaries. 

Thoreau met Whitman on an excursion he took with Alcott to New York in November 1856. Thoreau was already familiar with Whitman's poetry, having a copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in his library and having sent a copy to Thomas Cholmondeley. The visit made an impression on him, as his letter to Harrison Blake attests (19 November 1856). He describes Whitman as "the greatest democrat the world has seen" but feels himself "somewhat in a quandary about him." Thoreau's mixed reaction to Whitman continued even after his reading of the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Again sharing with Harrison Blake his reaction (7 December 1856), Thoreau commented that he found "two or three pieces . . . which are disagreeable, to say the least, simply sensual." Even so, he found it "exhilarating encouraging" and Whitman to be "a great fellow" (qtd. in Harding 374-375). Whitman's reaction to Thoreau was similarly mixed, for though he liked Thoreau he found him to be morbid. They seemed to appreciate each other, despite their differences. 

Though never a great champion of Whitman's poetry, Thoreau recognized its truthfulness and urgency, themes in his own writing. 

Bibliography 

Buell, Lawrence. "Whitman and Thoreau." Calamus 8 (1973): 18-28. 

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of "Walden." New York: Viking, 1972. 

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Knopf, 1965. 

Metzger, Charles R. Thoreau and Whitman: A Study of Their Esthetics. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1961. 

Scharnhorst, Gary. Henry David Thoreau: A Case Study in Canonization. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. 

Thoreau, Henry David. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Walden Edition). Ed. Bradford Torrey. 20 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.