Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the birthday of writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted 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 so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay "Civil Disobedience" where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: "Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison."

Clearly Thoreau's thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and "Civil Disobedience" influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau's ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today's Challenge: The Incomplete Thoreau
In addition to practicing economy in living on Walden Pond, Thoreau practiced economy in his writing, making every word count. As a result, he is one of America's and the world's most quoted writers. Read the incomplete quotes by Thoreau below, and see if you can fill in the missing words.

1. ______ -- an experience in immortality.

2. Our life is frittered away by _____. Simplify, simplify.

3. How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not ____ ____ to live.

4. The mass of men lead lives of _____ _______.

5. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me _____.

6. A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to ____ ____.

7. It is never too late to give up your _________.

8. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a ________ __________.

9. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and _______.

Quote of the Day: It still seems to me the best youth's companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one's valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. --E. B. White on Walden

Write: Agree or disagree with one of Thoreau's quotes. Support your position with reasons and evidence.

Word of the Day: magnanimity (noun) - The quality of being courageously noble in mind and heart.

Answers: 1. Spring 2. detail 3. stood up 4. quiet desperation 5. truth 6. let alone 7. prejudices 8. different drummer 9. trust

1 - Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

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