Serene Outlaw: Henry David Thoreau in His Second Century

Sometimes we may take the man on the STR masthead for granted.  The subtle yet powerful influence of Henry David Thoreau probably remains his greatest creation.  The books, journals and manuscripts, his written observations, impressive as they may be, somehow seem secondary to that influence. Instead, his personal life, his unstinting optimism, his highly individualistic code, his philosophy of introspection, his childlike delight in even the simplest forms of life, his belief that God and man were aligned through nature, his resistance to the dictates of society or the state, his outspokenness against the abuses of power, have had a far more profound effect on modern opinion than that of any other American writer.     

Just as Walden inspired the environmental movement more than a century after it was written, the essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," effected a worldwide range of rights movements over the past 150 years—too many to count--spanning abolition and civil rights to include the antiwar, draft and tax resistance movements today. This single essay, Civil Disobedience, inspired such diverse thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tolstoy, Gandhi and, most recently, Martin Luther King.

Not surprisingly, it is not required reading in high school.

Tolstoy, who influenced Gandhi, was deeply taken by Thoreau and yet noticed the general indifference of mercantile Americans to the idea of civil rights in the Nineteenth Century. Wrote Sanderson Beck, "Leo Tolstoy...asked Americans why they did not pay more attention to Thoreau's ideas instead of their financial and industrial millionaires and their generals and admirals."     

Gandhi, who happened to read Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience while living in South Africa, formulated a concept of nonviolent resistance, called satyagraha. This grass-roots idea of organized, passive resistance would later influence another formidable religious leader a quarter century later and halfway around the world. Martin Luther King a Southern Baptist minister, took Henry David Thoreau at his word, that each human had a right and duty to disobey unjust policies and invigorated the moribund civil rights movement almost a hundred years after the author’s death. This basic premise, of passive resistance to an overwhelming force, continued through the tumultuous ‘Sixties while the Vietnam War raged.    

“In the year 1968 I was called to Milwaukee to testify in the case of the Milwaukee Fourteen,” said historian Howard Zinn. “A group of priests, nuns, and laypeople who had gone into a draft board, taken thousands of its documents, and burned them in a symbolic protest against the war in Vietnam. As a historian of social movements, I was asked to discuss the role of civil disobedience in American history. The judge was clearly uneasy, but he allowed me to answer the question. I spoke of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and of its insistence that when a government becomes destructive of basic human rights, it is the duty of the people to ‘alter or abolish it.’ I began to talk about Henry David Thoreau and his decision to break the law in protest against the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At this point, Judge Larsen interrupted. He pounded his gavel and said: ‘You can't discuss that. That is getting to the heart of the matter’.”

The heart of the matter: Henry might have appreciated that choice of such words, as a man who always attempted to get to the heart of the matter while examining the process along the way.     

Presently, the seeds of civil disobedience continue to spring forth in haphazard and individual shoots, in a world forever tangled by authoritarian thorns.  “How can you bomb people into democracy?” asked Alice Daly, of Concord, Massachusetts, Henry’s hometown. The war in Iraq continued unabated as she spoke, and Daly recalled Thoreau’s stand against the Mexican War, drawing parallels. “Everything hangs together,” she added. “There is a huge overlap between those fighting the environmental war and the antiwar movement.”    

As a naturalist, Thoreau was equally insightful, equally influential, and no less controversial in his approach. No American before him had taken such prosaic elements and written such elegant or ingenious prose. “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature.  Be cold and hungry and weary.”  What writer before (or since) had daredsuggest to his readers that they be--willingly--cold, hungry and weary?  

Almost a century and a half later, fellow naturalist, Edward Abbey observed of Thoreau:  “He walked, he explored, every day and many nights, he learned to know his world as few ever know any world.”   

Walden, A Life in The Woods, serves as a handbook, guidebook, bible and blueprint for readers, depending upon when exactly, on their life’s journey, they discover the book.“Looking at my water-soaked, beer-stained, grease-spotted cheap paperback copy of Walden,” Abbey continued, in his essay, Down The River With Henry Thoreau, “I see that mine was from the thirty-third printing.  And this is only one of at least a dozen current American editions of his book.  Walden has been published abroad in every country where English can be read, as in India—God knows they need it there—or can be translated, as in Russia, where they need it even more.”     

Indeed, Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy who died in 1910, embarked on one last walk, one last pilgrimage before he died. He may have died thinking of God or Thoreau.  “Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven,” the New England transcendentalist had written fifty years before. The octogenarian Tolstoy was bound for an inner Holy Land; possibly Thoreau walked beside him in spirit. “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn.”    

By contrast, Thoreau could be a stern moralizer: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, he said.” At times, Henry David Thoreau thundered at his readers like a Calvinist preacher, rhapsodized like an Indian prophet, stung like a gadfly or chided their sensibilities as a droll friend.  The odd collection of essayists who write for , and the thousands of readers who peruse the columns there may hardly reflect on the moralist under whose portrait their work appears, but by striving to write essays on a variety of topics, many of them dedicated to the rights of individuals, they keep his standards alive. 

Thoreau might have approved. Yet again, he may have preferred emulaters of all types to get outside, get out into nature, as well as to get outside the parameters of their minds. “You must converse much with the field and woods, if you would imbibe such health into your mind and spirit as you covet for your body."

Thoreau died in 1862, at the peak of the Civil War, his body no match for his mind.  

“His passing did not go unnoticed outside of Concord,” remarked Abbey. “But at the time when the giants of New England literature were thought to be Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, Channing, Irving, Longfellow, Dr. Lowell and Dr. Holmes, Thoreau was but a minor writer. Not even a major minor writer.”    

Ironically, his books command huge prices today, however, enormous sums of money. The man who preached a life of simplicity is a literary heavyweight and national treasure. A first edition Walden in excellent condition goes for $35,000 (Book Description: Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1854. First Edition. In a custom cloth slipcase. 2000 copies were printed July 12, 1854--Abebooks). Pretty good for a minor writer with a major following. I imagine Henry would chuckle knowingly if not approvingly at the king’s ransom his books command today. For an essayist who never seemed to compose a sentence with an eye on money, for an author who sold very few books in his lifetime, Thoreau seemed to spring fully to life some decades after his death, becoming ever more relevant as our media trivializes and our military/industrial world expands its power. Perhaps what Thoreau had to say becomes more meaningful as more individual rights are lost, more wild places threatened.   

“Today we see it differently,” Abbey continues. “In the ultimate democracy of time, Henry has outlived his contemporaries. Hawthorne and Emerson are still read, at least in university English departments, and it may be that in a few elementary schools up in Maine and Minnesota children are compelled to read Longfellow’s Hiawatha…but as for the others they are forgotten by everyone but specialists in American literature.”    

Is it the discovery of so many memorable passages that affect us personally, or the insightfulness of Thoreau in a near-sighted world that makes such an indelible impression? “When we are unhurried and wise we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence—that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.”    

His greatest creation was himself, his example. 150 years later, Thoreau has become part sage, part New World prophet, not only warning us but fortifying and consoling us while we blunder about in this modern world. Indeed, the “nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth century” he derided has evolved into the frantic, foreboding, techno-materialistic world he may never have envisioned. “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism—with the rest of the world doing its best to emulate America—the more poignant, strong, and appealing becomes Thoreau’s demand for the right of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every tree, every snail darter, every lousewort, every living thing, to live its own life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile of home,” observed Abbey.    

“The words of Thoreau on all these issues…resound loud with meaning as I write this at the end of the year 2003,” affirmed historian Zinn. “The nation is at war, as it was when Thoreau declared his resistance to government. This time, however, it is not a finite war, limited in time and space, but what seems an endless war, or series of wars, because the enemy has been declared to be ‘terrorism,’ which cannot be confined to one place, or one time. All that Thoreau wrote so long ago speaks to us today and makes us wonder about our responsibility as citizens, as human beings.”    

Thoreau was optimistic to the end.  Although he died young—only 44—he probably knew he was doomed long before that. “I know that I am. I know that another is who knows more than I, who takes an interest in me, whose creature, and yet whose kindred in one sense, am I. I know that the enterprise is worthy. I know that things work well. I have heard no bad news.”


Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action, UNESCO Publishing, 1999
Henry David Thoreau, Edited by Wendell Glick. With an introduction by Howard Zinn, The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, Princeton University Press, 2003
Thoreau On Man & Nature, Edited by Arthur Volkman, Peter Pauper Press, 1960
Edward Abbey, Down The River, Plume/Penguin, 1991
Sanderson Beck, The Way to Peace: Thoreau's Civil Disobedience
Roy MacGregor, Antiwar Protester Draws Inspiration From Thoreau's Call for Civil Disobedience, Originally published March 26, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada.

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Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @