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07-12   Print  E-mail
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Walden; or, Life in the Woods chronicles his experiment in self-sufficiency. In a series of loosely-connected essays, Thoreau takes American individualism to new heights, while offering a biting critique of society's increasingly materialistic value system.

During his time at Walden, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico. Released after a relative paid the tax, he wrote "Civil Disobedience" to explain why private conscience can constitute a higher law than civil authority. "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly," he argued, "the true place for a just man is also a prison." Thoreau continued a vocal and active opponent of slavery. In addition to aiding runaway slaves, in 1859 he staunchly and publicly defended abolitionist John Brown.

When his writing failed to win money or acclaim, he turned surveyor to support himself. As a result, Thoreau's later years increasingly were spent outdoors, observing and writing about nature. His seminal essay, "Succession of Forest Trees," describes the vital ecology of the woodlands, highlighting the role of birds and animals in seed dispersal. Published posthumously in Excursions, Thoreau's essay makes the forward looking suggestion that forest management systems mirror existing woodland ecology.

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions," Thoreau reminds us, "perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Considered something of a failure by the small town merchants and farmers of Concord, Thoreau died at home on May 6, 1862. His place in American letters is secure, however, as many continue to find inspiration in his work and his example.

  • Search on the term civil disobedience in the Hannah Arendt Papers. Read, for example, Arendt's notes for a 1970 lecture on that topic in which she states ". . . to consider 'the citizen's moral relation to the law in a society of consent,' we are inclined to think first of . . . Socrates in Athens and Thoreau in Concord . . . " [Note that the Hannah Arendt Papers are available to researchers at three distinct institutions, so not all materials will have digitized images on the Library's site.]



 

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