Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalism in Action


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 13: Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalism in Action
Nov. 11-15, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the lives and literary contributions of Henry David Thoreau and George Ripley.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Thoreau’s work.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Henry David Thoreau” and “Resistance to Civil Government.”


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Identify Thoreau’s claim in “Resistance to Civil Government.”  Do you agree or disagree with it?  Defend your answer.

Presentation: Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalism in Action (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Nature: “Resistance to Civil Government” does not exactly read like a nature essay, especially compared with Walden, but Thoreau’s thoughts on government may be related to his thoughts on nature.  Discuss this connection.  In particular, consider what he has to say in the first few paragraphs about humans, government, regulation, and conscience.

Politics: Does Thoreau sound more like a conservative or a liberal in this essay?  Defend your answer.

Duty: Analyze Thoreau’s discussion of duty on page 701.  Do you agree with it?  How does this discussion square with Emerson’s discussion of duty in “Self-Reliance”?

Figurative Language: Discuss how Thoreau uses figurative language to make his points.  Do you find this figurative language compelling?  Explain your position.

Presentation: George Ripley (Andrea Butler)

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: In a brief essay (200-300 words), use details from works by Henry David Thoreau and at least one other writer we have studied to make an argument about an individual’s duty.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.


Make sure you know the meaning and significance of the following term:

  • “civil disobedience”

Updated November 5, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Having looked at Ralph Waldo Emerson, we turn now to another Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.  Please remember that your final portfolio is due on your Web site at 8 a.m. on November 18.


Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau did not enjoy the advantages of a well-to-do family, but he worked his way through Harvard, graduating in 1837.  After a brief career in education, he spent the years between 1841 and 1843 doing odd jobs for Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family, with whom he resided.  In 1845, he moved to a hut on Walden Pond and spent two years growing food and thinking.  The book that he would base on this experience, however, did not appear until 1854.  Walden; or, Life in the Woods, though far from a sensation in its own time, has come to be regarded as one of the classics of American literature.  Indeed, it may be the only one of Thoreau’s works familiar to many Americans.  Its author, however, produced a number of other notable works, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), The Maine Woods (1864), and “Resistance to Civil Government,” also published under the title “Civil Disobedience” (1849), before his death from tuberculosis in 1862.


Along with Emerson, Thoreau was one of the great Transcendentalists and espoused some of the ideas associated with this movement.  Works such as “Resistance to Civil Government,” for example, demonstrate the value he placed both on nature and the individual.  Perhaps more than Emerson, however, Thoreau was a social activist, particularly in the area of abolition.  For this reason, along with his willingness to immerse himself in nature at Walden Pond, we might think of him as “Transcendentalism in Action.”   Like Emerson, too, Thoreau was a master prose stylist and wrote a number of sentences that have endured for more than a century.  Indeed, along with Emerson, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin, he is one of the most widely quoted American writers.


In our next lesson, we will look at another Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.