Why We Love Henry David Thoreau, in 5 Quotes

By: Dave Roos  | 

Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau believed in practicing what he preached. He refused to pay a poll tax because it went to a government that supported slavery and spent a night in jail for his protest. It formed the seed of his book “Civil Disobedience.” Bettman/Getty Images/HowStuffworks

Henry David Thoreau is one of America's most beloved and misunderstood writers. He's famous for retreating to a rustic cabin at Walden Pond in the Massachusetts woods for two years to ruminate on nature and philosophy, but Thoreau wasn't a hermit or a cranky misanthrope. He was, in a word, a "questioner," says Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, and author or editor of nearly a dozen books about Thoreau and his Transcendentalist friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.

"Thoreau is constantly asking questions in his own writings, both to himself and to his reader, that make you evaluate your life and how you're living it," says Cramer. "If you ask yourself some of the questions that Thoreau asks in his writing and try to answer them honestly, it will, I believe, direct you toward being a better human being."

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau never married and worked as a teacher, lecturer, handyman, pencil-maker (his father's business) and a writer. His best-known works, "Walden" (1854) and "Civil Disobedience" (originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government" in 1849) weren't bestsellers in his lifetime, but have since become classics of American prose and guidebooks for truth-seekers of all ages.

The few surviving photographs of Thoreau show a dour-looking man with tousled hair and a neck beard, but Cramer says that Thoreau was far from a sourpuss. He had a tremendous sense of humor, was beloved by children for telling wild stories and even played pranks on his buddy Emerson.

If you're still on the fence about Thoreau (pronounced "Thó-row," by the way, with the accent on the first syllable), read the following five quotes that exemplify the straight-talking depth of one of America's most influential thinkers and writers.

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1. "If I am not I, who will be?"

Thoreau was unapologetically true to himself and encouraged others to be. He was very much his own man, uninterested in conforming to the expectations of 19th-century society. Thoreau didn't care for organized religion or government, and thought that slaving away at a job six days a week just to buy more material possessions was a waste.

Cramer is so moved by this quote that he thinks it should be carved in stone over every schoolhouse in America and recited daily in classrooms.

"Can you imagine how differently every student would feel about who they are?" asks Cramer. "We need to be proud of who we are, whatever that looks like, and live the life that only we are destined to live."

Bonus quote: "A man does best when he is most himself."

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2. "What does education often do! It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook."

Thoreau's first job was as a teacher. He was fired after only a few weeks at the Concord Center School because he refused to use corporal punishment, so Thoreau and his brother John opened their own school. There they experimented with radical ideas for the time, like open dialogue between students and teachers, and experiential learning.

"If you want to learn what a huckleberry is, you don't sit in a classroom and read a botany book — or have the teacher recite from a botany book that the students then memorize, as they did in those days," says Cramer. "In Thoreau's school, you went out to the field, you found huckleberries, you picked huckleberries and you tasted huckleberries."

Even today, Cramer worries that students have too much of their lives "prescribed" for them by parents and teachers who preach that good grades, the "right" college and a well-paid career is the only recipe for happiness.

"That's when education becomes this 'straight-cut ditch' that Thoreau was talking about," says Cramer. "It takes a 'free meandering student' and puts them on this very narrow path."

Bonus quote: "I am still a learner, not a teacher, feeding somewhat omnivorously, browsing both stalk & leaves."

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3. "Surely joy is the condition of life."

"Joy" and "laughter" are not words that come to mind when you think of Henry David Thoreau and the other members of his Transcendentalist crew. But according to Cramer, Thoreau loved to sing, dance and play the flute, and his public lectures literally left people rolling in the aisles.

"We look at iconic figures like Thoreau and Emerson and we put this layer of seriousness on them," says Cramer. "We forget that they were real people and they had a great sense of humor."

And although Thoreau wasn't a churchgoer, he was "religious" in the sense that he saw the divine in everything, especially the natural world. In an essay titled " Walking," Thoreau laments, "How little appreciation of the beauty of the landscape there is among us!" For Thoreau, watching the leaves change colors in the fall, or gazing at a distant mountain range, inspired a childlike sense of joy that he yearned to share with his readers.

Bonus quote: "Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it."

Thoreau's cabin
This illustration of the exterior of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts was on the title page of his book "Walden."
Culture Club/Getty Images

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4. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer."

Thoreau did some of his best thinking when he was off alone in a secluded place like the cabin at Walden Pond. But even during that two-year stint in the woods, he didn't cut himself off completely from society.

"People have this idea that he went off to the woods and never saw a soul, and that is not the case," says Cramer. "When he lived at Walden Pond, he was going to town almost daily to visit with friends, to go to the post office, to do various things. And people would visit him at Walden Pond."

As many of us have realized during the coronavirus pandemic, humans aren't meant to exist in isolation. But even the sociable Thoreau recognized the importance of being your own best companion first, so that when you are alone, says Cramer, "you still have yourself."

Bonus quote: "A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows."

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5. "Did ever a man try heroism, magnanimity, truth, sincerity, and find that there was no advantage in them?"

Thoreau was a profoundly principled person who believed in practicing what he preached. He thought that slavery was a despicable practice, for example, so he took his own small stand. During his stay at Walden Pond, he refused to pay a poll tax because it went to a government that supported slavery. He spent a night in jail for his protest and it formed the seed of "Civil Disobedience."

But Thoreau's abolitionism didn't end with a poll tax protest. Cramer says that the Thoreau family home in Concord was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and that after nursing runaway enslaved people to health, Thoreau would accompany them on the train north to Canada.

"When he felt that it was safe and there were no slave catchers around, Thoreau would jump off the train and walk back to Concord," says Cramer. "Even if he didn't join the Abolitionist Party and attend meetings, Thoreau was doing his part in ways that many of his abolitionist neighbors wouldn't dare to do."

Bonus quote: "When the desire to be better than we are is really sincere, we are instantly elevated, and so far better already."

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