Henry David Thoreau – Apostle of Individuality

Day 66 of Colourisation Project – July 12

Born in Concord, Massachusetts, on this day in 1817, Henry David Thoreau is regarded as one of America’s foremost writers. He was an author, a poet, a philosopher, a polymath, an abolitionist, a naturalist, an historian and leading transcendentalist.

Described by a contemporary as “the apostle of individuality in an age of association and compromise,” [1] Henry David Thoreau dared to live his life following his own moral compass unconstrained by convention.

He is best known for his works, Resistance to Civil Government (also known as “Civil Disobedience”) and Walden.

Henry Thoreau

Photographer Benjamin D. Maxham, – Ninth-plate Daguerrotype; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution – Henry David Thoreau, 1856  – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Thoreau was a staunch abolitionist and vigorously attacked America’s Fugitive Slave Law in his writings and lectures. Published in 1849 “Civil Disobedience,” espoused Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience using a non-violent approach. It has influenced and inspired the political thoughts of many leaders of modern protest movements around the world such as American civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. and India’s Mohandas Gandhi.

Part memoir and part spiritual quest, his best known book, Walden extolled living a simple life close to nature and was motivated by the urgent need to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” For Thoreau the importance of wilderness was both metaphorical and actual. Thoreau was an early advocate of conserving natural resources on private land, and of preserving wilderness as public land. Over the years, Walden has inspired many naturalists and environmentalists earning him the moniker of “father of environmentalism.”

As a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition, he followed Transcendentalism, an idealist philosophy that emphasized the importance of empirical thinking and of spiritual matters over the physical world as advocated by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau was a man of varied talents. Not only was he a great writer, he was also a skilled engineer, surveyor and inventor. He created the modern American pencil by introducing clay into the graphite thereby producing a superior lead for the pencils.

In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis at the age of 44. His memory is honored by the international Thoreau Society and his legacy honored by the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, established in 1998 in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

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Today’s daguerrotype photo has an interesting side story. A Thoreau “disciple”  by the name of Calvin Greene from Rochester, Michigan wrote requesting a photographic image of the author. Thoreau wrote back saying,  “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally – the stuttering, blundering, clodhopper that I am.”

Undeterred, Greene repeated his request and sent money for a photographic sitting. In 1856, during a trip to Worcester, Massachusetts, Thoreau visited the Daguerrean Palace of Benjamin D. Maxham at 16 Huntington Street and had three daguerreotypes taken for fifty cents each, one of which he sent to Calvin Greene. Dutifully returning $1.70 in change Thoreau wrote, “While in Worcester this week I obtained the accompanying daguerreotype – which my friends think is pretty good – though better looking than I.”

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“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”

Walking – Henry David Thoreau  – Essay published June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly

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“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”   Henry David Thoreau

1. Book reviewer – The New York Times – November 23, 1863
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