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American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, Henry David Thoreau was a New England Transcendentalist and author of the book Walden.
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Many were curious about his revolutionary lifestyle, and this interest provided the creative spark for a collection of essays. Published in 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods espoused living a life close to nature. The book was a modest success, but it wasn't until much later that the book reached a larger audience. Over the years, Walden has inspired and informed the work of naturalists, environmentalists and writers.
While living at Walden Pond,
Thoreau also had an encounter with the law. He spent a night in jail after refusing to pay a poll tax. This experience led him to write one of his best-known and most influential essays, "Civil Disobedience" (also known as "Resistance to Civil Government"). Thoreau held deeply felt political views, opposing slavery and the Mexican-American War. He made a strong case for acting on one's individual conscience and not blindly following laws and government policy. "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right," he wrote.
Since its publication in 1849, "Civil Disobedience" has inspired many leaders of protest movements around the world. This non-violent approach to political and social resistance has influenced American civil rights movement activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, who helped India win independence from Great Britain, among many others.
After leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau spent some time looking after Emerson's house while he was on tour in England. He soon took to lecturing himself. Still fascinated with nature, Thoreau wrote down his observations on plant and wildlife in his native Concord and on his journeys. He visited the woods of Maine and the shoreline of Cape Cod several times.
Thoreau also remained a devoted abolitionist until the end of his life. To support his cause, he wrote several works, including the 1854 essay "Slavery in Massachusetts." Thoreau also took a brave stand for Captain John Brown, a radical abolitionist who led an uprising against slavery in Virginia. He and his supporters raided a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry to arm themselves in October 1859, but their plan was thwarted. An injured Brown was later convicted of treason and put to death for his crime. Thoreau rose to defend him with the speech "A Plea for Capt. John Brown," calling him "an angel of light" and "the bravest and humanest man in all the country."
In his later years, Thoreau battled an illness that had plagued him for decades. He had tuberculosis, which he had contracted decades earlier. To restore his health, Thoreau went to Minnesota in 1861, but the trip didn't improve his condition. He finally succumbed to the disease on May 6, 1862. Thoreau was heralded as "an original thinker" and "a man of simple tastes, hardy habits, and of preternatural powers of observation" in some of his obituaries.
While other writers from his time have faded into obscurity, Thoreau has endured because so much of what he wrote about is still relevant today. His writings on government were revolutionary, with some calling him an early anarchist. Thoreau's studies of nature were equally radical in their own way, earning him the moniker of "father of environmentalism." And his major work, Walden, has offered up an interesting antidote to living in the modern rat race.
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