Minimalists in History: Henry David Thoreau

thoreau

“Henry David Thoreau was a complex man of many talents.”

– Ann Woodlief

You’ve probably heard of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. I’ll bet you at least know he lived in a small cabin on Walden Pond.

But did you know he lived there for only about 2 years? Or that he wasn’t secluded? The cabin was just outside of Concord. He walked there every day or two, visiting friends, shopping and attending lectures. Also, he had frequent visitors.

“He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thoreau was born in 1817 to a rather poor family. His father operated a pencil factory, and his mother rented out parts of the family’s home to boarders. Thanks to financial contributions from his older siblings, he was able to attend and graduate from Harvard.

Though the years he taught school, tutored students, working in his father’s business and surveyed land. He was an abolitionist and promoter of civil disobedience.

In 1845, he built his cabin in the woods. When he left after 2 years and 2 months, he served as caretaker of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s household while Emerson was in England.

When Emerson returned, Thoreau moved back into his parents’ home, where he lived the remainder of his short life. He died from tuberculosis at the age of 44.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Walden was published in 1854 and has become one of America’s most celebrated works of literature.

Thoreau speaks for himself so well that I’ll just share some quotes from Walden with you rather than describe his beliefs. I do, however, recommend you read the book sometime. You’ll find he says much more about the simple life than can be summarized.

  • Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
  • Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.
  • This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.
  • A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
  • In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. . . .
  • Our life is frittered away by detail . . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!
  • [T]he cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
  • Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.
  • Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
  • No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety commonly to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.
  • Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.
  • Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.
  • Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

Interested in learning more? The Walden Pond area is now a Massachusetts State Reservation and includes a replica of Thoreau’s cabin as well as interpretative programs.

10 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Henry David Thoreau

  1. Hi Christy, Great post! I love the quotes. Here is my favorite:
    Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.

    It reminds me of this one that my sister Michele emailed me the other day:
    “People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for”…. and yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water” -The Little Prince

    Cheers!

    • Thanks, Carol. Both quotes show how much happiness and unhappiness are in our heads. Not, of course, that any of us will be happy all of the time or that we have complete control over our moods, but with practice we can get better at seeing the beauty in a single rose or the sun’s reflection.

  2. Thank you for sharing those quotes. They’ve been floating in my mind all day. I can only imagine what Thoreaux would think of think of society today.

  3. Christy, can you believe I had never heard of Thoreau or Walden until my early 30s? I couldn’t put the book down and knew I wasn’t alone, if separated by a few generations. I have to admit I would not be happy about sharing my home with the rodents like he did. 😉

    • Yeah, I’m not much into rodents in the house. I’ve pretty much come to terms with having mice in the garage, but they can’t be inside the house itself, and rats need to be outside all together!

      I read the book, or at least parts of it (I don’t quite remember) in school, but it was so different reading it in middle age. I think I should re-read it again every few years to see what new insights I glean from it.

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