In this lesson, students will learn about Thoreau’s iconoclastic ideas and about the unusual steps he took to live out his beliefs. In addition to watching a short video, they will examine the original 1854 book cover for Walden and read excerpts from Thoreau’s most famous works. To conclude the lesson, they will connect Thoreau’s unusual perspective and daring actions to their lives as young 21st-century Americans.
20 - 40 minutes
- Materialistic - characterized by a preoccupation with acquisition of wealth and possessions
- Conviction - a deeply held belief
- Infringe - to violate or encroach upon
- Civil Disobedience - the refusal to follow morally objectionable laws or to pay taxes as peaceful form of political protest
- Transcendentalist – a person who believes the philosophy that thought and spiritual things are more real than ordinary human experience
- Iconoclast - a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions
Mexican American War (1846-1848) - Border skirmishes between the United States and Mexico led to a war in which the idea of Manifest Destiny--the notion that the United States should extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean--determined American war aims. By the time the war ended, the United States had greatly increased its territory, having acquired present-day Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and California.
- Learn more about the Mexican-American War
- Learn more about How the Mexican-American War Affected Slavery
Henry David Thoreau | Author, Philosopher, and Abolitionist
During America’s industrial revolution, which began in New England, almost every feature of daily life was changing in some way. Machines took over much of the work once done by hand, and increased efficiency brought great economic gains to the working class.
In 1817, when this revolution was in full swing, Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts. His father owned a pencil factory and his mother rented out rooms in the family home. At the age of 11, Thoreau enrolled at Concord Academy, a private college preparatory school, and at 16 went on to enter Harvard College on a scholarship.
Thoreau studied Greek, Latin, and German, and often found himself apart from the other students, more interested in nature than in socializing. Rather than join his peers in pursuing a career in law, medicine, or the church, Thoreau briefly pursued teaching, and then went to work in his father’s factory for some time.
A relationship with writer Ralph Waldo Emerson brought Transcendentalism into Thoreau’s life. He became fascinated by the philosophy of prioritizing empirical thinking and spirituality over material possessions, which he considered distractions.
It was on Emerson’s land by Walden Pond in Concord that Thoreau would spend two years living in a small cabin he built himself, reflecting on his relationship with nature and the satisfaction he drew from living a simple life. He found that, to sustain himself, he had to work a fraction as much as the average person did, so he dedicated most of his time to literary and philosophical interests.
In 1854, he published Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which is today considered a literary masterpiece on living a life close to nature. Congruent with his reverence for nature was his wariness of technology and its distracting power. Even though he understood the practical value of innovation, Thoreau warned that no invention could ever address the real obstacles to personal happiness. His essays on this topic have since influenced environmentalists, philosophers, politicians, and many ordinary people seeking to live more simply.
While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau was also inspired to write perhaps his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” after he refused to pay a poll tax in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American War. His philosophy of nonviolent refusal to follow morally unjust laws has since inspired many activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, as well as Mohandas Gandhi in his quest to free India from British rule.
Thoreau remained a dedicated abolitionist throughout his life. When John Brown, a radical abolitionist, was sentenced to death for treason, Thoreau bravely stood up for Brown’s mission and honor, calling him “the bravest and humanest man in all the country.” Several of Thoreau’s works focused on the inhumanity of slavery, including his 1854 essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts.” At times he even helped slaves escape on trains to Canada.
In his final years, Thoreau battled tuberculosis. He succumbed to the disease in 1862, at only 44 years of age. Thoreau’s philosophies on nature and civil disobedience gained much more traction after his death than they did during his lifetime. In the 1960s, he became an icon of the counterculture that sought a return to nature. Today, Walden is still widely read, and, in an increasingly consumerist age, Thoreau’s warnings against seeking fulfillment through material possessions remain relevant.
- Ask students: Have you ever intentionally broken a rule, either at home or in school, because you thought it was unfair? What was the rule and why did you think it was unfair?
- Introduce Henry David Thoreau:
Henry David Thoreau was a 19th century writer who was so committed to his beliefs that he took extraordinary steps, such as living alone in the woods for two years and even breaking the law by refusing to pay a tax, an act for which he was jailed.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer [PDF] for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
Thoreau thought that his fellow Americans were too materialistic (preoccupied with acquiring wealth and material goods)? Do you agree with him that materialism is a bad thing? What would Thoreau think of our country today?
Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” What did he mean by this? Do you agree?
What do you think of civil disobedience as a form of protest? Do you know of any other examples in history in which civil disobedience was practiced?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right, the cover of the 1854 publication of Walden. It features a drawing of Thoreau’s house on Walden Pond made by his sister Sophia. Ticknor and Fields, Thoreau’s Boston based publishers, also produced works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Although Walden is considered a classic today, when originally published it took five years to sell a mere two thousand copies, and the book was initially considered a failure.
Point out that there are two different titles for the book. Which do they prefer? What might be a title that would entice twenty-first century readers to choose a book about two years spent mostly along in the woods? (Note: After the initial publication, Thoreau wanted to get rid of the title Life in the Woods because he thought it led readers to miss the more important messages of his writing and to focus on his day-to-day routines while living on Walden Pond.)
Ask students to imagine themselves living in that house. Is that something they would want to do for an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, a year, or more? What are the most and least appealing aspects of living simply and surrounded by nature? Do you think it would be harmful or beneficial to you to spend time “off the grid”, without social media or technology?
Help students to understand the quotation that is printed on the book cover. Why does Thoreau compare himself to a rooster? For what purpose would he want to wake his neighbors?
Note: The quotation serves as an epigraph (a short quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme) to Walden. Thoreau is comparing himself to Chanticleer, a rooster featured in fables with which his readers would have been familiar. Awakening others to negative aspects of American society was one of Thoreau’s main purposes for writing Walden.
Help students to determine the meaning of the letters at the bottom of the page by giving them the following numbers in Roman numerals.
M : 1000
D : 500
C : 100
L : 50
V : 5
I : 1
Written Primary Source Activity (20 minutes)
Thoreau’s iconoclastic ideas and the unusual steps he took to live out his beliefs made him a famous figure in some countercultural movements. For an activity using quotations and key passages from some of Thoreau’s most important works, click here.
Download Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using Graphic Organizer.
Henry David Thoreau can be considered an iconoclast—a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. When Thoreau wanted to attack a belief or institution, he did so in writing and also took actions to demonstrate his opinions (e.g. living alone in the woods, not paying taxes). To conclude their study of Thoreau, give students a choice between the following three activities:
- Think of a way in which you are different from most people your age. Perhaps you prefer jazz to rap, or like face-to-face communication more than texting. Write a treatise (systematic argument) explaining your point of view and listing specific steps you will take to act on your beliefs.
- Imagine if Henry David Thoreau came back to life in the twenty-first century. What aspects of American life would most upset him (e.g. destruction of nature, prevalence of cell phones, traffic, U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas)? Write a treatise (systematic argument) in Thoreau’s voice in which he details his complaints and proposes specific steps he will take to remedy the situation.
- Imagine if Henry David Thoreau came back to life in the twenty-first century. What contemporary movements or groups would he join and how would he spend his time? Do you think he would be an organic farmer, a yoga instructor, a meditation teacher or something else? Would he own a television, a car, or a smart phone? Where would he choose to live? In keeping with the idea of Thoreau in the twenty-first century, write a rap or spoken word piece in the voice of Thoreau if he was alive today.