Simanaitis Says

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HENRY DAVID Thoreau wrote, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” His writings on this influenced the thoughts and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and others.

Here’s a guy worth listening to, especially today. For this, lets look at the annotated edition of Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854, which also includes his Resistance to Civil Government, 1849, often shortened to Civil Disobedience.

The Annotated Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Together with “Civil Disobedience” by Henry D. Thoreau, edited, with an introduction, notes, and bibliography by Philip Van Doren Stern, Clarkson N. Potter, 1970.

Today, I share biographical tidbits and a brief comment about Walden. Tomorrow, let’s get serious about Civil Disobedience.

Editor Philip Van Doren Stern begins The Annotated Walden with a proposed correction: “Although millions of people say Thoró, they pronounce the name incorrectly. The citizens of Concord—who should know because the Thoreau tradition has made a lasting impression on the town—say Thúrrow, as in furrow…. So let us settle here and now for Thúrrow, which is what the man himself almost surely said.” (There are still Thoró holdouts.)

Henry David Thoreau, born David Henry, 1817–1862, American essayist, philosopher, poet, naturalist, tax resister.

Henry David Thoreau, born David Henry, was of fine New England stock. His father John was a pencil maker. His mother Cynthia was kin to the Cadburys of chocolate fame. Also, her father had led Harvard’s student Butter Rebellion of 1777. (A subject worthy of research?)

Henry studied at Harvard too, 1833 to 1837. Legend has it that he balked at paying the $5 fee for a diploma. Indeed, this “master’s degree” had no academic merit: Harvard offered it to graduates “who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college.”

Thoreau is to have said, “Let every sheep keep its own skin.”

Thoreau tried teaching for a while, but resigned rather than administer corporal punishment. Through a mutual friend, he became familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other intellectuals of the region and era.

Thoreau was attracted to Transcendentalism, a philosophical view wherein the spiritual transcends the physical and empirical. One precept of it favors insights of personal intuition over religious doctrine.

Heavy stuff in mid-19th-century New England. Or, in some circles, today.

Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847, in a cabin of his own construction near Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts, 20 miles northwest of Boston.

He wrote of the experience later, “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.”

These are worthy sentiments to get us started. Tomorrow, let’s get rowdy with Civil Disobedience.

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Skip
    July 11, 2017

    Dennis, thanks for posting. Such an interesting guy. I spent a few decades growing up near Concord and took more than a few unauthorized late night swims in Walden Pond, passively justified by Thoreau’s approach to nature. If you’ll forgive the nit, Concord, MA is about 20 northwest of Boston, 20 miles northeast being somewhere in the Atlantic ocean.

    • simanaitissays
      July 11, 2017

      Agg! Gurgle, gurgle. Thank, Skip, for your kind words and correction. Fixed now.

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