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For Thoreau, the material world and his interaction with it become central in a way that the world never seems to be quite so real in Emerson’s writings.While many of Emerson’s essays and lectures tend to focus on abstract ideas, principles, and social positions as indicated by their very titles—“Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” and “The Poet”—Thoreau’s writings ground themselves in specific experience and particular locales, as indicated by the two books he published during his life time: .
He argues that it is through his experiences in the wild, that he gains access to “the most original part of himself,” through a kind of “clarifying process.” In “Spring,” he famously describes such a clarifying process within nature itself through his description of the thawing of the railroad bank.
As with his depiction of morning as reflecting the awakening of the self to the world, so with “Spring” he offers an account of the world coming back to life.
Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond and the experience he records of being jailed for not paying taxes in “Resistance to Civil Government” (“Civil Disobedience”) can be readily understood as putting Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance into material practice.
But as significant as that philosophical basis is to Thoreau’s activity, the material nature of his activity may be more important.
Written during his time at Walden Pond, the book ostensibly chronicles the trip Thoreau and his brother John took in 1839.
But Thoreau uses their journey both to mourn and remember his brother and to explore the philosophical and social questions at the core of his thought, the relationship between the self and nature, the history of Euro-American exploitation of American nature and its native inhabitants, and the connection between specific locales and times and the eternal and the universal.The fundamental problem with government is that it takes on a life of its own, becoming, in Thoreau’s central metaphor in the essay, a machine that then attempts to treat individual men as machines lacking in thought or conscience. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.” Much of his critique is aimed at his many neighbors who ostensibly oppose slavery and the U.In articulating his more specific focus, he grounds his critique in American political thought, recalling the Revolution in order to contend that “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” While he seems to suggest that any violation of one’s sense of justice by the government would validate resisting the state by withholding one’s allegiance or by refusing to pay taxes, his argument largely relegates such extreme acts to only the most severe violation of right. S.-Mexican War but do little in actuality to stop the federal government from continuing as it has and, in supporting the government, actually further the injustices they claim to oppose, thus “practically” giving their support.Specifically, in his eulogistic essays on John Brown, following his failed attempt at provoking a slave rebellion in Virginia, Thoreau celebrated Brown’s ability to stir Northerners from their slumber, as “He has liberated many thousands of slaves, both North and South.” This figuring of his fellow Northerners as slaves—as enslaved to the system of slavery specifically and to social norms more broadly—connects this later apology for violence to “Resistance” where he similarly opines that slavery could only be abolished by voting when society has become “indifferent” to it and the voters themselves “will then be the only slaves.” As his more explicitly political writings frequently speak of his fellow citizens as slaves for their continuing support of slavery, similarly equates those who “lead lives of quiet desperation” in which they have “no time to be any thing but a machine” to being “slave-driver[s]” of themselves.If slavery and industrialization provide the most prominent contexts for Thoreau’s critique, Nature provides the antidote for these moral and social ailments.It is through his deeper engagement, his “closest acquaintance with Nature,” that Thoreau discovers the higher laws that guide his critique of American society.In particular, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” Thoreau attempts to link the higher “spiritual life” with “a primitive,” more “rank hold on life,” even as he recognizes these instincts as quite distinct.After resigning from his first job as a teacher because he refused to inflict corporal punishment, he opened a school with his brother John in Concord, which they ran together until 1841, when John became ill.After John’s death in 1842, which would leave him without one of his closest companions, Thoreau took a teaching position in Staten Island as a way of gaining a foothold in the New York literary market. Following his experiment on Walden Pond, Thoreau continued in Concord, first living with the Emerson family for a short time, before returning to his family home, where he lived as a boarder until his death in 1862.Yet running through these more philosophical and, at times, scientific threads is a steady critique of American society—“this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century”— for having misplaced priorities due to a failure of imagination and perspective.While not as explicitly political as “Resistance” or his essays and lectures on slavery, takes aim both at specific injustices and at the broader social and ideological underpinnings of those injustices.