The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau: Selected and Edited by Lewis Hyde

The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau: Selected and Edited by Lewis Hyde

by Henry David Thoreau, Lewis Hyde (Editor)

Paperback(First Edition)

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Thoreau's major essays annotated and introduced by one of our most vital intellectuals.

With The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau, Lewis Hyde gathers thirteen of Thoreau's finest short prose works and, for the first time in 150 years, presents them fully annotated and arranged in the order of their composition. This definitive edition includes Thoreau's most famous essays, "Civil Disobedience" and "Walking," along with lesser-known masterpieces such as "Wild Apples," "The Last Days of John Brown," and an account of his 1846 journey into the Maine wilderness to climb Mount Katahdin, an essay that ends on a unique note of sublimity and terror.

Hyde diverges from the long-standing and dubious editorial custom of separating Thoreau's politics from his interest in nature, a division that has always obscured the ways in which the two are constantly entwined. "Natural History of Massachusetts" begins not with fish and birds but with a dismissal of the political world, and "Slavery in Massachusetts" ends with a meditation on the water lilies blooming on the Concord River.

Thoreau's ideal reader was expected to be well versed in Greek and Latin, poetry and travel narrative, and politically engaged in current affairs. Hyde's detailed annotations clarify many of Thoreau's references and re-create the contemporary context wherein the nation's westward expansion was bringing to a head the racial tensions that would result in the Civil War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865476462
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/05/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 604,048
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lewis Hyde is the author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, and a book of poems, This Error Is the Sign of Love. He is Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.

Date of Birth:

July 12, 1817

Date of Death:

May 6, 1862

Place of Birth:

Concord, Massachusetts

Place of Death:

Concord, Massachusetts


Concord Academy, 1828-33); Harvard University, 1837

Read an Excerpt




When I was young and longed to write, I was much in love with Henry D. Thoreau. I loved the plain declarative sentences and flat statements of belief from which he built his work: "Surely joy is the condition of life." "We must look a long time before we can see." "What is time but the stuff delay is made of?" "The blue-bird carries the sky on his back." "They are lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it." "It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way."

I liked it that Thoreau sorted life into the sacred and the profane, the true and the trivial, the living and the dead. Take the opening paragraphs of his essay "Walking":

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.

The man draws the line and makes a choice. The "merely civil," "mere idlers": lowlife surrounds us, but we needn't be a part of it. That elevated tone I loved, and I loved the demands that followed on it:

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

I was in my early twenties when I read these essays, and I longed for someone to tell me what to do. My life was not what I wanted. I had quit graduate school in a late-adolescent huff. I wished to be a writer, but I wasn't a writer. The country was at war; my best friend in jail. I was stuck in a bad marriage, having neither the wisdom to improve it nor the courage to leave. I was terrified of death, convinced my heart might stop at any minute. I lay in bed unable to sleep, rebuilding in fantasy a stone wall I had once built in childhood.

And I loitered near the café tables where old men were saying, "I believe," and "We must look," and "There is a right way." "Believe," "must," "is": what simple, beautiful verbs! I wanted to talk like that.

I did not know it then, but the voice that attracted me to these essays is rightly called prophetic. We have a tradition of prophetic literature that goes back to the Old Testament, of course, and though it is hardly the modern style, prophetic poems, even prophetic novels, can sometimes still be found. Whitman has this voice: he invites us to feel we are among the immortals, large-mannered, spanning continents. As for novels, E. M. Forster once gave a lecture on prophetic fiction, and his examples were Dostoyevsky, Melville, Emily Brontë, and D. H. Lawrence. I would add Flannery O'Connor: prophets offer revelation, and so did O'Connor; she designed her tales to induce in us that second sight by which we see the workings of an invisible world.

Poems and novels are not what concern me here, however. Here I want to offer a point of entry into Thoreau's essays, and reflecting on how he pitches his voice — especially in "Walking" — seems a good way to start. Before I begin, I should say that by "prophetic" I do not mean "telling the future." The prophetic voice has a relationship to time, but telling the future is the least of it. The prophet does not say that the price of oil will go up in October, or that a comet will strike the earth in twenty years. Rather, the prophet speaks of things that will be true in the future because they are true in all time. In 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if the "repressed emotions [of African-Americans] are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence," he was not predicting the race riots of the later 1960s; he was describing the nature of things no matter the decade. Sometimes a prophet's words do come true, of course, but that may have more to do with whether or not people are paying attention than with any prescience on the prophet's part.

The prophetic essay has several distinguishing marks. To begin with, it always has a person in it. The mock-modest demand that Thoreau makes at the beginning of Walden states the case well:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained . . . . [I]t is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life . . . ; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land.

In the prophetic essay, a person comes forward and addresses us. This person is not, however, the self-involved, moody, or obsessed first person who carries on in the journals we keep or the letters we address to estranged lovers. The prophetic first person speaks at the point where the personal touches what is in no way personal. When Dante says, "In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood," the shift in pronoun lets us know, if we needed the hint, that he is talking both about himself and about every human being. "In Dostoevsky," says Forster, "the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them . . . . Mitya is — all of us. So is Alyosha, so Is Smerdyakov." Similarly, in Walden and in the essays Thoreau implicitly claims he's writing not about his life but about the life, the life each of us would lead were we communicants in the church of Nature. The prophetic voice may give a "simple and sincere account" of its story, but it does so in a way that makes us feel we are reading the story of the race, not the story of one man or woman.

The second thing about the prophetic voice is that it asks us to imagine being free of the usual bonds of time and space. In regard to time, the rhetoric of prophecy typically invokes daily and seasonal cycles rather than the straight arrow of chronology. "We had a remarkable sunset one day last November," Thoreau tells us toward the end of "Walking":

It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and . . . [w]hen we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, . . . it was more glorious still.

The conceit is typical: the prophet pushes off with a particular day and a particular year, only to swamp them both in eternity, wiping out large sections of history; one November is all Novembers, each evening all evenings.

The prophetic voice alters space as well as time, though here the technique is slightly different. An unobtrusive description at the beginning of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa sets a tone for the whole book: "The farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun." Dinesen has a touch of the prophet, and these phrases should alert us to that fact, for the prophetic voice is spoken from high ground. Nothing in Concord stands at six thousand feet, but in "Walking" we find Thoreau climbing up whenever he can. He climbs a tall white pine and finds a flower his townsmen never saw. He climbs a hill and looks down on civilization in miniature:

The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics . . . . I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field . . . . I pass from it as from a bean-field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.

Spoken from on high, the prophetic voice strips the lowlands of their detail. Democrat and Whig, Sunday and Monday, Concord and Charleston — distinctions that preoccupy us in the valley are flattened out as if drawn on a commemorative plate. From Thoreau's hill the woodchuck and the first selectman may as well occupy the same lodgings.

This does not mean, however, that the prophet is above it all.

*Endnotes were omitted

Copyright (c) 2002 Lewis Hyde

Table of Contents

Introduction: Prophetic Excursions

A Note on the Selection


The Essays:

"Natural History of Massachusetts"

"A Winter Walk"

"Paradise (to be) Regained"


"Civil Disobedience"


"Slavery in Massachusetts"

"Life Without Principle"

"Autumnal Tints"

"The Succession of Forest Trees"

"A Plea for Captain John Brown"

"The Last Days of John Brown"

"Wild Apples"




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