He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a shack in the woods near a pond. Who would choose a life like this? Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau, what did he do, and what did others think of his work?
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817 (“Thoreau” 96), on his grandmother’s farm. Thoreau, who was of French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that Thoreau was interested in literature and writing. At a young age he began to show interest writing, and he wrote his first essay, “The Seasons,” at the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).
In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the cost of tuition so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on September first. “He Thoreau stood close to the top of his class, but he went his own way too much to reach the top” (5).
In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted about a month and a half (8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and graduated on August 16, 1837 (12). Thoreau’s years at Harvard University gave him one great gift, an introduction to the world of books.
Upon his return from college, Thoreau’s family found him to be less likely to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his secret desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with freedom to think and act as he wished.
Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied for a teaching position at the public school in Concord and was accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He opted instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his resignation, because he felt that physical punishment should have no part in education (Derleth 15).
In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started out as a literary notebook, but later developed into a work of art. In it Thoreau record his thoughts and discoveries about nature (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).
Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau. Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson’s help, delivered his first lecture, “Society” (21).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous person in Henry David Thoreau’s life. From 1841 to 1843 and again between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household, and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and many other members of the “Transcendental Club” (“Thoreau” 696).
On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal, into the Merrimack River and into the state of New
Henry David Thoreau was a transcendentalist writer during the 1800s. While Muhammad Ali was an Islamic boxer born in 19 42 and is still living today. One would think that these two would have beliefs and proceedings that completely contradict each other. However, even though Henry David Thoreau and Muhammad Ali have similar beliefs, their approaches towards civil disobedience couldn’t be more different. Thoreau seemed to be a man who cared only for himself and did whatever he wanted whenever and wherever. This was obvious in his strong “individualism” shown though how little he cared for meeting “external expectations” (Wilson 151).
Thoreau’s good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said that he thinks “the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of healthy sufficiency of human society” (qtd. in Wilson 152). This showed how Thoreau cared more for his own beliefs and values than anything else. He also showed how little he cared what society thought when he moved into a small cabin for two years, two months, and two days and isolated himself to experiment with aspects of his life (“Henry David Thoreau” 1). Thoreau’s dealings with civil disobedience were very peaceful, which may be the reason why he was claimed as an influence by both Martin Luther King Jr. nd Mahatma Gandhi. The main action Thoreau used as to display his civil disobedience was the one thing he was exceptionally good at, writing. Thoreau wrote a few essays and letters on his views of numerous aspects. In essence, the essays allowed Thoreau to share what he thought with a wide variety of people. In one instance he wrote a letter to William Garrison’s The Liberator [an abolitionist newspaper during the 1800s] defending the right of Wendell Phillip’s right to speak in the Concord Lyceum [Phillip was denied the right to speak because of his antislavery position] (Wilson 132).
Another act by Thoreau that was still peaceful but not as silent was when he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the poll tax. Thoreau had withheld the tax to protest slavery and an “imperialistic war with Mexico” (“Henry David Thoreau” 1). This showed that Thoreau was not going to let any threat or other views get in the way of his beliefs. Muhammad Ali went through dramatic changes in his beliefs and values because of the fact he converted suddenly converted to Islam. When Ali met Malcolm x and Captain Sam he was greatly influenced by them and was attracted to
Islam. Later in 1964 Ali announced his acceptance of Islam and changed his name from Marcellus clay Jr. to Muhammad Ali. This conversion to Islam and change of name showed how Ali cared more for his own values and beliefs (Parekh). This belief is shown because of the fact that if Ali cared about what others would think he would have kept his change in faith private. Ali also made sure he always stood up for what he believed and didn’t twist to the will of others. He was once questioned on his conversion to Islam and said “a rooster crows only when he sees the light.
Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I’ve seen the light and now I’m crowing” (qtd. in marqusee). This showed that no matter what people said or tried to do Ali would never change his beliefs because someone else wanted him to. Ali’s actions towards civil disobedience were just as strong as his beliefs if not stronger. One example of Ali’s actions was when he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River because his victory in the Olympics angered some “whites” ending with Ali fighting these “whites” (Parekh). This action shows Ali’s actions can be an influence of his emotions.
A great action of Ali that demonstrates how he stands up for his beliefs was when he refused to serve in the Vietnam, despite the fact he faced imprisonment and may have been forced to pay masses in fines(Marqusee). These actions only show how committed Ali is to his beliefs. Thoreau and Ali evidently have many similarities in their beliefs. One would be they both strongly believe in standing up for what you believe in and not bending to the will of others. This is shown through Ali’s defense in his Islamic belief and Thoreau’s strong individualism. Another similarity between the two would be their beliefs in civil disobedience.
This would be a similarity because neither Ali nor Thoreau believed in, or wanted to use violence in their protest. This is because of Ali’s Islamic belief [people of Islamic faith do not believe in violence] and simply because Thoreau couldn’t be more nonchalant about what people thought of him. The difference between the two comes in the way their protests were carried out. Thoreau remained under the radar merely writing about what he felt and believed in. While Ali, on the other hand, made all his actions and views public and wanted everyone to know what he had to say the moment he said it.
Thus, Henry David Thoreau and Muhammad Ali are obviously two completely different people born and raised in two completely different time periods. Meaning the two would have obvious differences. The one major difference that is immediately obvious is the difference in their approaches towards making themselves heard. However this does not mean the two have nothing in common. They both believe in standing up for what you believe in no matter what. They also both believed in making an effort to make what you believe a reality, such as Thoreau when he protested the poll tax.