Closer Readings Commentary

Henry David Thoreau at 200

"As things turned out, Thoreau, very likely without knowing what he was up to, took man's relation to Nature and man's dilemma in society and man's capacity for elevating his spirit and he beat all these matters together, in a wild free interval of self-justification and delight, and produced an original omelette from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day." —E.B. White, "A Slight Sound at Evening"

As a graduation gift from high school my aunt gave me a pewter letter opener decorated with Viking scenes (quite a handy desk tool in that bygone era when teens still communicated by mail) and a little card with this quote by Thoreau, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion,” which can be found in the first chapter of Thoreau’s Walden, entitled, “Economy.” It is followed by: “I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.”

These lines express an ethic grounded in rustic, simple living—which my aunt clearly subscribed to, and hoped I would use as a touchstone as I gingerly made the crossing into the big, scary world of college, and then adulthood with all its attendant enticements and complexities. Thoreau’s words reflect a traditional “Yankee” preference for certain economic and social values as opposed to others: thrift over luxury, and autonomy over dependence—penchants which came to exemplify his life.

This week on July 12th as we mark the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, we would do well to think about what this iconoclastic 19th-century scribe from New England has to teach us about how to live simply. As our planet becomes ever more reliant on technology and densely populated in this century, Thoreau’s quaint experiment in the woods at Walden Pond, and the well-worn adages spawned during his time-out there, may have more meaning for us than ever.

Over the years NEH has supported, and EDSITEment has developed, a number of resources that may be useful to teachers in their quest to impart the significance of Thoreau’s life and works to today’s high school students. The following resources help students enter Thoreau’s universe by building contextual knowledge of the times and environment he wrote in—mid-19th century America, Concord, Massachusetts, as well as other places he traveled to—while considering his legacy for the 21st century. These resources have been linked and annotated below for your ready reference.

Resources to Teach Thoreau

Educational game

  • Walden, a Game transports players into a virtual 3-D world of experiences Thoreau may have encountered while at Walden Pond. The game encourages problem solving and enlists survival skills while revealing Thoreau’s appreciation of natural world through its seasonal changes.

Educational resources

  • Engaging with Emerson is an EDSITEment article suggesting that students may use Thoreau’s down-to-earth style of writing as entrée to questions posed by the Transcendentalist movement.
  • Walking with Thoreau on Cape Cod is an EDSITEment article with suggested activities for a textual and comparative analysis of Thoreau’s accounts of visits he made to the seashore, which include offbeat stories of village life as well as descriptions of nature encountered along the way.

Featured articles

  • "Not Exactly a Hermit: Henry David Thoreau" is an article by Danny Heitman in Humanities magazine, September/October 2012, which considers the enigmatic traits of this prolific 19th-century author and his “characteristically American” writing.
  • "Picturing Thoreau in the Digital Age" is a reflection by Susan Gallagher in Massachusetts Humanities’ The Public Humanist, October 25, 2010, in which she grapples with the thorny issues of maintaining historical accuracy while documenting the author’s travels.
  • "Thoreau: American Resister (and Kitten Rescuer)" is a review by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, June 1, 2017, of the current exhibition “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal” at the Morgan Library & Museum, in which he also reflects on Thoreau’s enduring value.
  • "Thoreau on Flora" is a notation by Anna Maria Gillis in Humanities magazine, July/August 2012, as she considers the ramifications of 21st-century climate changes in plant life around Walden Pond.

Online exhibitions and special collections

Topographical resources

  • Mapping Thoreau Country, a project from UMass–Lowell and Mass Humanities, in partnership with the Thoreau Society, is an interactive cartographic exploration of Thoreau's itineraries and mapmaking in his home state of Massachusetts, including essays, illustrations, and links to further information.
  • Thoreau Country, from the Thoreau Society, offers an overview of Thoreau’s travels across the United States.


  • American Transcendentalist Web is a collection of critical essays on the principles of the American transcendentalist movement, including its roots and influences, with links to information about the authors in this circle of literati and the texts they wrote.
    • Henry David Thoreau entry contains a biographical overview and links to additional resources to teach the author.
  • American Writers is a CSPAN series of video programs with background on distinguished American authors through our nation’s history.
    • Henry David Thoreau entry (accessed by going to menu on far right, selecting 1800–1850, and then scrolling down to choose the author's name) links to a telecast filmed on-site at Walden and in Concord entitled, “Writings of Emerson and Thoreau.”  
  • Thoreau Reader holds annotated works of Henry David Thoreau and provides an extensive list of linked resources to learn about his life and writings. It includes a “Teaching Thoreau” feature, along with further resources, to understand his writings such as essays, personal reflections, and glossaries of obscure words.
  • The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau is a comprehensive collection of the author’s texts, including his publications and journal entries as well as correspondence and other writing that has not been previously published.