“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” In 1845, young Henry Thoreau, in defiance of convention, moved into woods owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Two years later, back in the city, he began a series of essays detailing his experiences and observations. The book he published in 1854, WALDEN; OR, LIFE IN THE WOODS, defies summary, yet in time it established the name Henry David Thoreau among the leading figures of the transcendentalist movement. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he famously wrote in his opening chapter. Among his multiple purposes, Thoreau wanted to create a new American experience—one in which individuals, by avoiding the accepted purposes of life in favor of meeting more natural needs, could live a contented, fulfilling life. Inspired by Emerson’s call to seek an understanding of the world through a study of nature, Thoreau observed the animals of the forest in their methods of providing their basic needs. He considered, in addition, the Native American and others around the world who managed to meet their needs without the trappings of so-called “advanced” civilizations. And then he proceeded to meet his own in a similar spirit. The life Thoreau lived in the woods was not intended to be permanent. He described it as an “experiment.” But when he left, it was not to return to convention. Along with his observations and an advice list rivaling that of Confucius, he makes clear in his “Conclusion” that amidst the noises and quarrels of his contemporaries he has escaped convention just as much as if he were still living in a cabin near Walden Pond.
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