Published:  01:13 AM, 11 September 2023

Henry David Thoreau and American Age of Enlightenment

Henry David Thoreau and American Age of Enlightenment
Henry David Thoreau was the pioneer of ecological movement in the United States of America. He was one of the leading icons in the American Age of Enlightenment during 19th century which broadly influenced the American school of thoughts with an idealistic approach to life and at the same time Henry David Thoreau was one of the trailblazers in American literature who guided the Americans towards the idea of selfhood. In this way Henry David Thoreau implanted a sense of individualism in the hearts of American people which has stood the test of time. Most importantly, Henry David Thoreau laid emphasis on the bonds between humans and nature and championed the watchwords of protecting environmental resources against the onslaught of industrial expansion. It sounds quite striking that Henry David Thoreau campaigned about the adverse impact of industrialization on ecology around two hundred years back while the people of the world almost knew nothing about global warming, greenhouse effects, pollutions etc. This is a lucid evidence that Henry David Thoreau was a visionary who could foresee the miserable plight of mountains, trees, lakes and wildlife in the ensuing centuries in the middle of which we have been at present living.

Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Paine, Nathaniel Hawthorne and some more famed American authors brought about an era of liberated thinking and wider visions of life releasing America from the obligations of theocracy which governed American masses during the 17th and 18th centuries with stringent parochial austerities. It’s known to all readers that America was called New England during the initial years of settlement by European migrants on the landscape discovered by Christopher Columbus at the end of 15th century. As thousands of people travelled all the way from different European countries to America, they chose Christianity to hold themselves together with the gospels and commandments of Bible. As a result American people passed a very rigorous time during those years under the stiff governance by the church authorities. But a revolutionary change came about in the middle of 19th century when American people learnt about the value of individual thoughts and realized the importance of establishing egalitarian values in society. American Civil War to eradicate slavery of black people broke out approximately during the same period.

Henry David Thoreau’s most applauded book Walden made him an esteemed author. He carried out an experiment with his own lifestyle by living for two years in the forest far from the urban din and bustle. Henry David Thoreau illustrated his unusual experience in the woods with trees, birds, wild creatures and other natural entities in his masterpiece Walden. During summer he profusely enjoyed the flowers and affluence of nature around him like trees full of leaves, fruits, chirping birds, squirrels by day and fireflies at night. On the other hand, during the intensely cold months of winter Henry David Thoreau viewed with wonder the snowcapped mountains and the frozen lakes. The movement of fish in the Walden pond stirred a feeling in his mind raising the thought that there is prevalence of life even inside the ice-covered, still water of the pond. The more people get closer to nature, the more they unfold the true meaning of life—that was the message of Henry David Thoreau and that is the lesson he gathered by living in the woods.

Henry David Thoreau is an indispensable figure as far as the American Romantic Movement is concerned. Romanticism, transcendental uprising and the American Age of Enlightenment hit the American grounds almost at the same time and for this reason while speaking on American romanticism, references are often made to transcendental authors and poets. In this context the meaning of the term “transcendentalism” deserves to be interpreted.

 The word “transcend” means to “exceed”. From the viewpoint of American literature, transcendentalism stands for exceeding all disparities, dissimilarities and anomalies in the American society to constitute social justice, equity, integrity and humanitarian principles. Immortal litterateurs of America like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote their poetry and prose with these benevolent dictums on their minds. Moreover, the transcendental authors of America also emboldened the American citizens to practice nonconformity, to think out of the box and to put confidence on their own minds. This is how the American people became the most innovative and most successful nation on earth, according to literary analysts.

In the present world when we observe extermination of natural resources like trees, hills, wild animals we resort to the literary works of Henry David Thoreau for seeking solace in his appeasing words. If Henry David Thoreau was alive today he would be certainly very unhappy to see human beings’ ferocity towards natural environment and the elimination of woodlands by burgeoning industries across the world.

While concluding let’s recall a few lines from Henry David Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” To elucidate the implications of these words we can say that Henry David Thoreau spontaneously visited the forest of Walden to live there for deciphering the true essence of life.

Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury is a
contributor to different English
newspapers and magazines.

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