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Henry David Thoreau - A Timeless American Uncle

February 5, 2017

A crackpot to his peers, a magician to his nephews and nieces. 


“All things in this world must be seen with youthful, hopeful eyes.” Henry David Thoreau


If there ever was an outlier, an uncle-like figure who stands astride American history, it’s the non-conformist, truth and justice seeking Henry David Thoreau. This uniquely American “bachelor uncle” died at age 44, was never married and had no children of his own.  Like many brilliant uncles, Thoreau struggled throughout his short life to balance between two worlds: one of solitude and observation, and another of connection and relationship.   


On one side, peers and contemporaries often considered him an argumentative and eccentric loner, even a crackpot. But on the other, children and young adults were drawn to his sense of wonder, his wandering feet and spirit in the huckleberry-filled woods around Concord. Indeed, Thoreau might have been a child’s perfect companion because he never truly left his own sense of childhood behind.  While Thoreau was striking out against the staleness of our institutions in “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,”  he also knew, “Kindness to children, love for children, goodness to children-- these are the only investments that never fail.” 


Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (Thoreau’s own mentor) son, Edward Waldo Emerson, “...looked to Thoreau as a family uncle and relied on him as a surrogate father when the elder Emerson had to be away on literary business, remembered Thoreau as an engaging nature guide, an expert camper, a gifted magician, and a clever cook who could shake a warming-pan of popcorn over the hearth, then let the “white-blossoming explosion” of kernels “fall over the little people on the rug.*”


It’s a common theme to see uncles’ straddling two, or more, worlds. While they might provoke with their non-conformity, they also attract and inspire. Thoreau was no exception. So forward-thinking and prescient were uncle Thoreau’s words and observations that almost 200 years later, his words, kernels of “white-blossoming explosions”, continue to fall down inspiring us to look again at our lives, our institutions and our world in new ways. 


A few favorites, 

  • “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”

  • “Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

  • “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”

  • “Things do not change; we change.”

  • “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

  • “If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”

  • “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

  • “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

  • “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

  • “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”

  • “All good things are wild and free.”

Thankfully for us, time (Thoreau would have been 200 years old this summer) has interceded for this uncle, crystallizing his life and words for generations of fictive nephews and nieces. Among those who’ve cited him as inspiration are the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leo Tolstoy, Upton Sinclair, John Muir and many countless others, myself included!




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*Danny Heitman, (Humanities Magazine, September/October 2012 | Volume 33, Number 5). 

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