On this date in 1899, L. Frank Baum (1856-1918) finished the manuscript of his finest work called The Emerald City, a work that would later bear a more familiar title: The Wonderful World of Oz. To commemorate the occasion, Baum framed his pencil with the following note: “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City.”
For the name of his imaginary setting, Baum claimed his inspiration came from the label on the third drawer of his filing cabinet which read O-Z. Other inspiration came from his boyhood home of Peerskill, New York, which had roads paved with bright yellow bricks imported from Holland.
Unfortunately Baum’s book was not the Harry Potter of its day, and although he wrote 13 sequels, he never earned a lot of money. When he died of heart disease in 1918, he left just $1,072.96 in his will.
Even the film version of the book, The Wizard of Oz, lost money when it was released in 1939, 21 years after Baum’s death. The film did not begin its journey to becoming an iconic classic until the 1950s when it was shown on television. Fourty-five million people watched it the first time is was broadcasted on November 3, 1956 (1).
Today’s Challenge: Go to Your Imaginary Happy Place What imaginary place would you rate as the greatest of all, either from books, television, or movies? What makes this place so special? Brainstorm a list of all the imaginary places you can think of; then, select one and explain what makes it your top fictional setting. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Today’s Quotation: Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams – day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing – are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. -L. Frank Baum
On this date in 1890, Harvard Professor Barrett Wendell read an essay aloud to his class of 50 undergraduate English students. The essay was written by one of the students in the class, a student who would go on to become one of the most important African-American intellectuals and leaders of his generation. The essay’s author was W.E.B. Du Bois, who signed up for the class because he realized that without the ability to write well, his ideas would never be taken seriously. He explains this in his autobiography:
I realized that while style is subordinate to content, and that no real literature can be composed simply of meticulous and fastidious phrases, nevertheless that solid content with literary style carries a message further than poor grammar and muddled syntax.
Du Bois’ essay was the only one that Professor Wendell read aloud that day, and it was the essay’s conclusion that he particularly liked:
Spurred by my circumstances, I have always been given to systematically planning my future, not indeed without many mistakes and frequent alterations, but always with what I now conceive to have been a strangely early and deep appreciation of the fact that to live is a serious thing . . . . I believe, foolishly perhaps, but sincerely, that I have something to say to the world, and I have taken English 12 in order to say it well.
Du Bois went on to say many things well as an activist, a sociologist, and a historian. In 1895 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He worked his entire life for the cause of civil rights, and he died on August 27, 1963 — one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Today’s Challenge: Extra-Sensory Reading What is the value of reading out loud as a way of reading and of revising your writing? Reading words aloud or hearing your words read aloud by someone else allows you to experience them in a different way than just seeing them. Listening and speaking the words involve different senses than just reading with your eyes, allowing you to catch nuances or areas for revision that you might not catch otherwise. Exchange some of your writing with a partner. Read each others writing with your eyes first, highlighting the parts you particularly like. Then, take turns reading and listening to each other’s writing. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)
Quotation of the Day: Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body . . . . The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading. -Verlyn Klinkenborg
On this date in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published. Tolkien began the book in a rather unexpected way. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, Tolkien would augment his salary in the summers by marking School Certificate exams, a test taken by 16 year-olds in the United Kingdom. In a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien recounted the moment that launched what was to become a classic in fantasy and children’s literature:
All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.
The opening line that Tolkien scribbled on a blank page that fateful day remained intact in the published final draft, followed by a sentence that elaborated a bit on the hobbit habitat:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
While the book was still in manuscript form, publisher Stanley Unwin gave it to his 10-year-old son Rayner, who wrote the following review:
Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Rayner’s favorable comments were the final confirmation that Urwin needed to publish the book (2).
Today’s Challenge: From Blank Page to Page Turner What character and setting would you introduce in the first two sentences of a story? Grab your own blank piece of paper and draft at least two sentences that introduce a character and a setting for a story. Hold a contest to see whose novel first lines resonate the most with readers. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day:Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on. -Louis L’Amour
Today is the birthday of Robert M. Pirsig who received 121 rejections for his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig persevered. The book he wrote in 1968 about a motorcycle trip that he and his son took from Minnesota to San Francisco was finally published in 1974. Not only was the book published, it achieved cult status, selling more than five million copies.
Pirsig is not the only author to experience rejection. L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, received so many rejection letters that he kept a journal called a “Record of Failure.” J.K. Rowling received 14 rejections for her first Harry Potter book, and Stephen King received more than 30 rejections for his first novel Carrie. In fact, King almost gave up on Carrie. Discouraged with his lack of progress, he threw the manuscript in the garbage. His wife retrieved it, however, and told him to keep writing. Sometimes even the best writers need the encouragement of others.
Today’s Challenge: The Write Stuff Writing is hard work, and all writers must persevere through rejection before getting their writing published. What’s your favorite book? What makes it such a special book? Write an acceptance letter to the author explaining why you love it so much and thanking the author for all of his/her hard work. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. – Stephen King
Today is the anniversary of the death in 1057 of the Scottish monarch Macbeth about whom Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tragedy of Macbeth. The facts of the historical Macbeth differ somewhat from the Macbeth of the Elizabethan stage, but like modern writers, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of telling a good story.
Born in 1005, Macbeth rose to the throne of Scotland by election in place of King Duncan’s 14-year old son Malcolm. Duncan was not murdered at Macbeth’s home as in the play; instead, he was killed in battle. The Macbeth of history was a Christian king who ruled for 14 years until August 14, 1057 (some sources say August 15) when he met Malcolm man-to-man in a fight to the death in a stone circle near Lumphanan. Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, locations referred to in Shakespeare’s play, were actual locations of battles; however, these battles took place earlier than 1057. At Lumphanan, Malcolm was victorious, and it was he, not Macduff, who beheaded Macbeth (1).
Shakespeare adapts history in the Tragedy of Macbeth to examine the themes of free will, fate, ambition, betrayal, good, and evil. In his play, Macbeth transforms from war hero to serial killer after he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters. Although he is warned by his friend Banquo to disregard the witches’ words, Macbeth is unable to shake their spellbinding words. There is not a lot of subtlety or subplot in Macbeth. The action is swift and bloody. Even when the action on the stage is seemingly calm, the imagery of the dialogue is full of violent, grotesque images, such as in Lady Macbeth’s plea to her husband to keep his promise to kill Duncan even though the king has honored Macbeth with a promotion and has come to their home as a guest for the night:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.(Act I, scene 7, lines 58-63)
It’s probably no accident that a play about a Scottish king was written by Shakespeare during the reign of King James, the first Scottish King of England and the king whose most famous act was the commissioning of the King James Translation of the Bible, completed in 1611.
The history of the play’s production, however, is full of accidents and superstition. From the very start Macbeth acquired a reputation as a cursed play. During its first production in 1606, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage. It seems the dark and sinister events of the on-stage plot are echoed backstage. To this day superstitious actors refuse to identify the play by name, alluding to it only by the euphemism: “The Scottish Play” (2).
You’ll get very little argument if you claim that Shakespeare is the single greatest writer in the history of the English language. So if there are any words worth committing to memory, doesn’t it make sense to memorize some Shakespeare? His words are fun to say, even if you don’t know what they mean exactly or if you don’t know the exact context of the words. One thing you do know, however, is that the words are guaranteed to be brilliant, and once you do study the play and the character from which the words originate, you will discover that the words are well worth remembering and are well worth returning to again and again.
Today’s Challenge: Six From Shakespeare What lines from a Shakespearean character would you say are most memorable? Select a favorite character from Shakespeare and select a passage of at least six lines. Commit those words to memory. Write them down, read them carefully, and say them aloud over and over until they are a part of your long term memory. Practice sharing them aloud with friends and family, and try to catch the right tone based on what you know about the character and what you know about the context of the words within the play. (Common Core – Speaking and Listening 4)
Below are three examples of six-line passages from the character Macbeth:
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 55-60
Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
-Act 2, scene 2, lines 46-51
Out, Out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
-Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 23-28
Quotation of the Day: [Shakespeare] is as a mountain, whose majesty and multitudinous beauty, meaning, and magnitude and impress, must be gotten by slow processes in journeying about it through many days. Who sits under its pines at noon, lies beside its streams for rest, walks under its lengthening shadows as under a cloud, and has listened to the voices of its waterfalls, thrilling the night and calling to the spacious firmament as if with intent to be heard “very far off,” has thus learned the mountain, vast of girth, kingly in altitude, perpetual in sovereignty. -William A. Quayle
Today is the birthday of Edith Hamilton whose writings on ancient civilization and mythology have been read by generations of students.
Born in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. At the age of seven, she began studying Latin and committing biblical passages to memory. She completed her education in classics at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore where she later became headmistress. She gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of Greek tragedies. Encouraged by her friends to write, she published her first book, The Greek Way (1930), in her 60s.
Hamilton continued writing into her 90s, publishing a total of nine books. Although she wrote about ancient Rome and Israel, the civilization she seemed to admire the most was ancient Greece:
The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greek said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.”
Hamilton’s best known and most widely read book is Mythology (1942), which she wrote as an overview of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. This book is known by generations of middle school and high school students who read it as a primer on the myths.
Prior to her death in 1963 at the age of 96, Hamilton received several honorary degrees in the U.S. and was also honored internationally as an official citizen of Athens, Greece in 1957 (1).
Words from the Gods
Many common English words spring from the stories that Hamilton told of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Given the eight clues below, see if you can name the words.
This word for any grain, such as wheat or oats comes from the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
This word for a repeating sound comes from the name of a nymph who loved Narcissus.
This word for maintaining health and preventing disease comes from the name of the Greek goddess of health.
This word for psychically induced sleep comes from the name for the Greek god of sleep.
This word for being full of happiness and playfulness comes from the name of the most powerful Roman god.
This word for being changeable or volatile comes from the name for the Roman messenger of the gods.
This word for sudden fear comes from the name of the Greek god of fields, forests, and wild animals.
This word, used to refer to something that induces sleep, comes from the name of the Roman god of sleep.
In addition to being embedded in the etymology of English words, the characters from mythology and their stories are frequently alluded to by many writers. The works of Edith Hamilton are one the best ways for students to become familiar with these fascinating stories as well as to become familiar with allusions – indirect or passing references – to these characters that are made throughout our culture, both past and present.
Here is a list of a few prominent figures from Greek Mythology:
Today’s Challenge: What characters and stories from mythology to you think are the most captivating? Brainstorm a list of characters from mythology that come to mind. Identify which one character you think has the most captivating and fascinating story. Then, tell the story of that character and explain what makes it such a captivating story. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3)
Today’s Quote:It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton
Today is the birthday of the literary character Harry Potter and Harry’s creator, J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling.
The British author was born on July 31, 1965. The idea of a story about boy wizard came to Rowling one day on a long train ride from Manchester to London in the Summer of 1990.
At her website, Rowling recounts the day Harry was born in her imagination:
. . . I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.
I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…
I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.
Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book. (1)
It took seven years for Rowling to bring Harry Potter to life in a published book. After rejections from several publishers, Bloomsbury Children’s Books published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in June 1997.
After the publication of Philosopher’s Stone, success and awards came fast for Rowling. She sold the American rights to her books to Scholastic Books, and quit her job teaching French to write full time. When published in the United States, the title was changed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because publishers felt that Sorcerer’s Stone would be more suggestive of magic, whereas Philosopher’s Stone was more suggestive of togas.
Sales of the seven books in the series have reached unprecedented numbers with more than 400 million copies sold.
In 2003, Rowling achieved the rare distinction of having one of her coined words added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — a very rare achievement for a living author.
The word is muggle, defined as:
A person who possesses no magical powers. Hence in allusive and extended uses: a person who lacks a particular skill or skills, or who is regarded as inferior in some way.
The editors of the OED had little choice but to include the word in the dictionary after considering the seemingly universal popularity of Rowling’s books and the fact that the word was being used everyday by people all over the world. A similar feat was accomplished by J.R.R. Tolkien when the OED included his word “hobbit” in the 1976 edition of the OED. Tolkien, however, had died before seeing his word in the dictionary (2).
Seven Spellbinding Roots
The made-up language of spells in J. K. Rowling’s books is not a totally random creation. Hidden in the spells are word parts that resemble familiar Latin and Greek roots:
Wingardium Leviosa! Root: LEV – To Raise Up Common Words: lever, elevator, levee, elevate
Locomotor Mortis! Root: LOCO – Place Common Words: locomotive, locate, dislocate, allocate
Expelliarmus! Root: PEL To Push – Common Words: propel, expel, repel, compel
Fidelus! Root: FID -Trust Common Words: confide, confidence, fidelity, infidel
Expecto Patronus! Root: PATR – Father Common Words: paternal, patron, patronize, patriot
Finite incantatem! Root: FIN – End or Limit Common Words: infinite, define, affinity, infinitesimal (3)
Today’s Challenge: I Put a Spell on You
What fictional character do you think special enough to warrant a birthday celebration? What makes this character so special, and what kind of things might be done to truly honor his or her birth and fictional life? Brainstorm a list of fictional characters that are so distinctive that although they are fictional they seem to be as real as any person who ever lived. Select the one you like the best and write a proclamation honoring the character’s “birth” and “life” as well as suggesting what kind of unique activities might be appropriate to celebrate the character’s birthday. (Common Core Writing 2)
Quote of the Day:The book is really about the power of the imagination. What Harry is learning to do is to develop his full potential. Wizardry is just the analogy I use. –J. K. Rowling
Today is the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw. He was born in Dublin in 1856 and began his writing career as a journalist and theater critic in London. Eventually he began writing plays of his own, his most famous being Pygmalion (1912) — the play upon which the musical My Fair Lady is based. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (1).
In addition to writing plays, Shaw was active in political causes, most notably socialism, vegetarianism, and spelling reform.
To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words:
-The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough.
-The o was from the i sound in women.
-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.
Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words. It’s little wonder we have problems with spelling since we have an alphabet of twenty-six letters and a language with more than 40 sounds. On top of that there are over 300 different ways to spell those forty-plus sounds.
Shaw’s passion for the spelling reform cause is reflected in the tone of his writing in a preface to a book by R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language in 1941:
Professor Wilson has shewn that it was as a reading and writing animal that Man achieved his human eminence above those who are called beasts. Well, it is I and my like who have to do the writing. I have done it professionally for the last sixty years as well as it can be done with a hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell “debt,” and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a “b” because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin for it with a “b” . . . .
If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. That must be remedied, come what may.
Shaw, like many others before and after him, failed to reform English spelling (Shaw died in 1950). The fight for spelling reform, however, goes on even today as seen in a headline from a 2006 Associated Press article: Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists — despiet th lak of public intrest (2).
Today’s Challenge: The Spelling List From Hell What are examples of words in English that are difficult to spell because their pronunciation has very little correlation with their spelling? On this 26th day of the month, create an abecedarian list of words from A-Z that are extremely difficult to spell. To check how challenging the words on your list are, write each word phonetically and compare that to the word’s actual spelling. For example, notice how words like psychology, chaos, colonel, and tsunami are spelled quite differently from the way they are pronounced.
Quote of the Day:You must remember that it is permissible for spelling to drive you crazy. Spelling had this effect on Andrew Jackson, who once blew his stack while trying to write a Presidential paper. “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” the President cried. -John Irving
Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born in Illinois in 1899. Like so many other American writers, Hemingway began his writing career as a journalist. At 17 he worked as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. When America entered World War I, he tried to enlist but was rejected on the basis of a medical condition. He traveled to Europe anyway and became an ambulance driver for the Italian Army. He later wrote one of his best-known novels A Farewell to Arms (1929) based on his experiences in the war.
After World War I, he returned to the states, but soon was back in Europe as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Living in Paris, he met other expatriate American writers such as Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald who encouraged him to write fiction. He took their advice, writing about his experiences as an American living in Europe in The Sun Also Rises (1926). He traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the setting of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Old Man and the Sea in 1953, and the next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961.
Hemingway’s characters reflected his own experiences and personality. War, adventure, drinking, bull-fights, big game hunting, and fishing were his favorite topics, and, when he wasn’t writing, these were his own favorite activities.
Hemingway’s writing style is known for its clarity, simplicity, and terseness. His characters’ dialogue is straightforward and honest, except for the occasional understatement. In talking about writing, Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence, a true simple declarative sentence” (1, 2).
One legend that reflects his penchant for clear, forceful language goes like this: Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in only six words. Not one to back down ever, Hemingway responded with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The anecdote is probably more folklore than fact; nevertheless, it inspired an online phenomenon called Six-Word Memoirs, a project of SMITH Magazine. To date nearly 1 million stories have been shared at sixwordmemoirs.com.
In 2008 a book of Six Word Memoirs was published called Not Quite What I Was Planning. The book is probably the most “crowdsourced” book in history and contains the mini-memoirs of 950 contributors. Here are a few samples:
Oldest of five. Four degrees. Broke. -Kaitline Walsh
Bad breaks discovered at high speed. -Paul Schultz
Happiness is a warm salami sandwich. -Stanley Bing
On her birthday, my life began. -Lisa Parrack
Veni, vidi, but haven’t vici yet. -Neenakshi Nadini
Nerdy, wordy, learned to shut up. -Caren Lissner (3)
Today’s Challenge: Your Memoir in Only Six Words
How would you sum up your life so far in just six words or fewer? Write your own six-word memoirs. Create a variety of memoirs based on different themes, such as work, school, moms, dads, technology, love, advice, and food. For inspiration, visit sixwordmemoirs.com for more themes and more examples. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Today’s Quotation:Brevity is the soul of wit. -William Shakespeare
2 – Adler, Mortimer. “Biographical Note on Ernest Hemingway” from Great Books of the Western World. Edition 60: Imaginative Literature: Selections from the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of American writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.
After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.
In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.
In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:
I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .
In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Clearly Thoreau’s thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and “Civil Disobedience” influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.
Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau’s ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).
Today’s Challenge: Thorough Thinking with Thoreau
One of the prominent themes of Thoreau’s writing is the individual’s role in society. What would you say is the key to maintaining your individuality and unique character, while at the same time living productively as a member of a society made up of groups – family, friends, and co-workers? Write your own statement on this question; then, reflect on the statements below by Thoreau. Pick the one you agree with or disagree with the most, and explain how Thoreau’s words align or conflict with your personal philosophy:
Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.
. . . if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours
The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
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.
Quotation of the Day: It still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. –E. B. White on Walden
1 – Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.