Thoreau is regarded as the greatest of the American essayists. Discuss.
Give your assessment of Thoreau as an essayist.
Evaluate Thoreau as an essayist.
Answer: H.D. Thoreau is one of the greatest American essayists. He is a man, a thinker, a speaker, an actor of the truth and a practical pragmatic man. Thoreau’s prose is highly distinctive. He derives its life from his personal convictions which he carried out in action. He gave sincere expression to his thoughts in his essay Civil Disobedience. His essay is the outcome of his absolute conviction, so the style that he has employed in the essay is fresh, original and vigorous.
Thoreau as an essayist is quite remarkable in respect of his subject-matter and style. His total work consists of twenty volumes in all, of letters, speeches, essays, poems, and journals. According to many critics, his best works are Walden and The Week and Civil Disobedience. He has been regarded as a poet, a naturalist, a transcendentalist, a cosmic Yankee, a bachelor of nature, and a social rebel.
In Civil Disobedience, we find him as an uncompromising spirit against materialism, opportunism and hypocrisy. He regarded hypocrisy as the most dangerous of pitfalls in a free society. He seems to be the harshest of critics of American government, but the greatest lover of his land because he could rejoice in and use well the freedom that was given him. In this essay Thoreau asks the individual to realize his responsibility, and then alone he must pledge himself independently of others. He must be “true to his pledge even unto death, no matter what others do.” The principal point of civil disobedience is as follows: there is a higher law which is superior to the law of the land. This is the law of conscience, of the “inner-voice” of the over soul. If there arises a conflict between this higher law and the law of the land, one should obey the higher law in violation of the law of the land. If one violates the law, one must he prepared to accept all the consequences. Going to jail means forcing the people of good will to realize the need to get the evil law repealed. Thoreau has some themes in this essay which are—the right to resistance, individual conscience and morality, limited government. Thoreau affirms the absolute right of individuals to resist a government whose policies are immoral or unjust. He thinks that in a democratic State the individual should be given the maximum of freedom and the right to exercise his freedom to the extent where he does not interfere with other individual’s freedom. If the government is one which does interfere with people’s rights and does injustice to them, or compels them to act in a way which is against their conscience, then people have the right to resist that government through peaceful means, not through violence.
The essay sets out to reconstruct the relationship between the individual and the state, according to conscience, not by arbitrary rules framed by the state. The usual rule of governing a democratic state has been to rule by the opinion of the majority. But Thoreau says if the rules are immoral, the rules should rather be violated, through peaceful means. If the government of a state is guided by conscience, and each individual is also saturated with conscience, the state need not govern at all. Things will automatically run on their own since they are guided by conscience. There is the conception of limited government which refers to a government having limited power over its people. An individual, having conscience, can do things for the welfare of the state or the nation as a whole. If every individual citizen of a State is thus governed by conscience, the government of the state will have no need to govern the people.
Thoureau’s style has simplicity and purity unmatched elsewhere. Writing as he did in Civil Disobedience is vascular, and there is gusto in it. He followed the one great rule of composition that is “speak the truth”. Emerson says about Thoreau that he is a speaker and actor of the truth. This commitment to truth lends vividness to the words that he employed, the words that communicate the vivid impressions of the world of man that he saw. There are some out of the way words, but they are not ostentatious.
Thoureau’s style in Civil Disobedience is full of allusions. Matthiessen has remarked about Thoureau that “Thoureau’s real power lies precisely in his recreation of basic myth; in his role as a protagonist in a great cyclic ritual drama. He has employed analogies in abundance and recommended their use to those beginning the study of the art of writing.”
Thoreau has the tendency to use the roots of words. He has deep interest in language and etymology, and this interest induced him to use words in such a way that they appear to have great freshness, and to be shocking in effect they, of course, border on pun sometimes. i For example, in his sentence a “wild” man is a “willed” man. Analogies, puns, and carping statements abound in his writing. The figurative devices are used by him with great tact. Rhetorical figures like antithesis, epigram, paradox, litotes, and hyperbole are seen in profusion in his essays.
Thoreau’s style is vigorous, tense, and pregnant when he is at his best. It is capable of a lofty beauty at such moments. There are many quotable passages in his vigorous, aphoristic prose.
All factors considered, Thoreau appears the greatest of American essayists, and one of the greatest in the world literature. Thoreau has given words of wisdom through his essays. His style is epigrammatic, full of rhetorical figures and some of his sayings have become proverbial and quotable for generations.