Henry David Thoreau and James Baldwin were two talented writers with different writing styles who lived in very different periods of our U.
S. history. Both of these writers had to completely different views about the world and lived during a time when the country was defining civil equality. Even though both of these writers were so different from one another they both were deeply affected by the social issues of their time.Henry Thoreau and James Baldwin were both criticized for their point of view on civil injustice, nevertheless both writers managed to influence some of the same important people in our history; who fought for the advancement of civil rights. Both of these writers grew up with completely different social backgrounds and family structure. During the time of both of their lives; there was considerable conflict in the world and neither writer agreed with violent actions as a solution.
Although both of these writers were not taken seriously for most of their lives; decades later their literary works have been instrumental in impacting the way that people view civil rights, this is a good example of how a powerful writer can leave a lasting effect on their reader. Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concorde, Massachusetts into a modest English family. Henry had extremely poor health due to contracting tuberculosis in 1835.Henry was a well-educated man, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, he would have received a Master’s degree, but he refused to pay the five dollar fee because it was written on sheepskin vellum.
Henry’s comment was:” Let every sheep keep its own skin”(“Henry David Thoreau”). Henry had a close connection with nature that began early in his life; he was often referred to as a naturalist. In Henry Thoreau’s essay Night and Moonlight “there is no man but would be better and wiser for spending them out-of-doors”(Thoreau 226).
In college Henry studied writing, philosophy, and the classics. Henry taught in Canton, Massachusetts in 1837 after he graduated college, but resigned just after a few weeks because he didn’t agree with administering corporal punishment. Henry enjoyed teaching so much that he opened Concord Academy Grammar School in 1838 with his brother John, but Henry stopped teaching when his brother died from tetanus from a cut while shaving. Henry also worked in his family’s pencil factory for most of his adult life.He discovered a new process to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as a binder. During this time Henry moved in with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson for three years, who he met out of college. Henry decided to concentrate more on his writing, taking the advice of a friend, he embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living. Henry lived around the shores of Walden Pond in a small self-built house owned by his friend Waldo Emerson.
There he wrote “The Landlord”, “Harold to Freedom” and “Reform and the Reformers”.It was during this time that Henry was stopped by a tax collector to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Henry refused to pay the fines and spent a night in jail because of his opposition to the Mexican American war and slavery.
This experience had a strong impact on Henry’s life and led to his essay entitled: Resistance to civil Government (a. k. a. Civil Disobedience). During This time the country was moving farther westward and was going through radical changes in the United States; relationships with the native Indians were growing increasingly worse.The United States was expanding rapidly with the new railroads and new cities that were popping up throughout the country. Slavery was also becoming increasingly volatile with moral focus on civil rights. Henry’s writing of his feelings towards nature and the expansion of the Western culture became expressive in his writings like with “Consider the moonlight, so civil, yet so savage! ”(127).
Henry always had an eloquent manner expressing every nuance of nature capturing the very essence with his words.Henry surrounded himself with writers and thinkers that encouraged him to write many essays and poems for the quarterly periodical for Dial press. Throughout Henry’s writing career he focused on expressing about descriptive writings on nature, social, and cultural behaviors; which at the time there were not so popular, critics did not considered his writings to be classic American literature. Henry died at age 44 on May 6th 1962. James Baldwin was born a poor black man in Harlem, New York on August 2, 1924. His natural father was a drunk, used drugs and was not a part of James’s life.His mother married a preacher when James was very young. This was an inspiration for James to become a Junior Minister by the age 14.
James’s stepfather was considerably hard on him and made him responsible for his younger siblings. The country had gone through many changes in the last 80 years; with the Civil War, World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and the amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. The United States had changed considerably since Henry Thoreau’s time; James Baldwin’s life experiences were a quite different altogether.Unlike Henry Thoreau, James only received a high school education.
James grew up in the city and did not have much contact with nature in his youth. When James was about 15 years of age he met Buford Delaney a painter. Buford Delaney became a big mentor in James’s life allowing him to realize that a black person could become an artist. During this time in the country even though blacks were free they were not treated as equals.
Everywhere throughout the country, blacks were segregated and singled out; they were not taken seriously for anything they could contribute to society.This weighted extremely heavy on James which helped him focus on writing about civil rights, civil injustice, and civil disobedience. James was one of the first accomplished black writers of his generation. James became increasingly discouraged by the attitudes towards blacks and homosexuality in the United States, so he decided to leave the country for France so he could pursue his career as a writer. James is best known for his works on Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country Giovanni’s Room and stranger in the village.
While in Europe, James decided to move to a small little Swiss village, he was told before arriving that he would probably be a ‘sight’ for the village. James thought; “I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland”(Baldwin 621). Like Thoreau, Baldwin left the U. S. to escaped society hypocrisy, he moved to seclusion so that he could concentrate on what mattered to him; his writing. Both of these writers did not support violence; they looked for a more intellectual solution to express their ideas on paper to solve the civil injustice that weighed heavily on both of their minds.Both James Baldwin and Henry Thoreau struggled with many obstacles to define themselves as accomplished writers; both writers became comfortable with their writing towards the end of their life and found that their experiences that they had gone through had made them respected writers in their later years.
James Baldwin Died at age 67 in France December 1, 1987 Henry Thoreau and James Baldwin had two different ways of expressing themselves in their literature and both of these writers lived in two totally different times.Both of these writers also had two completely different ways that they saw the world. The one thing that they did have in common was their belief in civil rights and the responsibilities that we have to ensuring that we respect one another and treat each other as equals.
A quote from James Baldwin’s essay stranger in the village that really stood out to me was; “The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out in the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too”(Baldwin 632).In my opinion nothing is more powerful in persuading people to change their beliefs, prejudices and hatred than literature. Both Henry Thoreau and James Baldwin are perfect examples how writing can influence others with their literature. Both of these writers lived almost a century apart, but even today their writing continues to influence people’s opinions in the way that we view civil rights as a whole.
Work citedThoreau, Henry. “Night and Moonlight”. The Oxford Book of Essays. Ed. John Gross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 221-228.
Print James Baldwin. “Stranger in the Village”. The Oxford Book of Essays. Ed. John Gross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 621-633.
Print Henry David Thoreau. Wikipedia. MediaWiki, 2013.
Web. 3 March 2013