Copyright 2013 by Alex Ayres. All rights reserved.

Published by Quotable Wisdom Books

Library of Congress –

Cataloging-in Publication Data

Henry David Thoreau - 1817-1862

Quotable Thoreau – An A to Z Glossary of Inspiring Quotes from Henry David Thoreau

Edited and with Introduction by Alex Ayres

Except in the case of individual quotations no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher

ISBN: 9781483503851


Nature photographs by Janine Cooper Ayres

Cover photo of Walden Pond by Carolyn Downie

E-book cover design by Janine Cooper Ayres

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau by Janine Cooper Ayres


Quotes About Thoreau


A to Z Lexicon of Quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s Books, Journals and Letters

A Selection of Quotes from Thoreau’s Journal (1837-1862)

Primary Sources

About the Editor

About the Cover Designer

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.



No truer American existed than Thoreau.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, August, 1862,

Atlantic Monthly


Thoreau, who rightfully can be called the father of environmentalism, also deserves iconic status in the scientific fields of ecology and biodiversity studies. With the overdue rapid upsurge in public attention to all three of these domains, the study of the Concord Master naturalist and preservation of his memory becomes all the more important in history.

Edward Wilson,

Museum of Comparative Zoology,

Harvard University


But whatever his gifts, he was above all, as he shows himself in ‘Cape Cod,’ Nature’s dearest observer, to whom she has given the microscopic eye, the weighing mind, and the interpretive voice.

Helen Keller, review of ‘Cape Cod,’ 1896


There are several reasons for suspecting Thoreau to have been a case of Cosmic Consciousness.

Richard Bucke, M.D., Cosmic Consciousness


Whatever questions there may be of his talent, there can be none, I think, of his genius.

Henry James, in Hawthorne


In one book… he surpasses everything we have done in America.

Robert Frost in letter to Wade Van Dore, 1922


His ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.’

Mahatma Gandhi interview in Web Miller,

I Found No Peace, 1938


Here in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved… 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. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before.

Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,

(Clayborne Carson, editor), 1998


Trying to predict what he would think about anything is risky, but I believe he’d be immeasurably pleased that our nation has set aside large tracts of land as national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges. I think he’d be disappointed to learn that we are not doing more to protect what little remains of our wilderness areas and open spaces. He’d also take pleasure in our efforts to preserve our historic buildings, our artifacts, and the symbols of our cultural heritage but would chastise us for not doing more, for enslaving ourselves to our PCs, PDAs, and big-screen TVs and urge us to get outside. Thoreau would bemoan the fact that we have become a nation driven by consumption, alienated from the joys of simplicity that he expounded upon.

Don Henley, co-founder of Eagles rock band,

Founder Walden Woods Project




Henry David Thoreau rarely traveled far from Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born. Yet he wrote like a world traveler, and his first book was a travel book. “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” he explained. He also traveled a good deal in his mind, and in nature.

Young Thoreau attended a public school, a private school, then Concord Academy, before Harvard, from which he graduated in 1837. According to legend, he refused to pick up his diploma because it was made of sheepskin. “Let every sheep keep its skin,” he said.

Thoreau was a teacher for a brief stint at the Concord Academy, but left within a few weeks due to a dispute over corporal discipline, which he refused to administer. He then went into the family business – a pencil manufacturing factory – well known throughout the country for high quality pencils. But Henry could not be satisfied for long working in the family business, nor could his older brother John.

Henry and John started their own school in Concord in 1838. But after John’s sudden death due to lockjaw in 1842, Henry closed the school and returned to work at the pencil factory.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to spot Thoreau’s genius. He offered Thoreau a job as a live-in handyman at the Emerson home. Already one of the most famous writers in America, Emerson was one of the founders of a movement later to be called “Transcendentalism,” which offered a romantic and spiritual view of nature. Emerson encouraged Thoreau to write for the Transcendental Journal, The Dial, which published some of his first poems and essays.

In 1845 Emerson gave Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on a piece of land Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. This experience inspired the book Walden. Thoreau began writing it in 1846 in response to questions from townspeople curious about his activities, and his notes and notebooks grew, through many rewrites and expansions, into the celebrated American classic.

Thoreau lived for two years, two months and two days in his tiny cabin at Walden Pond. One night he was forced to spend in jail due to his refusal to pay a poll tax. Thoreau wrote about that experience in his essay ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ (later retitled ‘Civil Disobedience’), presenting a philosophy of non-cooperation with evil. The essay would subsequently inspire Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in starting their resistance movements.

In 1849 Thoreau published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, about a trip years earlier with his brother John. It sold poorly, making it harder for him to find a publisher for his masterpiece Walden. Finally in 1854 Walden was published by Ticknor and Fields, achieving some good reviews but only modest sales. The first printing of two thousand copies never sold out during the author’s lifetime. In the remaining eight years of his life Thoreau lived in rented rooms, earning only a minimal income, sometimes working in the pencil factory, sometimes surveying, occasionally lecturing, and publishing a few more essays.

An outspoken abolitionist, Thoreau wrote eloquent attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Slavery in Massachusetts”) and a strong defense of John Brown after the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Soon after returning from a trip to Minnesota, Thoreau died in May, 1862, of the tuberculosis which had plagued him periodically since his youth. He was only forty-five years old.

Neither a capitalist nor a socialist, sometimes called an anarchist, Thoreau popularized the famous quote: “That government is best which governs least.” His American dream of success was a modest one, yet he succeeded in his own terms. His income was always small; nor was he famous in his lifetime. He was more concerned with his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods and writing in his private journal his thoughts and observations of nature. Emerson described him as a “bachelor of thought and nature” – though Thoreau saw himself in a more active role: “Nature is my bride,” he exulted in his journal.

One of the most politically conscious men of the nineteenth century, Thoreau was a brilliant observer of social facts as well as natural facts. His outstanding prose style, sprinkled with proverbial gems, has won him a reputation as one of America’s leading literary figures. Walden is now considered one of the greatest books ever written by an American.

In terms of quotability, Thoreau ranks very highly among American writers. Thoreau could pack as much into a sentence as any American writer, and sometimes he outshone everyone. With one famous quote he defined American individualism: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” No less keen than his sharp observations of nature are his observations on human nature: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau could be funny, too. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

His wit was often more savage than civilized. He was always on nature’s side -- a naturalist, a nature writer, nature lover, a champion of nature and wilderness and wildness everywhere. Thoreau urged us not to lose contact with the wildness of nature, nor the wildness in our own nature. In his posthumously published book Life Without Principle (1863) he prophesied: “In wildness lies the preservation of the world.”

Thoreau can be seen in many lights – as a great American essayist – or the most eloquent of naturalists – or the original environmentalist – or a creative protestor – or the spokesperson for solitude – or a shining example of American independence and individuality. He accepted his own loneliness and explored it bravely, making his life an experiment in solitude and independent thinking. He walked his own talk and talked his own walk. In the future, when Nature is in fashion, Thoreau will be in fashion. When Nature is out of fashion, Thoreau will be out.

If he did not quite succeed in making solitude chic, his posthumous popularity contributes to making solitude acceptable as an American lifestyle today. Recent census data shows an increasing number of Americans are living alone. Thoreau preached by example an important message – that it’s all right to be alone – “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote. And he showed us the best way to be alone is to be alone with Nature.

If great quotations are great thoughts, the thoughts of Thoreau are among the greatest.

Alex Ayres


Glossary of Inspiring Quotes from Henry David Thoreau



A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common sense always takes a hasty and superficial view.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849

(see Appearances, Surface)


Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.

Walden, “Economy”

(see Man)


What you consider my disadvantage, I consider my advantage.

Journal, Dec. 5, 1856


Simplify, simplify.

Walden, “What I Lived For”


Live simply and wisely.

Walden, Conclusion


We can never have enough of nature.

Walden, “Spring”


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.

Walden, Conclusion


Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.

Walden, “Economy”


Live at home like a traveler.

Letters of H.G.O. Blake


Make to yourself a perfect body.

Journal, June 21, 1840


You must get your living by loving.

Journal, March 13, 1853


Love your life.

Walden, Conclusion


Do what you love.

Letter to Harrison Blake, March 27, 1848


It is always essential that we love to do what we are doing, do it with a heart.

Journal, Sept. 2, 1851


What people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.

Walden, “Economy”


Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.

Walden, “Baker Farm”


To maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.

Walden, “Economy”


Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.

Life Without Principle, 1863


Read not the Times, Read the Eternities.

Life Without Principle, 1863


Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.

Walden, “Economy”


Associate reverently and as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts.

Journal, Jan. 22, 1852


Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.

Walden, “Reading”


Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.

Journal, June 12, 1851


Make the most of your regrets…. To regret deeply is to live afresh.

Journal, Nov. 13, 1839


Say what you have to say, not what you ought.

Walden, Conclusion


Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.

Letter to Mr. B., March 7, 1848


Let nothing stand between you and the light…. In what concerns you much, do not think that you have companions, know that you are alone in the world.