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Morgan Library Fetes First Cultural Iconoclast, Henry David Thoreau

Exhibit Marks 200th Anniversary of His Birth

Henry David Thoreau by Benjamin Maxham

Henry David Thoreau is the focus of a new Morgan Library & Museum exhibit that provides a rare window into the author’s life. (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham 1821–1889, Worcester, Mass, June 18, 1856. Berg Collection, New York Public Library)

Henry David Thoreau was America’s first cultural iconoclast. Not much is popularly known about him beyond his seminal book “Walden.” But the Morgan Library & Museum’s upcoming exhibit provides a rare window into Thoreau’s life.

Although written in 1854, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” as it was formally titled, became a handbook for the ’60s counterculture and back-to-the-land movement.

Thoreau spent the now famous “two years, two months and two days” living in a small cabin near Walden pond, developing a philosophy of life–inspired by transcendentalism– that encouraged simple living and self-sufficiency.

As such, he considered the book “a personal declaration of independence, social experiment, a voyage of spiritual discovery, satire and (to some degree) manual for self-reliance,” according to one popular book on the author.

His second seminal work was the essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” which is more widely known simply as “Civil Disobedience.”

It grew out of a night in jail following Thoreau’s arrest in 1846 for refusing to pay a tax to protest state-sanctioned slavery.

A staunch abolitionist, Thoreau also based the essay on several speeches he gave shortly after leaving Walden pond. He was not only anti-slavery, but strongly opposed to the 1846-48 Mexican-American War.

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Because of those events, he argued that it is a citizen’s right and duty to protest actions by the government that were found to be corrupt or unjust. He also made one of the first arguments for tax resistance.

The Morgan exhibit will go much deeper based on journals Thoreau kept throughout his life.

More voluminous than his published writings, the journals reveal “a fuller, more intimate picture of a man of wide-ranging interests and a profound commitment to living responsibly and passionately,” according to the museum.

“Henry David Thoreau has variously been cast as naturalist, hermit philosopher, and political activist,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum, in a statement.

“However, none of these labels do justice to the breadth of his interests and his enormous impact on American culture and letters,” he adds.

“It is perhaps only in his journal that one finds Thoreau in full voice, commenting thoughtfully on a range of topics, from the seemingly mundane to the historic events of his day.”

The exhibit, titled “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal” will include more than twenty of Thoreau’s notebooks, along with letters,
manuscripts and books from his library.

Pressed plants from his herbarium and important personal artifacts will also be featured, plus the only two photographs taken of him during his lifetime.

To create the exhibit, the Morgan is partnering with the Concord Museum, the home for all of Thoreau’s artifacts.

“For the first time, the surviving personal artifacts—from Thoreau’s simple green desk to his beloved flute— will temporarily be on view outside of his hometown of Concord,” said Margaret Burke, Executive Director of the Concord Museum.

“Two centuries after his birth, we believe that much can be learned from Thoreau and his perception of the world.”

Thoreau, who died from tuberculosis at 44, began chronicling his life in 1837. He made his final entry in 1861 as the nation was plunging into civil war. He died a year later.

“This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal” will run from June 2 through Sept. 10 at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street, in Manhattan.

For more information check out the museum Web site or call 212.685.0008.

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