Although Henry David Thoreau is held today in great esteem, his work received far less attention during his lifetime, and a considerable number of his neighbors viewed him with contempt. As a result, Thoreau had to self-finance the publication of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Published in an edition of 1,000 in 1849, over 700 of these copies remained unsold, and he eventually stored them on his home bookshelves; Thoreau liked to joke that he had written an entire library. Even Walden (1854) was met with scant interest. He revised the work eight times before a publisher accepted it, and the book found only marginal success during Thoreau’s lifetime.
Civil Disobedience (1849) grew to have significant internationally influence—it inspired by Leo Tolstoy in Russia and Mahatma Gandhi in India—but it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that Thoreau’s extraordinary impact on American culture would be most felt. In the upsurge in counterculture sentiment during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era, Walden and Civil Disobedience inspired many Americans to express their disavowal of official U.S. policies and declare ideological independence, even at the risk of arrest. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an especially strong advocate of the use of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest as a means of affecting change in society, and his example in particuar has inspired succeeding generations of activitist for Civil Rights for Black Americans and other causes to adhere to that model.
Walden also expressed a critique of consumerism and capitalism that was congenial to the counterculture and others who preferred to drop out of the bustle of consumer society and pursue what they saw as greater and more personally meaningful aims. Moreover, Thoreau politicized the American landscape and nature itself, giving us a liberal view on the wilderness whose legacy can be felt in the Sierra Club and other environmentally focused groups. Thoreau did not perceive nature as a dead and passive object of conquest and exploitation, as it was for many of the early pioneers for whom land meant survival. Rather, he saw in it a lively and vibrant world unto itself, a spectacle of change, growth, and constancy that could infuse us all with spiritual meaning if we pursued it. Finally, Thoreau gave generations of American writers a distinctive style to emulate: a combination of homey, folksy talk with erudite allusions, creating a tone that is both casual and majestic.