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Thoreau’s Quest – eBook

Mysticism in the Life and Writings of Henry David Thoreau

Mysticism in the Life and Teachings of Henry David Thoreau

by Paul Hourihan, edited by Anna Hourihan
ISBN: 978-1-931816-15-1

“At a time like this, Dr. Hourihan performs a valuable service by his courageous reaffirmation of what is of permanent value in the life and works of one of the most original minds in American literature.”
– Dr. V. K. Chari, author of Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism

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OPEN YOUR HEART TO SELF-DISCOVERY through the Profound Life and Works of Henry David Thoreau

Much has been written about Henry David Thoreau as a prominent writer, and naturalist, but much less research has been done regarding his spirituality, which made the writing of his classic work, Walden forceful and unique.

This book encompasses the Thoreau half of the award-winning study Mysticism in American Literature: Thoreau’s Quest and Whitman’s Self by Paul Hourihan, that focused on the mysticism in the lives and major works of Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Thoreau’s Quest includes additional material on Thoreau’s life and also interpretations from Walden.

You’ll find out how Thoreau’s principal work Walden was inspired by his spiritual revelations and struggles and what the deeper meanings are in key passages from his classic.

Paul Hourihan also delves into the subject of depression and the role it plays in the life of the spiritual seeker in light of Thoreau’s extended depression after publishing his masterpiece.

By understanding the wisdom and strengths as well as the faults and failings of this great man of letters, and seeker of truth, we can know ourselves better. 


Henry David Thoreau was a lover of Nature and a believer in living the simple life. By writing about his two-year experiment at Walden Pond, he became one of America’s most influential writers of the 19th century. Using his literary gifts to recount his experience living a minimalist and self-reliant life in Walden, he’s given us a classic book that continues to inspire young and old alike. But what distinguished him and made his work great was his spiritual strength of character and determination to live an authentic life.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry Thoreau wanted to discover the meaning of life and the full potential of being human. This quest led him to the path of mysticism. Mysticism is an experience of the Truth that goes beyond the mind and senses and expresses itself in countless ways. Literature being one way as we see from Thoreau’s poem “Inspiration”:

I hear beyond the range of sound,
I see beyond the range of sight,
New earths and skies and seas around,
And in my day the sun doth pale his light.

Thoreau’s mystical experience was such that even the sun lost its effulgence in comparison with it. Mysticism is described as secret, as something encountered beyond the intellect and senses. But then isn’t Mysticism ineffable? How can we really discuss it for what it is? The supreme mystical experience or higher union with Godhead—the ultimate samadhi—is no doubt beyond our power to communicate or grasp. Mysticism is not only this supernal peak, but thousands of intermediate experiences—moments, insights, decisions, epiphanies that come to us along the way. Its transforming power leads us to a whole new way of life with attitudes, motivations, incentives, and assumptions that undergird such an existence.

Henry Thoreau was one of the leading figures in the Transcendentalist movement. The Transcendentalists saw Life everywhere charged with mystical possibilities … in art, music, science, literature, the world of the intellect and in ordinary life. Consider our experience of human love at its best—how deep, how transforming this experience is—how “ineffable.” Mysticism in Nature, what we call nature-mysticism hardly needs to be mentioned. Fortunately, we know much about Thoreau’s inner development from his journals and personal letters. These, along with his writings, give us a psychological as well as literary approach to the more important matter of his spiritual transformation and journey. In his case, and perhaps with every great man, the outer works are only a footnote to the true story that is going on, which is the evolution of his spirit, the gradual manifestation of his true self. If he’s a writer and seeking truth, his works will reveal milestones along the way, enlightening us about much more than his literary progress.

The subject of depression and its part in the life of the spiritual seeker is also discussed, especially in light of Thoreau’s extended depression after publishing Walden.

Thoreau stands as one of the preeminent originals in American literature in his century. He was a living example of what he preached. His enduring words continue to inspire us to be “explorers of whole new continents and worlds within us.”

. . .

Since the focus of the present volume is mysticism, two aspects of Thoreau’s Walden that are covered extensively by other studies will be passed over. One is its interpretation of Nature. True nature lovers read Walden from that standpoint, which doesn’t much concern us here since it seems incidental to the mysticism. Another is the social criticism that flows through everything Thoreau writes. Although his essay Civil Disobedience had far-reaching influence, it is a phase of his creatureliness and is mentioned in brief. He is aware of evils in the world and criticizes them, just as he is a naturalist observing trees, lakes and wildlife, which are expressions of his earthly personality whereby he fills the time with congenial activities or writings; but behind them all is the spiritual theme, the life of the potential mystic, with which we will be mostly concerned. 

Paul Hourihan, who had a Ph.D. in American literature, and 25 years teaching and writing in the field of mystical studies, combines his lifelong passion for literature and mysticism to give us an insightful look into the life of one of America’s own celebrated mystical writers of the 19th century.