A writing style is one of the most elusive literary elements to define; one cannot really shove Henry David Thoreau, the most iconoclastic square peg of all authors, into a formal vs. conversational stylistic round hole. If there is a single word for Thoreau's writing style in "Civil Disobedience," it's his own word for the style he believed all writers should attempt: vigorous.
Vigor as Word Flow
Thoreau's vigorous style consists of his own idea of word flow: "more a tidal wave than a prone river." "Civil Disobedience" makes waves skillfully; his opening passages move his thesis from the need for little government to that "which governs not at all." He proceeds to reason out man's need for autonomy, the government's role as temporary servant and the need to support a republic only when in danger; he concludes "it is not too soon for honest men to rebel." His word flow is directed by the flow of his logical need for revolution.
Balanced and Periodic Sentences
"A perfectly healthy sentence is extremely rare," said Thoreau, and his syntactical style rebels against conventional writing. He is fond of the periodic sentence, which traps a subject, so to speak, in the middle: "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is always prison." He is also given to balanced sentences, where the sentence is a scale weighing ideas: "The State ... never confronts a man's sense ... but only his body, his senses." His vigor thus achieves, in syntax, both moral equanimity and literal balance.
Style in Syntax and Diction
"Civil Disobedience" was composed after his night in jail for tax avoidance, and nowhere does his style find more vigor than in his description of his release from prison: the sentences are lengthy, packed with ideas, seemingly spilling out of him. They reflect his chaotic thoughts, where "every sentence is the result of a long probation" -- he is most struck by the change to his locale "greater than any that mere time could effect." His syntax and diction suggest a man struggling to find a foothold in a world he has lost.
Vigor in Figurative Language
Thoreau wrote "the tougher truth" to "get calluses on his palms" -- his style uses figurative language extensively, characterizing the state as a busybody gossip and himself as Orpheus, unable to "change the nature" of men; he cries out for a political genius to grow like an apple, and "to drop off as soon as it ripened." In figuratives, syntax, diction and word flow, Thoreau's stylistic vigor matches his vigor in rebellious philosophy.
- Freedictionary.com: Writing Style
- European Graduate School: Henry David Thoreau biography
- Eserver.org: Civil Disobedience
- University of Virginia: Thoreau, Henry David: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
- Freedictionary.com: Periodic Sentence
- Dictionary.com: Balanced Sentence
- Constitutional Right Foundation: Thoreau and "Civil Disobedience"
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