Henry David Thoreau

He has been called the patron saint of the environmental movement and the father of nonviolent resistance. His best-known work, Walden, is considered a masterpiece and figures on every list of essential American books. His essay “Civil Disobedience” has inspired activists and reformers from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Colin Kaepernick and Greta Thunberg.

He was a scientist, a storyteller, a seeker of truth, and a fighter for our nation’s first principles.

Yet our knowledge of Henry David Thoreau is incomplete, outdated, and often inaccurate.

In this modern take on the historical documentary, the mythical Thoreau – the hermit of Walden Pond, the imitator of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nag, the saint – will give way to the human Thoreau: social; genial; an exacting scientist and charismatic speaker; an individual with flaws, self-contradictions, and misjudgments that prove his humanity and hold a mirror to our own.

Henry David Thoreau will be the first nationally broadcast biography of this American original at a time when his wisdom is sorely needed. The film will explore his most far-reaching and forward-thinking ideas: justice for all human beings, the health of our planet and the species it sustains, the quest for a meaningful life, the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs in the public square. Tracing those concepts into the 21st century will demonstrate how ideas – when taken off the page and truly lived – can change the world.

Unlike many “great man” narratives, the film will complicate Thoreau’s story by revealing it, in key moments, through the eyes of others – Native peoples, African Americans, and women – with whom he shared time and space, but not privilege. These critical perspectives reveal the complex relationships of race and gender to environmental justice and nonviolent protest, exposing the roots of inequality in our shared history and presenting a more complete and accurate record of the past.

Donors to the film are Gilchrist and Amy Berg

Executive produced by Ken Burns, directed by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers, produced by Julie Coffman, Susan Shumaker, and Cauley Powell, and written by David Blistein, Henry David Thoreau has an anticipated PBS broadcast date of 2025/2026. (2–4 hours).

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