Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817, the third child of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. The freethinking Thoreaus were relatively cultured, but they were also poor, making their living by the modest production of homemade pencils. Despite financial constraints, Henry received a strong education, first at Concord Academy and then at Harvard College in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. His education included ancient and modern European languages and literatures, philosophy, theology, and history. Graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord to teach in the local grammar school, but resigned abruptly in only his second week on the job, declaring himself unable to inflict corporal punishment on misbehaving pupils. In the ensuing months, Thoreau sought another teaching job unsuccessfully.

It was around this time that Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent American philosopher, essayist, and poet who had recently moved to Concord. The friendship between the two would eventually prove the most influential of Thoreau’s life. The following June, Thoreau founded a small progressive school emphasizing intellectual curiosity over rote memorization, and after a period of success for the school, his brother John joined the venture. After several years, John’s failing health and Henry’s impatience for larger projects made it impossible to continue running the school.

During this period, Thoreau assisted his family in pencil manufacturing, and worked for a time as a town surveyor. He also began to keep an extensive journal, to which he would devote considerable energy over the next 25 years. His writing activities deepened as his friendship with Emerson developed and as he was exposed to the Transcendentalist movement, of which Emerson was the figurehead. Transcendentalism drew heavily on the idealist and otherworldly aspects of English and German Romanticism, Hindu and Buddhist thought, and the tenets of Confucius and Mencius. It emphasized the individual heart, mind, and soul as the center of the universe and made objective facts secondary to personal truth. It construed self-reliance, as expounded in Emerson’s famous 1841 essay by that same title, not just as an economic virtue but also as a whole philosophical and spiritual basis for existence. And, importantly for Thoreau, it sanctioned a disavowal or rejection of any social norms, traditions, or values that contradict one’s own-personal vision.

With his unorthodox manners and irreverent views, Thoreau quickly made a name for himself among Emerson’s followers, who encouraged him to publish essays in The Dial, an emerging Transcendentalist magazine established by Margaret Fuller. Among these early works were the first of Thoreau’s nature writings, along with a number of poems and a handful of book reviews. Thoreau began to enjoy modest success as a writer. His personal life was marred by his rejected marriage proposal to Ellen Sewall in 1840, who was forced to turn down Thoreau (as she had turned down his brother, John, before him) because of pressure from her family, who considered the Thoreaus to be financially unstable and suspiciously radical. Disappointed in love, devastated by the 1842 death of his brother, and unable to secure literary work in New York, Thoreau was soon back in Concord, once again pressed into service in the family pencil business.

During the early 1840s, Thoreau lived at the Emerson address, where he helped maintain the house and garden, and provided companionship to Emerson’s second wife, Lidian. Thoreau and Lidian developed an intimate, but wholly platonic friendship. It was on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond that Thoreau, inspired by the experiment of his Harvard classmate, Charles Stearns Wheeler, erected a small dwelling in which to live closer to nature. On July 4, 1845, his cabin complete, Thoreau moved to the woods by Walden Pond. He spent the next two years there composing the initial drafts to the two works on which his later reputation would largely rest: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, first published in 1849, and Walden; or, Life in the Woods, first published in 1854. (The title was later shortened to just Walden.) Thoreau’s isolation during this period is sometimes exaggerated. He lived within easy walking distance of Concord, and received frequent visitors in his shack, most often his close friend and traveling companion William Ellery Channing.

During a journey Thoreau made to Concord in July of 1846, the constable apprehended and imprisoned him for nonpayment of a poll tax that he refused to pay because it supported a nation endorsing slavery. In the mild scandal aroused by this gesture against authority, Thoreau defended his actions in a lecture to the Concord Lyceum, in which he publicly expounded his reasons for resisting state authority. Later he revised and published this lecture under the title “Civil Disobedience,” which is the most internationally known of Thoreau’s works, inspiring such prominent social thinkers as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.

When Emerson went to Europe for an extended stay in the autumn of 1847, Thoreau left Walden to keep house with Lidian again for nearly two years. After Emerson’s return, tensions between the two men caused a rift in their friendship. Thoreau left the Emerson residence and returned to his family home, where he would remain for the rest of his life, and resumed work in the pencil business. As the slavery debate came to a head in the 1850s, Thoreau took on a vocal role in the burgeoning abolitionist movement. He assisted fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, and later took an unpopular stand by announcing his support for the martyred John Brown, who in 1859 had sought to incite a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. But during a protracted bout of tuberculosis in the late 1850s, Thoreau largely retreated from public concerns. He began a study of growth rings in forest trees, and visited Minnesota on a walking tour in the spring of 1861. But his illness finally overcame him, and he died at home in Concord on May 6, 1862, at the age of forty-four.

Although 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, 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 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. It was not until the 20th century that Thoreau’s extraordinary impact on American culture would be felt. In the upsurge in counterculture sentiment during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” inspired many young Americans to express their disavowal of official U.S. policies and declare ideological independence, even at the risk of arrest. Walden also expressed a critique of consumerism and capitalism that was congenial to the hippies 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 organizations such as the Sierra Club. He 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.