Biography of Henry David Thoreau, American Essayist

Henry David Thoreau
Portrait of American Author, Poet, and Naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817-May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, philosopher, and poet. Thoreau’s writing is heavily influenced by his own life, in particular his time living at Walden Pond. He has a lasting and celebrated reputation for embracing non-conformity, the virtues of a life lived for leisure and contemplation, and the dignity of the individual.

Fast Facts: Henry David Thoreau

  • Known For: His involvement in transcendentalism and his book Walden
  • Born: July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts
  • Parents: John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar
  • Died: May 6, 1862 in Concord, Massachusetts
  • Education: Harvard College
  • Selected Published Works: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), “Civil Disobedience” (1849), Walden (1854), “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), “Walking" (1864)
  • Notable Quote: “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.” (From Walden)

Early Life and Education (1817-1838)

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of John Thoreau and his wife, Cynthia Dunbar. The New England family was modest: Thoreau’s father was involved with the Concord fire department and ran a pencil factory, while his mother rented out parts of their house to boarders and cared for the children. Actually named David Henry at birth in honor of his late uncle David Thoreau, he was always known as Henry, although he never had his name changed officially. The third of four children, Thoreau spent a peaceful childhood in Concord, celebrating especially the natural beauty of the village. When he was 11, his parents sent him to Concord Academy, where he did so well that he was encouraged to apply to college.

In 1833, when he was 16 years old, Thoreau began his studies at Harvard College, following in the steps of his grandfather. His older siblings, Helen and John Jr., helped pay his tuition from their salaries. He was a strong student, but was ambivalent to the college’s ranking system, preferring to pursue his own projects and interests. This independent spirit also saw him taking a brief absence from the college in 1835 to teach at a school in Canton, Massachusetts, and was an attribute that would define the rest of his life.

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau
Portrait of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), 1847. Private Collection.  Heritage Images / Getty Images

Early Career Changes (1835-1838)

When he graduated in 1837 in the middle of his class, Thoreau was uncertain what to do next. Uninterested in a career in medicine, law, or ministry, as was common for educated men, Thoreau decided to continue working in education. He secured a place at a school in Concord, but he found he could not administer corporal punishment. After two weeks, he quit.

Thoreau went to work for his father’s pencil factory for a short time. In June of 1838 he set up a school with his brother John, though when John became ill just three years later, they shut it down. In 1838, however, he and John took a life-changing canoe trip along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Thoreau began considering a career as a poet of nature.

Friendship With Emerson (1839-1844)

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson settled in Concord, when Thoreau was a sophomore at Harvard. Thoreau had already encountered Emerson’s writing in the book Nature. By autumn that year, the two kindred spirits had become friends, brought together by similar outlooks: both trusted staunchly in self-reliance, the dignity of the individual, and the metaphysical power of nature. Although they would have a somewhat tumultuous relationship, Thoreau ultimately found both a father and a friend in Emerson. It was Emerson who asked his protégé if he kept a journal (a lifelong habit of the older poet’s), prompting Thoreau to begin his own journal in late 1837, a habit which he, too, maintained for almost his entire life up until two months before his death. The journal spans thousands of pages, and many of Thoreau’s writings were originally developed from notes in this journal.

THOREAU'S JOURNAL
Thoreau's journal. Reproduced from a photograph of the actual volume.  Public Domain

In 1840, Thoreau met and fell in love with a young woman visiting Concord by the name of Ellen Sewall. Although she accepted his proposal, her parents objected to the match and she immediately broke off the engagement. Thoreau would never make a proposal again, and never married.

Thoreau moved in with the Emersons for a time in 1841. Emerson encouraged the young man to pursue his literary leanings, and Thoreau embraced the profession of poet, producing many poems as well as essays. While living with the Emersons, Thoreau served as a tutor for the children, a repairman, a gardener, and ultimately an editor of Emerson’s works. In 1840, Emerson’s literary group, the transcendentalists, began the literary journal The Dial. The first issue published Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and his essay “Aulus Persius Flaccus,” on the Roman poet, and Thoreau continued contributing his poetry and prose to the magazine, including in 1842 with the first of his many nature essays, “Natural History of Massachusetts.” He continued publishing with The Dial until its shuttering in 1844 due to financial troubles.

Thoreau became restless while living with the Emersons. In 1842 his brother John had died a traumatic death in Thoreau’s arms, having contracted tetanus from cutting his finger while shaving, and Thoreau was struggling with the grief. Ultimately, Thoreau decided to move to New York, living with Emerson’s brother William on Staten Island, tutoring his children, and attempting to make connections among the New York literary market. Although he felt he was unsuccessful and he despised city life, it was in New York that Thoreau met Horace Greeley, who was to become his literary agent and a promoter of his work. He left New York in 1843 and returned to Concord. He worked partly at his father’s business, making pencils and working with graphite.

Within two years he felt he needed another change, and wanted to finish the book he had begun, inspired by his river canoe trip in 1838. Taken by the idea of a Harvard classmate, who had once built a hut by the water in which to read and think, Thoreau decided to take part in a similar experiment.

Walden Pond (1845-1847)

Emerson bequeathed to him the land he owned by Walden Pond, a small lake two miles south of Concord. In early 1845, at the age of 27, Thoreau started chopping down trees and building himself a small cabin on the shores of the lake. On July 4, 1845, he officially moved into the house in which he would live for two years, two months, and two days, officially beginning his famous experiment. These were to be some of the most satisfying years of Thoreau’s life.

Thoreau's Cabin at Walden Pond
Recreation of Thoreau's Cabin at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Nick Pedersen / Getty Images

His lifestyle at Walden was ascetic, informed by his desire to live a life as basic and self-sufficient as possible. While he would often walk into Concord, two miles away, and ate with his family once a week, Thoreau spent almost every night in his cottage on the banks of the lake. His diet consisted mostly of the food he found growing wild in the general area, although he also planted and harvested his own beans. Remaining active with gardening, fishing, rowing, and swimming, Thoreau also spent lots of time documenting the local flora and fauna. When he was not busy with the cultivation of his food, Thoreau turned to his inner cultivation, mainly through meditation. Most significantly, Thoreau spent his time in contemplation, reading and writing. His writing focused mainly on the book he had already begun, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which chronicled the trip he spent canoeing with his older brother that ultimately inspired him to be become a poet of nature.

Thoreau also maintained a fastidious journal of this time of simplicity and satisfying contemplation. He was to return to his experience on the shore of that lake in just a few years to write the literary classic known as Walden (1854), arguably Thoreau’s greatest work.

After Walden and “Civil Disobedience” (1847-1850)

  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
  • "Civil Disobedience" (1849)

In the summer of 1847, Emerson decided to travel to Europe, and invited Thoreau to reside once more at his house and continue tutoring the children. Thoreau, having completed his experiment and finished his book, lived at Emerson’s for two more years and continued his writing. Because he could not find a publisher for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau published it at his own expense, and made little money off of its meager success.

Interior Room with Henry David Thoreau's Furniture
Thoreau's Furniture from his Walden cabin. Bettmann / Getty Images

During this time Thoreau also published "Civil Disobedience." Halfway through his time at Walden in 1846, Thoreau had been met by the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who had asked him to pay the poll tax that he had ignored for multiple years. Thoreau refused on the basis that he would not pay his taxes to a government which supported slavery and which was waging the war against Mexico (which lasted from 1846-1848). Staples put Thoreau in jail, until the next morning when an unidentified woman, perhaps Thoreau’s aunt, paid the tax and Thoreau—reluctantly—went free. Thoreau defended his actions in an essay published in 1849 under the name “Resistance to Civil Government” and now known as his famous “Civil Disobedience.” In the essay, Thoreau defends individual conscience against the law of the masses. He explains that there is a higher law than civil law, and just because the majority believes something to be right does not make it so. It follows then, he explained, that when an individual intuits a higher law to which civil law does not accord, he must still follow the higher law—no matter what the civil consequences be, in his case, even spending time in jail. As he writes: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

“Civil Disobedience” is one of Thoreau’s most lasting and influential works. It has inspired many leaders to begin their own protests, and has been particularly persuasive to non-violent protesters, including such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi

Later Years: Nature Writing and Abolitionism (1850-1860)

  • "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854)
  • Walden (1854)

Ultimately, Thoreau moved back into his family home in Concord, working occasionally at his father’s pencil factory as well as a surveyor to support himself while composing multiple drafts of Walden and finally publishing it in 1854. After his father’s death, Thoreau took over the pencil factory.

Title Page From Walden
The title page from the first edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau wrote of his experiences and thoughts during a two-year period when he lived in a tiny one-room cabin he had built by the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Library of Congress / Getty Images

By the 1850s, Thoreau was less interested in transcendentalism, as the movement was already splitting apart. He continued, however, to explore his ideas about nature, traveling to the Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and to Canada. These adventures found their places in articles, “Ktaadn, and the Maine Woods,” (1848), which was later to make up the beginning of his book The Maine Woods (published posthumously in 1864), “Excursion to Canada” (1853), and “Cape Cod” (1855).

With such works, Thoreau is now seen as one of the founders of the genre of American nature writing. Also published posthumously (in Excursions, 1863) is the lecture he developed from 1851 to 1860 and which was ultimately known as the essay "Walking" (1864), in which he outlined his thinking on mankind's relationship to nature and the spiritual importance of leaving society for a time. Thoreau thought of the piece as one of his seminal pieces and it is one of the definitive works of the transcendental movement.

In response to growing national unrest regarding the abolition of slavery, Thoreau found himself adopting a more stringently abolitionist stance. In 1854 he delivered a scathing lecture called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” in which he indicted the whole country for the evils of slavery, even the free states where slavery was outlawed—including, as the title suggested, his own Massachusetts. This essay is one of his most celebrated achievements, with an argument both stirring and elegant.

Death (1860-1862)

In 1835, Thoreau contracted tuberculosis and suffered from it periodically over the course of his life. In 1860 he caught bronchitis and from then on his health began to decline. Aware of his impending death, Thoreau showed remarkable tranquility, revising his unpublished works (including The Maine Woods and Excursions) and concluding his journal. He died in 1862, at the age of 44, of tuberculosis. His funeral was planned and attended by the Concord literary set, including Amos Bronson Alcott and William Ellery Channing; his old and great friend Emerson delivered his eulogy.

Henry David Thoreau stamp
Stamp printed by United states, shows Henry David Thoreau, circa 1967. rook76 / Getty Images

Legacy

Thoreau did not see the huge successes in his lifetime that Emerson saw in his. If he was known, it was as a naturalist, not as a political or philosophical thinker. He only published two books in his lifetime, and he had to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers himself, while Walden was hardly a bestseller.

Thoreau is now, however, known as one of the greatest American writers. His thinking has exerted a massive worldwide influence, in particular on the leaders of non-violent liberation movements such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom cited "Civil Disobedience" as a major influence on them. Like Emerson, Thoreau's work in transcendentalism responded to and reaffirmed an American cultural identity of individualism and hard work that is still recognizable today. Thoreau's philosophy of nature is one of the touchstones of the American nature-writing tradition. But his legacy is not only literary, academic, or political, but also personal and individual: Thoreau is a cultural hero for the way he lived his life as a work of art, championing his ideals down to the most everyday of choices, whether it be in solitude on the banks of Walden or in behind the bars of the Concord jail.

Sources