Henry David Thoreau
David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Mass., on July 12, 1817, this American author and
naturalist remains one of the most influential figures in
American thought and literature. An individualist often called a loner, he championed the
human spirit against materialism and social conformity. His most
famous book, Walden (1854), is an elegantly penned account of his own experiment
in near-solitary living in close harmony with nature. It also reflects
his feelings toward the transcendental school of philosophy.
Thoreau was raised in Concord and attended Harvard, where he
was known as a serious if unconventional scholar. During his
college years, he was exposed to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
When Emerson moved to Concord, he encouraged Thoreau's writing and grew to
become his mentor.
Thoreau was graduated in 1837 ninth
in his class, but he refused a diploma, thinking that there were better ways
to spend five dollars. He changed his name to Henry David and became a
teacher. When criticized by the supervisor of the local public school
for not using corporal punishment on his students, Thoreau thrashed a random
group of his pupils to illustrate the senselessness of it all and resigned
from the school.
In 1841, Emerson invited Thoreau to live in his household,
where Thoreau remained intermittently until 1843. While there, he
served as a handyman and
assistant, helping to edit and contributing poetry and prose to
the transcendentalist magazine the two men founded, The Dial.
In 1845, at the age of 27, Thoreau built a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond
just outside of Concord, where he remained for two years and two months, “living deep
and sucking out all the marrow of life.” Anxious to lead a life free
of materialistic pleasures, he supported himself by growing vegetables,
surveying, and doing odd jobs around town. He devoted most of
his time to observing nature, reading, and writing; and he kept a detailed
journal, begun in 1837, of his observations, activities, and thoughts.
Thoreau's goal while at Walden was "To live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach." He wrote his classics, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854), from his
journal notes. Other works posthumously published from the journal
include Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods
(1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).
One of Thoreau's most important works, his essay, Civil Disobedience
(1849), grew out of an overnight stay in prison as a result of his
conscientious refusal to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican War.
The War, Thoreau felt, was simply an excuse for extending U.S. slavery. Thoreau's
advocacy of civil disobedience as a legitimate means of individual protest
to those governmental actions that he considered unjust subsequently had
wide-ranging impact—on the British Labor movement, on Mahatma Gandhi's passive-resistance
independence movement in India, and on the nonviolent
civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the United States.
Thoreau is recognized as a prominent naturalist who emphasized the dynamic
ecology of the natural world around him. Beyond that, his quiet,
revolution carried out at Walden remains a symbol of the strength and
triumph of individual will over the daily temptations of society. Thoreau's writings, including his journals, were published in
20 volumes in 1906.
Henry David Thoreau died in 1862.
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