David Thoreau was an American author, naturalist, transcendentalist,
pacifist, tax resister and philosopher who is famous for Walden,
on simple living amongst nature, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,
on resistance to civil government and many other articles and essays.
He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked
the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips
and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Among his lasting contributions
were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated
the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two
sources of modern day environmentalism.
David Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, to John
and Cynthia Thoreau. He was named after a recently deceased paternal
Uncle, David Thoreau. He didn't change his name to "Henry
David" until he had graduated from Harvard, although he never
petitioned the government to do so officially. He had two older
siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia.
Alcott notes in his journal that Thoreau pronounced his family
name THOR-eau, stress on the first syllable, not the last, a common
error today. A Concord variant is THUR-eau, like the English word
"thorough." In appearance he was homely, with a nose
that he called "my most prominent feature".[Cape Cod]
Of his face, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "[Thoreau] is as
ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic,
though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an
exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion,
and becomes him much better than beauty."
studied at Harvard between 1833 and 1837, majoring in English.
Today, an equivalent degree would be in comparative literature.
Legends state that Thoreau refused to pay a five-dollar fee for
a Harvard diploma. In fact, the Masters' degree he declined to
purchase had no academic merit: Harvard College offered it to
graduates "who proved their physical worth by being alive
three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting
quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college."
(Thoreau's Diploma) His comment was Let every sheep keep its own
graduation, he returned home, where he became a companion of Ralph
Waldo Emerson. Emerson took a strong paternal, and sometimes patronizing
liking to Thoreau, and delighted advising the young man and introducing
him into his social circle, which consisted of some of the most
important American writers and thinkers of the period including
Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel
Hawthorne and his son Julian (at that time only a boy). Of the
many esteemed authors who made their home at Concord, he was the
only town native. Emerson referred to him as THE man of Concord.
constantly pushed Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to the
transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, but editor Margaret Fuller
consented to publish Thoreau's work only after pressure from Emerson.
His first work to garner any praise was Natural History of Massachusetts
half book review, half natural history essay published in The
Dial in 1842.
most of his works, the essay was mostly made up of observations
Thoreau had made in his journal. Thoreau had begun keeping a journal
in 1837 at Emerson's suggestion. His first entry on October 22,
1837 reads, "'What are you doing now?' he [Emerson] asked.
'Do you keep a journal?' So I make my first entry today."
was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition.
In his early years, he accepted the ideas of Transcendentalism,
an eclectic idealist philosophy advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Transcendentalism was naturalistic
and mystical, rejecting deterministic Calvinism. It was inspired
by Swedenborg, Kant, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other non-Christian
sources. It was not atheistic, but Unitarian and thus did not
see Jesus as divine.
worked in his father's pencil workshop in 1837-1838. He and his
brother John, opened a Grammar School in Concord in 1838, teaching
there until John became fatally ill in 1841. In 1841 he was invited
to live in the Emerson household, where he lived sporadically
until 1843 working as an all-around handyman, gardener, and assistant
to Emerson. He spent a few months of 1843 in New York, serving
as a tutor to William Emerson's sons, and attempting to break
into the New York publishing industry.
Walden Years: 1845-1847
Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on
July 4, 1845 when he moved to a second-growth forest around the
shores of beautiful Walden Pond and lived in a tiny self-built
house on land owned by Emerson. The house was not in wilderness
but at the edge of town, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from his family home.
On a trip into town, he ran into the local tax collector who asked
him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes (1846). Thoreau
refused because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War
and slavery, for which he spent a night in jail. His later essay
on this experience, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, influenced
Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Walden Pond he completed a first draft of A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers, an elegy to his brother John Thoreau Jr,
who had died in 1842 of lock-jaw, describing their 1839 trip to
the White Mountains. When the book failed to find a publisher,
Emerson urged Thoreau to publish at his own expense. He did so
with Munroe, Emerson's own publisher, who did little to publicize
the book. Its failure put Thoreau into debt that took years to
pay off, and Emerson's flawed advice caused a schism between the
friends that never entirely healed.
August of 1846, Thoreau briefly left Walden to make a trip to
Mount Katahdin in Maine, a journey later recorded in "Ktaadn,"
the first part of The Maine Woods.
left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years he worked
off his debts and also continuously revised his manuscript. In
1854 he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, recounting the
two years, two months and two days he had spent at Walden Pond.
The book compresses that time into a single calendar year, using
the passage of four seasons to symbolize human development. Part
memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden at first won few admirers,
but today critics regard it as a classic American book that explores
natural simplicity, harmony, and beauty as models for just social
and cultural conditions.
In 1851, Thoreau became increasingly fascinated with natural history
(what we would now call science) and travel/expedition narratives.
In 1851 he read avidly on the subject, particularly botany, and
would often transcribe passages from the books he was reading
into his journal. He greatly admired William Bartram, and Charles
Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.
interest increasingly became evident in his work and journals.
He began a project of taking increasingly detailed observations
of Concord, recording everything from the ways fruit would ripen
over time, to the fluctuating depths of Walden Pond, to the days
that certain birds would migrate. The point of his frustrating
task was, in his words, to "anticipate" nature.
became a land surveyor, "travelling a good deal in Concord,"
and writing natural history observations about the 26 mile²
(67 km²) township in his Journal, a two-million word document
he kept for 24 years. His observations, far more objective than
his previous journals, became so numerous that he began to take
a separate natural history notebook for them.
observations became the source for all of Thoreau's late natural
history essays, such as Autumnal Tints, The Sucession of Trees,
and Wild Apples, an essay bemoaning the destruction of indigenous
and wild apple species.
recently, Thoreau's scientific interests and pursuits were dismissed
by critics as amateur and sloppy science coupled with a declined
prose style. Only recently, with the 1993 publication of Faith
in a Seed — a collection of not just his late natural history
essays but also including the first publication of his unfinished
manuscripts — has it become apparent that Thoreau had accomplished
something important. In "Faith," he demonstrated by
observation, experimentation and analysis, how 99 percent of forest
seeds are dispersed; and how forests change over time, and regenerate
after fire or human destruction.
worked at his family's pencil factory in 1837-38, 1844, and 1849-50.
He had a natural gift for mechanics. According to Henry Petroski,
Thoreau discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite
by using clay as the binder; this invention improved upon graphite
found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar. Later, Thoreau
converted the factory to producing plumbago, used to ink typesetting
machines. Frequent contact with minute particles of graphite may
have weakened his lungs.
traveled to Quebec once, Cape Cod twice, and Maine three times;
these landscapes inspired his "excursion" essays, A
Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods, in which travel
intineraries frame his thoughts about geography, history and philosophy.
Other travels took him southwest to Philadelphia and New York
City in 1854, and west across the Great Lakes region in 1861,
visiting Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul.
as an early American environmentalist, Thoreau wrote essays on
autumnal foliage, the succession of forest trees, and the dispersal
of seeds, collected in Excursions. Scientists regard these works
as anticipating ecology, the study of interactions between species,
places, and seasons. He was an early advocate of recreational
hiking and canoeing, of conserving natural resources on private
land, and of preserving wilderness as public land. Thoreau was
also one of the first American supporters of Darwin's theory of
evolution. Although he was not a strict vegetarian, he ate relatively
little meat and advocated vegetarianism as a means of self-improvement.
years and death
Thoreau first contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from
it sporadically over his life. In 1859, following a late night
excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rain storm,
he became extremely ill. His health declined over three years
with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden.
Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent
his last years editing, rewriting, and organizing his unpublished
works, particuarly The Dispersion of Seeds, and petitioning publishers
to produce his essays and books.
also maintained correspondences and his journals until he became
too weak, after which he would dictate to his sister. His friends'
letters and journals are filled with both alarm at his diminished
appearance and impending death, as well as fascination with Thoreau's
tranquility with his situation. When a friend asked him in his
last weeks whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded
quite simply: "We've never quarreled."
died of tuberculosis in 1862 and was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral. Thoreau's best
friend Ellery Channing published his first biography, Thoreau
the Poet-Naturalist, in 1873, and Channing and another friend
Harrison Blake edited some poems, essays, and journal entries
for posthumous publication in the 1890s.
three-million-word Journal, often mined but largely unpublished
at his death, appeared in 1906 and helped to build his modern
reputation. It is currently being reproduced in a multi-volume
set. Today Thoreau is regarded as one of the foremost American
writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and the
prescience of his views on nature and politics. His memory is
honored by the international Thoreau Society, the oldest and largest
society devoted to an American author.
Thoreau was not without his critics. Scottish author Robert Louis
Stevenson judged Thoreau's endorsement of natural simplicity over
the tangles of modern society to be a mark of effeminacy: "...Thoreau's
content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like a plant that
he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there
is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in
a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears
the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker.
He did not wish virtue to go out of him among his fellow-men,
but slunk into a corner to hoard it for himself. He left all for
the sake of certain virtuous self-indulgences."
English novelist George Eliot, writing in the Westminster Review,
characterized such critics as uninspired and narrow-minded: "People—very
wise in their own eyes—who would have every man's life ordered
according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every
existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh
Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and
dreamy." Throughout the 19th century, Thoreau was dismissed
as a cranky provincial, hostile to material progress. In a later
era, his devotion to the causes of abolition, Native Americans,
and wilderness preservation have marked him as a visionary.
Thoreau's writings had far reaching influences on many public
figures. Political Leaders and reformers like Mahatma Gandhi,
President John F. Kennedy, Civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther
King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian
author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau's
work, particularly On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. So did many
artists and authors including Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel
Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway,
E. B. White and Frank Lloyd Wright and naturalists like John Burroughs,
John Muir, Edwin Way Teale, Joseph Wood Krutch and David Brower.
Anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman also appreciated Thoreau,
and referred to him as "the greatest American anarchist".
One of the most famous quotes often mistakenly attributed to either
Jefferson or Thomas
Paine, "That government is best
which governs least", actually came from Henry David Thoreau
in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Thoreau was paraphrasing
the motto of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review,
"The best government is that which governs least."