Henry David Thoreau Biography

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Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) was born in Concord, MA in 1817, and lived all but about two years of his life in the town. After completing grammar school with distinction at Concord Academy, he was admitted to Harvard College, where he did only passably well, preferring, instead of classes, to enjoy the library on his own terms. Upon returning to Concord, he took a job as a teacher, only to leave two weeks later because of his inability to discipline the students. After that he opened a progressive alternative school with his brother John that lasted three years. Following this attempt, Thoreau developed a deep friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He later moved in with the man and his family, working both as a handyman and tutor to the elder's children. Although Thoreau proposed to Ellen Sewall, another Concord resident, and she accepted, she was compelled by her parents, who disapproved, to break off the engagement. Thoreau remained single the rest of his life. During this period, Thoreau took a week-long boat trip with his brother that was the subject of Thoreau's book, A Trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This work proved to be the only one in addition to Walden and his short piece "Civil Disobedience" that was published during Thoreau's lifetime. It sold very badly prior to Thoreau's death.

After his time at Walden (from 1845 until 1847), Thoreau spent a couple of years living on Staten Island, acting as a tutor for Emerson's brother, before returning to Concord to live with his sister and parents until the end of his life. Thoreau maintained a close relationship with his brother up until the latter's death of lockjaw following a freak accident. Near the end of his life, he developed a close friendship with John Brown, the abolitionist. Following Brown's death by hanging after the Harper's Ferry Slave uprising, Thoreau fell ill and died of tuberculosis in 1862.

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 4, 1845 until September 6, 1847. He wrote most of the text of Walden during that time, but did not publish the book until 1854. Over those seven years, he revised the book seven times, and did not work at all on it during the years 1950-52. During this period, he was also involved in the speaking series at the Concord Lyceum, both as an organizer and regular speaker.

He identified himself as a Transcendentalist, a radical religious and political group that incorporated many eastern ideas, like reincarnation, into their philosophy. Transcendentalists valued individual awakening over group political action. In addition, the group valued intuition and spirituality over empirical thinking. They practiced meditation, and engaged in deep discussion about the process of thought. The group included Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family, and a number of other great thinkers of the period. However, like Emerson, Thoreau declined multiple invitations to take part in the Brook Farm or Fruitlands collectives, both of which were outgrowths of the Transcendentalist movement in the Boston area.

In addition to maintaining a close friendship with Emerson, the two started a magazine, The Dial, which published many of Thoreau's poems and essays that proved his great skill as a naturalist. Although Thoreau provided the most vivid and well-documented example of a Transcendentalist life, he struggled most of his life to make a living inside the capitalist system he so despised. Throughout his younger years he worked in the family pencil-making business, and near the end of his life turned to surveying to make ends meet.

Like Angelina Grimke, who was morally opposed to slavery, as opposed to the economics of it, he was equally cognizant of the importance of resistance, even if it led to ostracism or jail, two things to which he was ideologically opposed. Thoreau believed deeply that taxation by an unjust government was immoral. He was arrested after refusing to pay his taxes. Despite these deep political convictions, the great importance of Walden was Thoreau's realization of the utmost importance of personal, inner awakening prior to any attempt at political agitation.

Despite Thoreau's great impact on later generations of activists, he struggled throughout his life to gain acceptance and understanding. Thoreau spent much of his life struggling economically, and faced tragedy multiple times. The loss of both John Brown, a great mentor, and his brother and traveling companion (also named John) were difficult for Thoreau. These events, combined with his inability to publish his work, made Thoreau's life a rather quiet and undistinguished one. It was only years after his death that his work was recognized for its brilliance and forward-thinking ideas.


Lauter, Paul, Ed. Introduction and Notes, Walden and Civil Disobedience, New Riverside Editions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

"Thoreau, Henry David," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

"Thoreau, Henry David," Britannica Encyclopedia Online http://britannica.com © 1999-2000 Britannica, Inc.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience, New Riverside Editions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

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