Henry David Thoreau
of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a
Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau,
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July
12, 1817 (”Thoreau” 96), on his grandmother’s farm. Thoreau, who was of
French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry
Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry
David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother
John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that
the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).
In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to
so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to
Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on
September first. “He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of his class, but
he went his own way too much to reach the top” (5).
In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to
16, 1837 (12). Thoreau’s years at Harvard University gave him one great
Upon his return from college, Thoreau’s family found him to be
inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and
freedom to think and act as he wished.
Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied
community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They
decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered
Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up
six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his
in education (Derleth 15).
In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).
Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy
Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same
thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau.
Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they
quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after
their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson’s help, delivered his first
lecture, “Society” (21).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous
person in Henry David Thoreau’s life. From 1841 to 1843 and again
between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household,
and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and
many other members of the “Transcendental Club” (”Thoreau” 696).
Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal,
into the Merrimack River and into the state of
New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25).
Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry’s beloved older brother,
became very ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and in early May a poor
and distraught Henry David moved into the upstairs of Ralph Waldo
Emerson’s house (35). On March 11, 1842 John died, and Henry’s life long
friend and companion was gone (40).
In early 1845 Thoreau decided to make a sojourn to nearby Walden
1847 Thoreau lived at Walden Pond (”Thoreau” 697). When asked why he
went to live at Walden Pond Thoreau replied:
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. I did not wish to live what was
not life, living is dear, nor did I wish to
practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I
wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… (Thoreau
One night in July 1846, during his stay at Walden, Thoreau was
walking into Concord from the pond when he was accosted by Sam Staples,
the Concord jailer, and charged with not having paid his poll tax.
Thoreau had not paid a poll tax since 1843 when his friend Bronson Alcott
spent a night in jail for not paying his. He didn’t see why he should
have to pay the tax, he had never voted, and he knew that such a purely
political tax had to be affiliated with the funding of the Mexican War
and the subsistence of slavery, both of which he strongly objected to
(Derleth 66). The following morning Thoreau was released because
someone, probably his Aunt Maria Thoreau, had paid his back taxes (68).
This imprisonment compelled Thoreau to write “Civil Disobedience,” one of
his most famous essays.
On May 6,1862 (”Thoreau” 697), after an unavailing journey to
Minnesota in 1861 in search of better health, Henry David Thoreau died of
tuberculosis. Thoreau was buried in Sleep Hollow Cemetery in Concord
near his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson
Alcott (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2).
Thoreau never earned a livelihood by writing, but his works fill
twenty volumes. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
(”Thoreau” 697), but his doctrine of passive resistance impacted many
1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Thoreau’s essay, “Civil
between itself and civil law, and to violate unjust laws to invoke their
Throughout his life, Thoreau protested against slavery by
Canada, and by outwardly defending John Brown when he made his hapless
attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859 (2).
Walden is conceivably Thoreau’s most famous work, however, for
nearly a century after it’s publication it was considered to be only a
collection of nature essays, as social criticism, or as a literal
autobiography. Walden is now looked upon as a created work of art
In Walden Thoreau expresses his sentiments on varying subjects
society had no right to judge people on the basis of their appearance:
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a
anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, of at
least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience
Thoreau believed in relaxation and simplicity, and he said: “As for work,
we haven’t any of any consequence” (78). Thoreau also believed that
Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an
instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it
has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned
anything of absolute value by living (16).
nature, life, and society, and is written in a very unique style. Walden
has been described as an elaborate system of circular imagery which
that should be striven for (”Thoreau” 697).
naturalist, pioneer ecologist, conservationist, visionary, and humanist
(The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2). It has also been said that
Thoreau’s style shows an unconscious, but very pointed degree of
inartistic carelessness in Thoreau’s style that is not at all like the
style of Emerson.
Thoreau possessed an amazing forte for expressing his many
observations in vivid color:
description. His acute powers of observation, his ability to
keep for a long time his attention upon one thing,
and his love of nature and of solitude, all lend a distinct individuality
to his style (Pattee 226).
Thoreau’s good friend Bronson Alcott described his style as:
of thinking was robust, racy, as if Nature herself had
paragraphs with his own vigor and salubrity. Nothing can be spared from
them; there is nothing superfluous; all is compact, concrete,
as nature is (Alcott 16).
Most of Thoreau’s writings had to do with Nature which caused him
to receive both positive and negative criticism. Paul Elmer More said
that Thoreau was: “The greatest by far of our writers on Nature and the
turn around to say:
Much of his [Thoreau's] writing, perhaps the greater
part, is the mere record of observation and classification,
and has not the slightest claim on our remembrance, –
unless, indeed, it posses some scientific value, which I doubt (More
Thoreau was always very forthright in everything he said.
Examples of this can be found throughout Walden, one of which being his
is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea”
(Thoreau 79). There is certainly no ersatz sentiment, nor simulation of
reverence of benevolence in Walden (Briggs 445).
Thoreau was a philosopher of individualism, who placed nature
politics (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). His life was
marked by whimsical acts and unusual stands on public issues (”Thoreau”
697). These peculiar beliefs led to a lot of criticism of Thoreau and
his work. James Russell Lowell complained the Thoreau exalted the
constraints of his own dispositions and insisted upon accepting his
shortcomings and debilities as virtues and powers. Lowell considered: “a
great deal of the modern sentimentalism about Nature…a mark of disease”
In some ways Walden is deluding. It consists of eighteen essays
in which Thoreau condenses his twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond into
the seasons of a single year. Also, the idea is expressed in Magill’s
Survey of American Literature that:
Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a pioneer;
his hut was within two miles of town, and while at Walden, he
made almost daily visits to Concord and to his family, dined
out often, had frequent visitors, and went off on excursions.
Walden is a testament to the renewing power of nature, to the
that: “in wildness is the salvation of the world” (Magill 1949). Walden
Henry David Thoreau strived for freedom and equality. He was
opinionated and argumentative. He stood up for what he believed in and
affect on people and the world, and will have for centuries to come.