Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He was born to parents that were very intelligent, yet poor and undistinguished. Despite their struggle with poverty, “their home was a center of affection and vivacity.” Thoreau was the third of four children and he showed an early love of nature and was the “scholar” of the family, going on to learn many languages. Because Henry showed so much promise as a student, his parents sent him to Concord Academy. He later went on to attend Harvard College. With the help of his aunts, and by doing odd jobs and tutoring, he managed to afford the tuition. Interestingly enough, he graduated from Harvard in 1837 as an honor student and a speaker at commencement, yet he was still unknown. During his lifetime, Thoreau tried his hand at an assortment of odd jobs. His first experiment was with teaching. He, along with his older brother John, opened a private school, but the school was forced to close down after John became ill in 1841. He lived with his friend and fellow scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson, keeping house and doing chores in exchange for rent and board. In 1843, he journeyed to the home of Emerson s brother William to tutor. Soon after the death of John in 1842, Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond, partially as a tribute to his beloved brother. When he returned from Walden in September of 1847, he again performed an assortment of jobs. He hired himself out as a painter, carpenter, mason, or a day-laborer believing “the occupation of a day-laborer to be the most independent of any,” he also became interested in surveying land and went on to become one of the best surveyors in Concord. He even made time to contribute to the family pencil-making business by inventing a graphite flotation process which made Thoreau pencils superior to those of competitors. During his travels, Thoreau also lectured on issues such as slavery. He was an effective speaker, but lacked Emerson s skill of fully communicating with his audience. His last excursion was made to Minnesota in 1861. He left, hoping that the trip would improve his health, which had been severely damaged by bronchitis several years earlier. The Minnesota trip weakened him further causing him to die shortly afterwards to tuberculosis on May 6,1862. Despite his short life, he suffered many grievances. He was engaged to be married to Ellen Seawall young in life, but she left him for his older brother and best friend John. Later on she also dumped John for another man leaving the two brothers heart broken. Two years later, his brother of lockjaw at the age of 27. That year his sister also died; she was 36. These events left him saddened and partially caused his retreat to Walden. Thoreau wrote many things while he was alive, and many of his stories and essays gained much acclaim after his death. He began writing Journals, a day-to-day recording of many of his ideas and observations. It would go on to span approximately 14 volumes and become a storehouse of innovative ideas. During his life, The Transcendental Club (of which he was a member) published “The Dial” (1840-44) a magazine to which he contributed many essays and poems. However, besides the essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau would probably never have become a classic writer if he had not
written Walden. Walden was written during Thoreau s stay at Walden Pond, an excursion which lasted over 2 years. Walden was written as Thoreau conducted his “experiment in living.” The 26 months he spent at his cabin at Walden Pond were condensed into a work spanning one year. It took him many drafts and nearly 10 years before he could eventually publish the book in 1854. It did not gain immediate popularity, but it has stood the test of time, gaining status as a classic novel, well worth being read. As one reader commented: Almost all of the richness of Thoreau is in Walden. In is revelation of the simplicity and divine unity of nature, in his faith in man, in his own sturdy individualism, in his deep-rooted love for one place as an epitome of the universe, Thoreau reminds us of what we are and what we yet may be. Many of Thoreau’s political views stemmed from the fact that he took an early interest in abolition. He spoke at several antislavery conventions, especially in the Northern states. He was the first person to defend John Brown after the raid on Harper s Ferry. He did so in an October 30 speech in Concord, Mass., solidly aligning himself with the radical sector of the antislavery movements. He believed Brown to be ” A man of rare common sense and directness of speech, as of action: a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles,” Two of his famous essays, “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) and ” A Plea for John Brown” (1859), display his strong feelings about the abolitionist movement. One of his most famous works is “Civil Disobedience,” (1849), and it is considered to be the most widely read of all American essays. In 1845 while living at Walden Pond, Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax. He was resisting slavery, as paying the tax to essentially gave support in Congress to southern leadership, represented by the Mexican War and by appalling laws concerning slavery. His refusal to pay the tax led to a night in jail, after which an anonymous source paid the tax for him. “Civil Disobedience” gave birth to “the concept of pacific resistance as the final instrument of minority opinion. The essay includes many transcendental themes including: celebration of the individual, non- conformity, the rights of the minority, and a new kind of government with the potential to be greater than democracy. He was not an anarchist, but he did believe “that government is best which governs least.” He also believed the following: That men s lives are more important than the state, for the state is the servant and not the master of men, and that man is duty-bound to resist the state if it encroaches upon his integrity. He was a strong believer in passive resistance writing: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we have succeeded, shall we transgress them all at once A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority them; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” It is believed by many that after writing “Civil Disobedience” he imagined that the masses would eventually begin passive resistance against the government. In the century that has passed, the state has grown larger and the individual smaller than he ever could of imagined as he penned: There will never be a really free and enlightened state, until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.