David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862; born David Henry Thoreau)
was an American author, naturalist, transcendentalist, tax resister,
development critic, and philosopher who is best known for Walden, a
reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay,
Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government
in moral opposition to an unjust state.
books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes.
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.
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. Thoreau’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance influenced
the political thoughts and actions of such later figures as Leo Tolstoy,
Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
claim Thoreau as an inspiration. Though Civil Disobedience calls for
improving rather than abolishing government — “I ask for,
not at once no government, but at once a better government”
— the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: “‘That
government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are
prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will
Early Years: 1817-1837
David Henry Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts to John Thoreau
and Cynthia Dunbar. His paternal grandfather was of French origin and
born on the Isle of Jersey. David Henry was named after a recently
deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. He did not become “Henry
David” until after college, although he never petitioned to make
a legal name change. He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr.,
and a younger sister, Sophia.  Thoreau’s birthplace still exists
on Virginia Road in Concord and is currently the focus of preservation
efforts. The house is original, but it now stands about 100 yards away
from its first site.
Bronson Alcott noted
in his journal that Thoreau pronounced his family name ['??r??], stressing
the first syllable, not the second as is common today. A Concord variant
is ['???r??], like the standard American pronunciation of the word “thorough.”
In appearance he was homely, with a nose that he called “my most
prominent feature”. 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.”
at Harvard between 1833 and 1837. He lived in Hollis Hall and took courses
in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics and science. Legend states
that Thoreau refused to pay the 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”  His comment was: “Let every sheep
keep its own skin.”
] Returning to Concord:
During a leave of absence from Harvard in 1835, Thoreau taught school
in Canton, Massachusetts. After graduating in 1837, he joined the faculty
of Concord Academy, but he refused to administer corporal punishment
and the school board soon dismissed him. He and his brother John then
opened a grammar school in Concord in 1838. They introduced several
progressive concepts, including nature walks and visits to local shops
and businesses. The school ended when John became fatally ill from tetanus
in 1841. Upon graduation Thoreau returned home to Concord, where
he befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson took a paternal and at times
patronizing interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing
him to a circle of local writers and thinkers, including Ellery Channing,
Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his son Julian,
who was a boy at the time. Of the many prominent authors who lived in
Concord, Thoreau was the only town native. Emerson referred to him as
the man of Concord.
urged Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to a quarterly periodical,
The Dial, and Emerson lobbied with editor Margaret Fuller to publish
those writings. Thoreau’s first essay published there was Natural
History of Massachusetts; half book review, half natural history essay,
it appeared in 1842. It consisted of revised passages from his journal,
which he had begun keeping at Emerson’s suggestion. The first
entry on October 22, 1837 reads, “‘What are you doing now?’
he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry
Thoreau was a philosopher
of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years
he followed Transcendentalism, a loose and eclectic idealist philosophy
advocated by Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott. They held that an ideal spiritual
state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and empirical, and that
one achieves that insight via personal intuition rather than religious
doctrine. In their view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit,
expressing the “radical correspondence of visible things and human
thoughts,” as Emerson wrote in Nature (1836).
Thoreau joined the Emerson household to serve as the children’s
tutor, editorial assistant, and repair man/gardener. For a few months
in 1843, he moved to the home of William Emerson on Staten Island, tutoring
the family sons while writing for New York periodicals, aided in part
by his future literary representative Horace Greeley.
to Concord and worked in his family's pencil factory, which he would
continue to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process
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. (The process of mixing graphite and clay,
known as the Conté process, was patented by Nicolas-Jacques Conté
in 1795.) Later, Thoreau converted the factory to produce plumbago (graphite),
used to ink typesetting machines. Frequent contact with minute particles
of graphite may have weakened his lungs already damaged by TB.[citation
Once back in Concord,
Thoreau went through a restless period. In April 1844 he and his friend
Edward Hoar accidently set a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden
Woods. He spoke often of finding a farm to buy or lease, which he
felt would give him a means to support himself while also providing
enough solitude to write his first book.
] Civil Disobedience
and the Walden Years: 1845–1849
A reproduction of Thoreau’s cabin with a statue of ThoreauThoreau
embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845,
when he moved to a small self-built house on land owned by Emerson in
a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was
not in wilderness but at the edge of town, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from his
On July 24 or 25th,
1846, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who asked
him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because
of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, and he spent
a night in jail because of this refusal. (The next day Thoreau was freed,
over his protests, when his aunt paid his taxes.)  The experience
had a strong impact on Thoreau. In January and February of 1848, he
delivered lectures “on The Rights and Duties of the Individual
in relation to Government” explaining his tax resistance at
the Concord Lyceum. Bronson Alcott attended the lecture, and wrote in
his journal on January 26th
lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State
— an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government,
and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr.
Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord
Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when
taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered,
and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.
the lecture into an essay entitled Resistance to Civil Government (also
known as Civil Disobedience). In May 1849 it was published by Elizabeth
Peabody in the Aesthetic Papers.
At Walden Pond,
he completed a first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,
an elegy to his brother, John, that described their 1839 trip to the
White Mountains. Thoreau did not find a publisher for this book, and
Emerson urged Thoreau to publish at his own expense. Thoreau did so
with Munroe, Emerson’s own publisher, who did little to publicize
the book, which failed entirely to sell. 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.
In 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.
Thoreau left Walden
Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years, he worked to pay 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.
Late Years: 1851-1858
Henry David Thoreau, photograph published circa 1879In 1851, Thoreau
became increasingly fascinated with natural history and travel/expedition
narratives. He read avidly on botany and often wrote observations on
this topic into his Journal. He greatly admired William Bartram, and
Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. He kept detailed observations
on Concord's nature lore, recording everything from how the fruit ripened
over time to the fluctuating depths of Walden Pond and the days certain
birds migrated. The point of this task was to “anticipate”
the seasons of nature, in his words.
He became a land
surveyor, and continued to write increasingly detailed natural history
observations about the 26 mile² (67 km²) township in his Journal,
a two-million word document he kept for 24 years. He also kept a series
of separate notebooks, and these observations became the source for
Thoreau's late natural history writings, such as Autumnal Tints, The
Succession of Trees, and Wild Apples, an essay bemoaning the destruction
of indigenous and wild apple species.
Until the 1970s,
Thoreau’s late pursuits were dismissed by literary critics as
amateur science and declined philosophy. With the rise of environmental
history and ecocriticism, several new readings of this matter began
to emerge, showing Thoreau to be both a philosopher and an analyst of
ecological patterns in fields and woodlots. For instance, his late essay,
"The Succession of Forest Trees," shows that he used experimentation
and analysis to explain how forests regenerate after fire or human destruction,
through dispersal by seed-bearing winds or animals.
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 not a strict vegetarian, Thoreau ate relatively
little meat and advocated vegetarianism as a means of self-improvement.
rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness. Instead he sought
a middle ground, the pastoral realm that integrates both nature and
culture. The wildness he enjoyed was the nearby swamp or forest, and
he preferred “partially cultivated country.” His idea of
being “far in the recesses of the wilderness” of Maine was
to “travel the logger’s path and the Indian trail,”
but he also hiked on pristine untouched land.
He traveled to Quebec
once, Cape Cod four times, and Maine three times; these landscapes inspired
his “excursion” books, A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and
The Maine Woods, in which travel itineraries 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 Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee,
St. Paul and Mackinac Island.
Final Years: 1859-1862
After John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, many prominent voices
in the abolitionist movement distanced themselves from Brown, or damned
him with faint praise. Thoreau was disgusted by this, and composed a
speech — A Plea for Captain John Brown — which was uncompromising
in its defense of Brown and his actions. Thoreau’s speech proved
persuasive: first the abolitionist movement began to accept Brown as
a martyr, and by the time of the American Civil War entire armies of
the North would literally be singing Brown’s praises. As a contemporary
biographer of John Brown put it: “If, as Alfred Kazin suggests,
without John Brown there would have been no Civil War, we would add
that without the Concord Transcendentalists, John Brown would have had
little cultural impact.”
graves at Sleepy Hollow CemeteryThoreau 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 ill with bronchitis. 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 revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly Excursions
and The Maine Woods and petitioning publishers to print revised editions
of A Week and Walden. He also wrote letters and journal entries until
he became too weak to continue. His friends were alarmed at his diminished
appearance and fascinated by his tranquil acceptance of death. When
his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace
with God, Thoreau responded quite simply: “I did not know we had
ever quarreled.” He died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 44.[citation
in the Dunbar family plot, he and members of his immediate family were
eventually moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
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. Thoreau’s Journal, often mined but largely unpublished
at his death, first appeared in 1906 and helped to build his modern
reputation. A new and greatly expanded edition of the Journal is underway,
published by Princeton University Press. 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 first received a letter from Harrison Blake, an ex-minister
(Unitarian) widower of Worcester, Massachusetts, in March of 1848. Thus
began a correspondence which lasted at least until May 3, 1861. Only
Blake's first letter remains, but forty-nine of Thoreau's replies have
been recovered. Harrison Blake, a year older than Thoreau, heard of
Thoreau's experiment at Walden only six months after Thoreau had returned,
but still six years before the book Walden was to be published. And
while Thoreau was not yet widely recognized for his philosophical outlook,
initiating a discourse with the author was strictly for that reason.
Blake's first letter makes it clear that he seeks a spiritual mentor,
and Thoreau's replies reveal that he was eager to fill the role. After
the death of Sophia Thoreau, Harrison Blake inherited Thoreau's papers,
and Blake was the first to publish extracts from the Journal.[citation
A bust of Thoreau from the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at the Bronx
Community College.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 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 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”.
Mahatma Gandhi first
read Walden in 1906 while working as a Civil Rights Activist in Johannesburg,
South Africa. He told American reporter Webb Miller, "[Thoreau's]
ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recomended the
study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause
of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement
from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about
80 years ago."
Martin Luther King,
Jr noted in his Autobiography that his first encounter with the idea
of non-violent resistance was reading "On Civil Disobedience"
in 1944 while attending Morehouse College. He wrote in his autobiography
that it was
Here, in this courageous
New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather
than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico,
I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated
by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply
moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced
that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation
with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in
getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his
writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative
protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement;
indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a
sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful
protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these
are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and
that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
Thoreau was not without his critics. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson
judged Thoreau’s endorsement of living alone in natural simplicity,
apart from modern society, to be a mark of effeminacy:
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.
novelist George Eliot, writing in the Westminster Review, characterized
such critics as uninspired and narrow-minded:
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.[citation
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.
Henry D(avid) Thoreau
American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, best-known for his
autobiographical story of life in the woods, WALDEN (1854). Thoreau
became one of the leading personalities in New England Transcendentalism.
He wrote tirelessly but earned from his books and journalism little.
Thoreau's CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE (1849) influenced Gandhi in his passive
resistance campaigns,Martin Luther King, Jr., and at one time the politics
of the British Labour Party.
"For many years
I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms, and did
my duty faithfully, through I never received one cent for it."
(Journal, February 22, 1845-1847 - no year in Thoreau's dateline)
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center
of his life, although he spent several years in his childhood in the
neighboring towns and elsewhere in his adulthood. In 1835 Thoreau contracted
tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.
However, a few years later Emerson described Thoreauas a "strong
healthy youthm fresh from college". He had an out-of doors complexion,
and he was often seen walking around his home town. Thoreau studied
at Concord Academy (1828-33), and at Harvard University, graduating
in 1837. He was teacher in Canton, Massachusetts (1835-36), and at Center
School (1837), resigning after two weeks - he first refused to continue
the tradition of daily canings and then beat six students to protest
against corporal punishment.
From 1837-38 Thoreau
worked in his father's pencil factory, and returning to the factory
in 1844 and 1849-50. With his elder brother John he opened a school
in Concord. Thoreau taught there in 1838-41 until his John Thoreau became
fatally ill. From 1848 he was a regular lecturer at Concord Lyceym.
He also worked as a land surveyor.
A decisive turning
point in Thoreau's life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was
a member of Emerson household from 1841 to 1843, earning his living
as a handyman. In 1843 he was a tutor to William Emerson's sons in Staten
Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson's house.
In 1845 Thoreau
built a home on the shores of Walden Point for twenty-eight dollars.
His observations and speculations Thoreau recorded in A WEEK ON THE
CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS (1849). The account was based on a trip
he took with John Thoreau in 1839.
His first book sold
poorly and Thoreau remarked, "I have now a library of nearly nine
hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." Thoreau's
most famous essay, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE (1849), was a result of a overnight
visit in 1846 in a jail, where he ended after refusing to pay his taxes
in protest against the Mexican War and the extension of slavery. Later
Thoreau lectured and wrote about the evils of slavery and helped fleeing
slaves. In his famous statement, "the mass of men lead lives of
quiet desperation," he crystallized his idea to be the one who
has the courage to live, to stand against the trends of his own time.
Walden; or, Life
in the Woods described a two-year period in Thoreau's life from March
1845 to September 1847. From the Fourth of July, the author retired
from the town to live alone at Walden Pond. Much of Walden's material
was derived from his journals and contains such pieces as 'Reading'
and 'The Pond in the Winter.' "We are a race of titmen, and soar
but a little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of
the daily paper," Thoreau wrote in 'Reading in Walden.' Other famous
sections involve Thoreau's visits with a Canadian woodcutter and with
an Irish family, a trip to Concord, and a description of his bean field.
Although Walden has become an inspiration to all idealists who want
to escape civilization, Thoreau was a practical person and took with
him seed, lumber, clothes, nails, and other devices to survive - and
his friends helped him to put the roof on his hut.
"We are underbred
and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not
make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my own
townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has
learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects."
Although Thoreau never earned a living by his writings, his works fill
20 volumes. Among his many correspondence friends was H.G.O. Blake,
once a Unitarian minister and later attached to the Transcendentalist,
whom he wrote in December 1856: "I am grateful for what I am &
have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contended one
can be with nothing definite - only a sense of existance." Aware
that he was dying of tuberculosis, Thoreau cut short his travels and
returned to Concord. There prepared some of his journals for publication.
Thoreau died at Concord on May 6, 1862. His letters were edited by his
friend Emerson and published posthumously in 1865. POEMS OF NATURE appeared
in 1895 and COLLECTED POEMS in 1943. Thoreau's collection of journals
was published in 1906 in 14 volumes.
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowly form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.
genre was essay. His fascination with the natural surroundings is reflected
in many of his writings. 'Natural History of Massachusetts' includes
poetry, describes the Merrimack River, and discusses the best technique
for spear-fishing. In 'Resistance to Civil Government', often reprinted
with the title 'Civil Disobedience', Thoreau recommends disobeying unjust
laws. "I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for
the right." Many readers have pointed out that in 'Slavery in Massachusetts'
Thoreau's defense of John Brown, when he raided on the armory at Harper's
Ferry, contradicts his idea of passive resistance. In his final essay,
'Life Without Principle', the writer warns that working for money alone
will never bring happiness. He attacks his contemporaries' fascination
with news and gossips and explains how individuals must resist conformity
in the search for truth.
In 1999 appeared
Thoreau's WILD FRUITS, written with henscratched handwriting. The text
was born during the last decade of his life. Thoreau lived in the third-floor
attic of his parents' house and recorded his observations about vegetation
surrounding Concord. In Wild Fruits he argued against the destruction
of the wilderness around him.