Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862), born David Henry Thoreau was an American author, naturalist, pacifist, philosopher, and transcendentalist. Like his peers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau believed nature to be an expression of God and a symbolic reflection of the transcendent spiritual world that works beyond the physical realm.

Thoreau was not a systematic philosopher but advanced his thought by embedding his ideas in the context of descriptive narrative prose. He is best known for Walden and Civil Disobedience, but wrote many other articles and essays. He was a lifelong abolitionist and delivered lectures attacking the Fugitive Slave Act, praising the writings of Wendell Phillips, and defending the abolitionist John Brown following Brown's assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience influenced later nonviolent reformers, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau studied a wide range of philosophical literature, from classical Greek and Roman authors to modern philosophers and the writings of his contemporaries. He was one of the few Western writers to explore ancient Eastern thought. He studied the Bagavad Gita, the Vedas, and the Upanishads, and his journals were full of personal responses to these Hindu scriptures. He also gained insights from Taoism and other ancient Chinese traditions. Nevertheless, Thoreau developed his own unique philosophy, particularly through his "experimental" austere life in nature.

Thoreau's life can be seen as a direct critique of consumerism and the alienation from nature characteristic of modernity, while his writings anticipate issues later critiqued by phenomenology, pragmatism, and environmental thought in the second half of the twentieth century.

Did you know?
Thoreau's Civil Disobedience influenced later nonviolent reformers, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Life and work

David Henry Thoreau was born to John and Cynthia Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts. He was named after a recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. He did not change his name to "Henry David" until he had graduated from Harvard, although he never officially petitioned the government to make the change. He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia. [1] The original house in which Thoreau was born still exists on Virginia Road in Concord. In the twentieth century the house was moved 50-100 yards from its original location.

Bronson Alcott notes in his journal that Thoreau pronounced his family name THOR-eau, accented on the first syllable, not the last as is common today. 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." [2]

Thoreau studied at Harvard between 1833 and 1837, majoring in English. His grandfather had also gone to Harvard and Thoreau's older sister and brother made contributions to his school expenses from their teaching salaries. He is said to have taken issue with the teaching methods at Harvard and in a letter to Emerson commented on Harvard diplomas. "Let every sheep keep it's own skin."

Upon graduation, he returned home, where he became a companion of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson took a strong, paternal liking to Thoreau. Emerson delighted in 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 William Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his son Julian who was just a boy at the time. Of the many esteemed authors who made their home at Concord, Thoreau was the only town native. Emerson referred to him as the man of Concord.

Thoreau had already taught school in Canton, Massachusetts as part of a program that allowed him to work during the school year at Harvard in 1835. After graduating in 1837, Thoreau secured a teaching position at The Concord Academy. He did not keep his position long because he loathed the corporal punishment of students that was required of him by the school board.

During 1837-1838, Thoreau worked in his father's pencil workshop which was located in their basement. He returned to work there in 1844, and again in 1849-50. He had a natural gift for mechanics and discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as the binder.[3] This invention improved upon graphite found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar. Later, Thoreau converted the factory to producing plumbago which was used to ink typesetting machines.

While working at the pencil shop he and his brother John decided to open a grammar school in Concord in 1838. They taught there until John became ill in 1841 and then died in 1842 of lock-jaw.[4] In 1841, Thoreau was invited into the Emerson household, where he lived until 1843, working as Emerson's assistant, gardener, and all-around handyman. In 1843, he spent a few months in New York serving as a tutor to William Emerson's sons. During his stay in New York, Thoreau attempted to break into the New York publishing industry with the help of his future literary representative Horace Greeley.


Thoreau was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years, he accepted the ideas of Transcendentalism, which began as a radical religious movement supported by Unitarians opposed to the rationalist, conservative institution they felt their religion had become. His friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott were leaders in the movement. Among their core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

Emerson constantly pushed Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. Margaret Fuller, then the editor of The Dial, consented to publish Thoreau's work only after pressure from Emerson. His first work to garner any praise was published in The Dial in 1842, entitled Natural History of Massachusetts. Like most of his works, the essay was mostly observations Thoreau made in his journal, which he began keeping 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."

The Walden Years: 1845-1847

Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living starting July 4, 1845. He moved to a forest along the shores of Walden Pond and lived in a small self-built house on land owned by Emerson. The house was not in the wilderness but at the edge of town, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from his family home. In 1846, on a trip into town, he ran into the local tax collector who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail and was freed the next day, over his loud protests, when his aunt paid his taxes. His later essay on this experience, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Walden Pond he completed a first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an elegy to his late brother. The work described 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. Emerson's flawed advice caused a chasm between the friends that never entirely healed.

In August of 1846, Thoreau briefly left Walden to make a trip to Mount Katahdin in Maine. This journey was later recorded in "Ktaadn," the first part of The Maine Woods.

Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. In 1854, after years of revising the manuscript, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods. The work recounts the two years, two months and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden at first won few admirers. Today it is regarded as a classic that is required reading in many American colleges.

Thoreau's retreat to Walden is often seen as a rejection of civilization. However Thoreau neither rejected civilization nor did he fully embrace wilderness in the sense of pristine untouched land. Instead he sought a balance, appreciating both nature and civilization. He preferred "partially cultivated country." Thoreau's concept of wilderness was not of completely untouched nature.

After Walden: 1850s

In 1851, Thoreau became increasingly fascinated with natural history and travel narratives. He avidly read about botany and would often transcribe passages from the books he was reading into his journal. He greatly admired Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and William Bartram's various works. He began a project of taking increasingly detailed observations of Concord. Among many other things, Thoreau recorded such information as the ways fruit would ripen over time, the fluctuating depths of Walden Pond, and the days that certain birds would migrate. The point of his painstaking effort was, in his words, to "anticipate" nature.

He became a self taught land surveyor in the 1840s, "traveling a good deal in Concord." He wrote 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.[5]

These observations became the source for all of Thoreau's late natural history essays, such as Autumnal Tints, The Succession of Trees, and Wild Apples.

Until 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 accomplished something important. In Faith in a Seed, he demonstrated how 99 percent of forest seeds are dispersed, how forests change over time, and how they regenerate after fire or human destruction.

Hailed 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 canoing, of conserving natural resources on private land, and of preserving wilderness as public land. Thoreau was also one of the first American supporters of Charles 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.

Last years and death

Thoreau family graves at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

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, particularly The Dispersion of Seeds. He also petitioned publishers to produce his essays and books during this time. He 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."

Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44. Originally buried in the Dunbar family plot, he and members of his immediate family were eventually moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral. Thoreau's friend William Ellery Channing published his first biography, Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist, in 1873. Channing and another acquaintance, Harrison Blake, also edited some poems, essays, and journal entries for posthumous publication in the 1890s. Thoreau's Journal was not published in its entirety until 1906. Today, Thoreau is regarded as one of the foremost American writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and his foresight on nature and politics. His memory is honored by the international Thoreau Society, the oldest and largest society devoted to an American author.


His philosophy can be represented by two epochal events: His two years of "experimental" life in nature at Walden Pond and a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes. The former yielded his literary masterpiece Walden, showcasing his unique perspective on nature, man, perception, and culture; the latter gave birth to Civil Disobedience, his work on political philosophy. Because of its influence on later political leaders and civil activists, he was better known for his Civil Disobedience. Thoreau, however, developed his own unique philosophical perspective during his life at Walden.


In addition to literature of the classics and Romanticism, Thoreau was familiar with a wide range of philosophical works ranging from Greek and Roman antiquity including Presocratics, Plato, Platonism, to the Modern philosophies of Descartes, Lock, Kant, and Cambridge Platonism, to mysticism and contemporaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. His interests, however, went far beyond the intellectual traditions of the West. He was one of the few philosophers who recognized the rich wisdom of ancient Indian and Chinese thought.

It is, however, inappropriate to classify him into any category of traditional schools of thought. There are even reservations about classifying him as a transcendentalist. He did not hold common views, such as Christianity and a modern dualistic framework of thought, with other transcendentalists. Although Thoreau acknowledged himself as a member of this group, his thought was unique.

Unlike typical philosophers of the Western tradition, Thoreau did not present his thought in a clear conceptual form. He did not present his thought by developing arguments against the existing philosophical traditions. Instead, he rather developed his thought through direct encounters with nature, and embedded his insights within literary prose. His theory of knowledge, perspective of nature and human life, the meaning of work, and the relationship between culture and nature echo issues that were later critiqued by phenomenology, pragmatism, and environmental philosophy in the twentieth century. From a contemporary perspective, his philosophy can be seen as a challenge to modernity and its presuppositions, including the myth of progress; domination of mass consumption cultures; and alienation of life from nature, which was for him the immanent place of deity. His experiences with nature were at the same time spiritual experiences.

Nature and Culture

In his "experimental" life at Walden Pond, Thoreau lived austerely, limiting his possessions to bare necessities. He left behind the trappings of modern culture, such as cities, economic and social life, customs, traditions, and what people generally conceive as "needs." Thoreau reflected upon urban life and the meaning of work, and the difference between "necessity" and "need."

Thoreau understood nature as a direct manifestation of deity and spirituality. He tried to listen to "the language all things and all events speak" and to see God in nature. He rejected the modern framework of subject-object in perception, which distorts and limits the diverse richness of human experience. Perception for him was a holistic experience that captures what the living earth discloses. Smells, tastes, textures, beauty, liveliness, and all imaginable senses are involved in his idea of "perception." Through his observation of the intricate details of life in nature, Thoreau came to understand the rich and delicate interdependent existence of beings.

He found living, vital energy or "primitive vigor," which he called "wildness," both in nature and himself. Nature was a cradle to nurture holistic human nature and the "wildness" in man, which artifacts never cultivated. He found life and the passage of time to be richer and more fulfilling during his life in nature than during his life in artificially constructed, modern cultural environments that were "restless, nervous, bustling, and trivial." Life in modern culture was indeed spent, even wasted, on trivial matters arising from "needs" generated by people themselves. He noted: "There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life." (Walden, chapter 18).

Perception for Thoreau was not a mechanical interaction between cognitive subject and an object of cognition, as modern epistemology supposed. Perception was more like a realization, discovered by immersing oneself in nature. When Thoreau tried to enrich his experience, he realized that experience was highly subjective and colored by perspective. Nature exhibited its beauty to the extent to which he was attuned to it. Sensitivity to beauty was for Thoreau a moral test. The spiritual, the divine, the moral, and the beautiful all merged in his experience with nature. Nature was for him truly a living cathedral where human spirituality was cultivated without separating the aesthetic and the sensual.


Thoreau was not without his critics. Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson judged Thoreau's endorsement of living alone in natural simplicity away from modern society to be a mark of effeminacy and selfishness. Stevenson said, "In one word, Thoreau was a skulker." However, English novelist George Eliot, writing in the Westminster Review, characterized such critics as being uninspired and narrow-minded. Throughout the nineteenth century, Thoreau was dismissed as a cranky provincial who was hostile to material progress. His devotion to the abolition of slavery, Native American rights, and wilderness preservation have now marked him as a visionary.

Famous persons influenced

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 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. 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 were also influenced by his work.[6] Anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman referred to him as "the greatest American anarchist."

Relationship with Harrison Blake

Thoreau received his first letter from Harrison Blake, a former Unitarian minister from 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. Blake's first letter makes it clear that he sought a spiritual mentor and Thoreau's replies reveal that he was eager to fill the role.


  • One of the most famous quotes often mistakenly attributed to either Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, "That government is best which governs least," actually came from Henry David Thoreau in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.<ref?[1]</ref>

Thoreau's works

  • A Walk to Wachusett (1842)
  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
  • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849)
  • Slavery in Massachusetts (1854)
  • Walden (1854)
  • A Plea for Captain John Brown (1860)
  • Excursions (1863)
  • Life Without Principle
  • The Maine Woods (1864)
  • Cape Cod (1865)
  • Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881)
  • Summer (1884)
  • Winter (1888)
  • Autumn (1892)
  • Miscellanies (1894)
  • Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1906)

Online texts


  1. American Poems, Biography of Henry David Thoreau. Retrieved June 4, 2007.
  2. Thoreau Reader, The Hawthornes on Thoreau. Retrieved June 4, 2007.
  3. The Pencil Pages, Pencil History. Retrieved June 4, 2007.
  4. Books and Writers, Henry David Thoreau. Retrieved June 4, 2007.
  5. Concord Magazine, Concord Library Scans Thoreau Surveys for Internet Access.
  6. Kifer, Ken, Analysis and Notes on Walden. Retrieved June 4, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bode, Carl. Best of Thoreau's Journals. Southern Illinois University Press. 1967.
  • Botkin, Daniel. No Man's Garden.
  • Dassow Walls, Laura. Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and 19th Century Science. University of Wisconsin Press. 1995.
  • Dean, Bradley P. ed., Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2004.
  • Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. Princeton University Press. 1982.
  • Howarth, William. The Book of Concord: Thoreau's Life as a Writer. Viking Press. 1982.
  • Meyer, Joel et al. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge University Press. 1995.
  • Nash, Roderick. Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher.
  • Petroski, Henry. "H. D. Thoreau, Engineer." American Heritage of Invention and Technology. Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 8-16.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2017.


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