Henry David Thoreau Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
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Article abstract: As essayist, naturalist, social critic, and editor, Thoreau has come to be recognized as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement.

Early Life

David Henry Thoreau, who, characteristically, chose to reverse the order of his first and middle names, was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Though he traveled widely in his imagination, he spent most of his forty-four years in that remarkable New England town. His mother, née Cynthia Dunbar, was a forceful, socially conscious woman of Scottish ancestry. His father, John Thoreau, came of French Huguenot stock; a reticent man, he was not very successful in business until he became a pioneer manufacturer of lead pencils. Henry was very close to his older brother John, whose death in 1842 affected him deeply. His sister Helen died in 1849, but his other sister, Sophia, survived him to serve as the guardian of his reputation.

After his graduation from Harvard, Thoreau taught briefly in a Concord school, but he resigned rather than be required to flog his pupils. From 1838 to 1841, he ran his own, relatively progressive, school in Concord, teaching Latin, Greek, and science. He spent 1843 in Staten Island, as a tutor in the household of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother William. He also worked at various times as a house painter, carpenter, mason, surveyor, and pencil maker. During the years he lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife, Thoreau served as a kind of handyman. He also helped Emerson edit the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial.

Thoreau gave his first public lecture in the Concord Lyceum in 1838, and he continued intermittently as a lecturer for the remainder of his life. He was uncompromising toward his audience, particularly on the subject of slavery, and the reaction to his presentations was mixed. At Emerson’s instigation, Thoreau began to keep a journal, which, published posthumously, serves as a valuable source for his experiences, observations, and reflections.

At five foot seven, he was slightly taller than average for his time, with longish hair and a prominent nose. He was striking, though not especially handsome, in appearance, and he made no effort to dress stylishly. Thoreau’s only proposal of marriage, to a seventeen-year-old woman in 1840, was rejected, and he recoiled in horror from another woman’s offer to him. He died, an equable bachelor, of the tuberculosis that first struck him in 1836 and that afflicted several members of his family.

Life’s Work

From August 31 to September 13, 1839, during a break from their school, Thoreau and his brother John traveled by canoe along the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Over the course of a decade, Thoreau transformed their experiences into A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), one of only two Thoreau books published during his lifetime. A short work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers reshapes a fourteen-day excursion into a Saturday-Friday rhythm. In addition to recording the flora, fauna, and people that Thoreau encountered along the way, the book is a miscellany of poems and essays on a variety of topics, including friendship, local history, fishing, Christianity, Oriental religion, quackery, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Thoreau published one thousand copies of the work at his own expense, and he noted in his journal that 706 of them remained unsold in his attic.

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a cabin which he had built on land belonging to Emerson, along the shores of Walden Pond, two miles from Concord. He lived there, alone, for more than two years, until September 6, 1847, but in his account of his stay, the experience is translated into the natural cycle of a single year. Because of the indifferent response to A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau did not rush into print with his second book. Instead, between 1846, when he first began writing it, and 1854, when he finally published it, Thoreau reshaped his material through journal entries, essays, poems, lectures, and more than half a dozen successive manuscript drafts. The result, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), is Thoreau’s supreme achievement and one of the most accomplished works in American literature. Written in a baroque, epigrammatic style, Walden is not simply the record of one man’s eccentric sojourn in a sylvan setting; it is an allegory of the deliberate life, a crafty provocation to its readers to awaken from the torpor and the quiet desperation of their lives. Thoreau describes his solitary existence beside Walden Pond as an experiment, and so, too, is his prose reenactment.

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 wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. His father, John, worked at various occupations, including farmer,...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Attacked by hostile critics such as James Russell Lowell for his nonconformity, Thoreau in some ways anticipated what came to be called the “counterculture.” Despite his criticism of a materialistic society, he did not “propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up” to the Transcendental belief that they can elevate themselves to a fuller, simpler, more intense life.

America’s greatest nature writer, Thoreau is a forefather of John Muir, Edward Abbey, and Aldo Leopold. Politically, he influenced William Morris and leaders of the British labor movement in the late nineteenth century. Leo Tolstoy called Walden one of the great books, and Robert Frost wrote that it “surpasses everything we have in America.” Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of its positive impact on American architecture, and President John F. Kennedy spoke of “Thoreau’s pervasive and universal influence on social thinking and political action.” Thoreau unquestionably wrote one of the indispensable classics of American literature.

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Henry David Thoreau (christened David Henry Thoreau) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817, the third of four children of John Thoreau and Cynthia Thoreau. His father was a quiet man whose seeming lack of ambition had led to a series of unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as a shopkeeper prior to his finally establishing a very successful pencil factory in Concord. His mother was an outgoing, talkative woman who took in boarders to supplement the family’s income. Both parents were fond of nature and could often be seen taking the children picnicking in the Concord woods.

Thoreau received a good grammar school education at the Concord Academy and seems to have had an essentially pleasant and...

(The entire section is 1072 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Whether the words of Walden and “Resistance to Civil Government” (“Civil Disobedience”) or the actions on which they are based have had greater influence, it is clear that Thoreau’s life refutes the notion that the Transcendentalists spent their time in the clouds rather than on earth. A skilled observer of nature as well as a citizen who spoke his mind on current ethical questions, Thoreau made the idealism of Transcendental philosophy a part of his daily life. At Walden Pond, he put into practice Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to be self-reliant and self-directed. He built his own house, planted his own garden, and lived without a conventional job for more than two years quite...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Thoreau was an adherent of Transcendentalism, a nineteenth century New England movement that emphasized self-examination, religious feelings toward nature, individualism, and social reform. In order to come closer to nature so that he might arrive at a deeper understanding of himself, Thoreau withdrew from society in the 1840’s to live at Walden Pond. He stayed there for two years and supported himself in solitude. The experience provided the background for his most famous work, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). On one level this book was a response to the utopian communes that had become popular in the nineteenth century. Alone at Walden Pond, Thoreau felt free of the self-styled...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry David Thoreau (thuh-ROH), defier of labels, was born before his time. If written thirty or forty years later, Walden might have surged to success on the tide of nature interest which benefited such writers as John Burroughs and John Muir. As it was, Thoreau was largely ignored by his own generation, which dismissed him as an impractical reformer. It was only later that he was recognized as one of the most original thinkers and one of the best prose writers of his time.

Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau is often referred to as a member of the “Concord Group”; of this trio, however, Thoreau alone could claim the town as his birthplace. The second son of John and Cynthia...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Many of Henry David Thoreau’s writings are autobiographical, for he thought that the poet’s noblest work was his life. Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, the third of four children of John and Cynthia Thoreau. The family name is French, and Henry’s paternal grandfather was a Protestant emigrant from Jersey, an island in the English Channel. His maternal grandfather was a Congregationalist minister. Thoreau was baptized David Henry but later reversed his first two names. His father, a quiet, subdued person, after failing as a shopkeeper, moved to Boston to teach school but returned to Concord when Henry was six and began to manufacture lead pencils. His mother was more energetic; active in community...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)

Henry David Thoreau Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. His grandfather, Jean, a French Huguenot, had come to Boston in...

(The entire section is 506 words.)