Henry David Thoreau Biography

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.)