Henry David ThoreauThe Great Conservationist, Visionary, and Humanist
He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study
of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a
shack in the woods near a pond. Who would choose a life like this?
Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau,
what did he do, and what did others think of his work?
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July
12, 1817 (“Thoreau” 96), on his grandmother’s farm. Thoreau, who was of
French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry
Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry
David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother
John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that
Thoreau was interested in literature and writing. At a young age he began
to show interest writing, and he wrote his first essay, “The Seasons,” at
the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).
In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to
Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the cost of tuition
so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to
help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of
Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on
September first. “He stood close to the top of his class, but
he went his own way too much to reach the top” (5).
In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to
earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted about a month and a half
(8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and graduated on August
16, 1837 (12). Thoreau’s years at Harvard University gave him one great
gift, an introduction to the world of books.
Upon his return from college, Thoreau’s family found him to be
less likely to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and
inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and
unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his secret
desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with
freedom to think and act as he wished.
Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied
for a teaching position at the public school in Concord and was
accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He opted
instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the
community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They
decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered
Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up
six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his
resignation, because he felt that physical punishment should have no part
in education (Derleth 15).
In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started
out as a literary notebook, but later developed into a work of art. In
it Thoreau record his thoughts and discoveries about nature (The 1995
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).
Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy
Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same
thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau.
Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they
quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after
their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson’s help, delivered his first
lecture, “Society” (21).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous
person in Henry David Thoreau’s life. From 1841 to 1843 and again
between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household,
and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and
many other members of the “Transcendental Club” (“Thoreau” 696).
On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left
Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal,
into the Merrimack River and into the state of
New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25).
Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry’s beloved older brother,
became very ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and in early May a poor
and distraught Henry David moved into the upstairs of Ralph Waldo
Emerson’s house (35). On March 11, 1842 John died, and Henry’s life long
friend and companion was gone (40).
In early 1845 Thoreau decided to make a sojourn to nearby Walden
Pond, where Emerson had recently purchased a plot of land. He built a
small cabin overlooking the pond, and from July 4, 1845 to September 6,
1847 Thoreau lived at Walden Pond (“Thoreau” 697). When asked why he
went to live at Walden Pond Thoreau replied:
I went to the woods because I wished to live
deliberately, to front only the essentialfacts 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 did not wish to live what was
not life,living is dear, nor did I wish to
practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I
wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… (Thoreau
One night in July 1846, during his stay at Walden, Thoreau was
walking into Concord from the pond when he was accosted by Sam Staples,
the Concord jailer, and charged with not having paid his poll tax.
Thoreau had not paid a poll tax since 1843 when his friend Bronson Alcott
spent a night in jail for not paying his. He didn’t see why he should
have to pay the tax, he had never voted, and he knew that such a purely
political tax had to be affiliated with the funding of the Mexican War
and the subsistence of slavery, both of which he strongly objected to
(Derleth 66). The following morning Thoreau was released because
someone, probably his Aunt Maria Thoreau, had paid his back taxes (68).
This imprisonment compelled Thoreau to write “Civil Disobedience,” one of
his most famous essays.
On May 6,1862 (“Thoreau” 697), after an unavailing journey to
Minnesota in 1861 in search of better health, Henry David Thoreau died of
tuberculosis. Thoreau was buried in Sleep Hollow Cemetery in Concord
near his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson
Alcott (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2).
Thoreau never earned a livelihood by writing, but his works fill
twenty volumes. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
Rivers, was a huge failure selling only 219 of the original 1,000 copies
(“Thoreau” 697), but his doctrine of passive resistance impacted many
powerful people such as Mahatma Gahndi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (The
1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). Thoreau’s essay, “Civil
Disobedience,” accentuated personal ethics and responsibility. It urged
the individual to follow the dictates of conscience in any conflict
between itself and civil law, and to violate unjust laws to invoke their
Throughout his life, Thoreau protested against slavery by
lecturing, by abetting escaped slaves in their decampment to freedom in
Canada, and by outwardly defending John Brown when he made his hapless
attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859 (2).
Walden is conceivably Thoreau’s most famous work, however, for
nearly a century after it’s publication it was considered to be only a
collection of nature essays, as social criticism, or as a literal
autobiography. Walden is now looked upon as a created work of art
In Walden Thoreau expresses his sentiments on varying subjects
such as, the attitudes of society, age, and work. Thoreau felt that
society had no right to judge people on the basis of their appearance:
No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a
patch in his clothes; yetI am sure that there is greater
anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, of at
least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience
Thoreau believed in relaxation and simplicity, and he said: “As for work,
we haven’t any of any consequence” (78). Thoreau also believed that
older people should not tell younger people how to live because:
Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an
instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it
has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man haslearned
anything of absolute value by living (16).
Walden is filled with sarcasm, criticism, and observations of
nature, life, and society, and is written in a very unique style. Walden
has been described as an elaborate system of circular imagery which
centers on Walden Pond as a symbol of heaven, the ideal of perfection
that should be striven for (“Thoreau” 697).
Thoreau has been called America’s greatest prose stylist,
naturalist, pioneer ecologist, conservationist, visionary, and humanist
(The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2). It has also been said that
Thoreau’s style shows an unconscious, but very pointed degree of
Emerson’s influence. However, there is often a rudeness, and an
inartistic carelessness in Thoreau’s style that is not at all like the
style of Emerson.
Thoreau possessed an amazing forte for expressing his many
observations in vivid color:
No one has ever excelled him in the field of minute
description. His acute powersof observation, his ability to
keep for a long time his attention upon onething,
and his love of nature and of solitude, all lend a distinct individuality
to hisstyle (Pattee 226).
Thoreau’s good friend Bronson Alcott described his style as:
More primitive and Homeric than any American, his style
of thinking was robust,racy, as if Nature herself had
built his sentences and seasoned the sense of his
paragraphs with his own vigor and salubrity. Nothing can be spared from
them;there is nothing superfluous; all is compact, concrete,
as nature is (Alcott 16).
Most of Thoreau’s writings had to do with Nature which caused him
to receive both positive and negative criticism. Paul Elmer More said
that Thoreau was: “The greatest by far of our writers on Nature and the
creator of a new sentiment in literature,” but he then does a complete
turn around to say:
Much of his writing, perhaps the greater
part, is the mere record of observation and classification,
and has not the slightest claim on our remembrance, —
unless, indeed, it posses some scientific value, which I doubt (More
Thoreau was always very forthright in everything he said.
Examples of this can be found throughout Walden, one of which being his
statement in chapter two: “To a philosopher all news, as it is called,
is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea”
(Thoreau 79). There is certainly no ersatz sentiment, nor simulation of
reverence of benevolence in Walden (Briggs 445).
Thoreau was a philosopher of individualism, who placed nature
above materialism in private life, and ethics above conformity in
politics (The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). His life was
marked by whimsical acts and unusual stands on public issues (“Thoreau”
697). These peculiar beliefs led to a lot of criticism of Thoreau and
his work. James Russell Lowell complained the Thoreau exalted the
constraints of his own dispositions and insisted upon accepting his
shortcomings and debilities as virtues and powers. Lowell considered: “a
great deal of the modern sentimentalism about Nature…a mark of disease”
In some ways Walden is deluding. It consists of eighteen essays
in which Thoreau condenses his twenty-six month stay at Walden Pond into
the seasons of a single year. Also, the idea is expressed in Magill’s
Survey of American Literature that:
Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a pioneer;
his hut was within twomiles of town, and while at Walden, he
made almost daily visits to Concord and to his family, dined
out often, had frequent visitors, and went off on excursions.
Walden is a testament to the renewing power of nature, to the
need of respect and preservation of the environment, and to the belief
that: “in wildness is the salvation of the world” (Magill 1949). Walden
is simply an experience recreated in words for the purpose of getting rid
of the world and discovering the self (“Thoreau” 697).
Henry David Thoreau strived for freedom and equality. He was
opinionated and argumentative. He stood up for what he believed in and
was willing to fight for it. His teachings and writings had an amazing
affect on people and the world, and will have for centuries to come.