works, New England, biography, Walden Pond, life
[Henry David Thoreau, biography]
Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lake Walden

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Henry David Thoreau

An outline biography
major works

Boston and Vicinity

  Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in July 1817. This town lay some twenty-five miles inland from Boston and served as a local market town.

  As a boy Thoreau was often called upon to drive his mother's cows to and from their grazing pastures and developed an early love of solitude and communion with nature. Thoreau was subsequently supported by his older brother and sister, who were both schoolteachers, in being educated at Harvard. Whilst there Thoreau did not seem to be particularly academically brilliant he did, however, take on extra classes in science and in four european languages.

  After graduating in 1837 and into the early 1840s Thoreau was occupied as a schoolteacher and tutor. Thoreau actually took over management of Concord Academy in 1838 and subsequently introduced Bronson Alcott's progressive principles of education where physical punishments were abandoned and pupils were encouraged to participate in classroom discussion.

  A canoe trip in 1839 convinced Thoreau that he should not persue a schoolteacher's career but should instead aim to become established as a poet of nature.

  From 1841 to 1843, with an intermission in 1843 when he moved to Staten Island, New York, to tutor William Emerson's children and to attempt to break into the New York literary market, Thoreau lived in the home of a new made friend who had recently arrived in Concord - the essayist and transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. During these times Thoreau contributed as a gardener and handyman but also had access to Emerson's library and opinions. This library included works on German, English, French, Indian and Chinese philosophy as well as classical and English literature. Through his connection with Emerson and New England Transcendentalism, through lectures in the Concord Lyceum and through articles in "The Dial" Thoreau met other transcendentalists such as Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and George Ripley.

    Thoreau came to consider that he needed time and space to apply himself as a writer and on July 4th 1845 he moved to a crude hut that he had himself constructed and roughly furnished, using second-hand materials, on land recently purchased by Emerson alongside the northern shore of Walden Pond (which is actually more of a small lake than a pond) which lay a short way outside Concord. He lived there until September 1847 providing the bulk of his foodstuffs through the cultivation of beans, potatoes, peas, and turnips. He also ate wild berries and apples. During this period Thoreau cultivated a tolerant relationship with local animal, bird, and fish life such that several individuals from these species came at his call, forgot their fear of man, and became tame and even affectionate.

  Thoreau undertook to perform some land management tasks for Emerson such as clearing undergrowth and planting trees but he also arranged his affairs such that he had to work only a little at a time for his upkeep, and he kept a broad margin to his life for reading, thinking, walking, observing, and writing.

  Thoreau's older brother, John, had suddenly died of Tetanus in 1842 and this fatalty had had a very deep personal impact on him. Thoreau set out to write a work in memory of his brother by attempting to set down something of their experiences in their canoe trip of 1839. This work was eventually titled "A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" and was to become Thoreau's first published full length work in 1849.

In 1846 Thoreau began writing about his experiences living relatively simply, and idyllically, in a roughly fashioned small house set beside a lake in his work "Walden". On page 69 we read:-

"For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found, that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study."

  Thoreau's work is skeptical about the real benefits of long hours spent working and also skeptical about the real benefits of economic development itself. For Thoreau it seemed that such development should be justified by having a clear moral or intellectual purpose. Walden also depicts more intensively farmed pasturelands as being devoid of flowers - farm animals are held to be more prone to disease whilst the men who looked after them are held to be likely to be caught up in a mire of manure and exhaustion.

  During his residence beside Walden Pond Thoreau was by no means isolated from society. The lake was, to some extent, a resort area for the townsfolk. Thoreau took a keen interest in current affairs, made frequent visits to family, friends, and neighbours, and supported himself by doing odd jobs, such as gardening and carpentry, alongside a locally significant role in land surveying.

  In July 1846, when Thoreau went into town to have a pair of shoes repaired, he was arrested for non-payment of the poll tax assessed against every voter and associated with a Mexican-American War. Thoreau spent a night in jail. He was released the next day, after one of his relatives, probably an aunt, paid what was owed. Thoreau clarified his position in perhaps his most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience" (1849), now widely referred to by its original title, "Resistance to Civil Government." In this essay Thoreau discussed passive resistance as a method of protest. Thoreau's position in relation to such a decision to indulge in Civil Disobedience depended to a large extent on the belief in the reliability of the human conscience that was a fundamental Transcendentalist principle. This belief being based upon a conviction of the immanence, or indwelling, of God in the soul of the individual.

  Thoreau resided again in Emerson's house from September 1847, (helping out whilst Emerson was on a trip to Europe). He also became more fully involved after 1847 with the family trade of making lead pencils. The Thoreau pencils were very highly regarded for their quality. Thoreau spent the years from 1849 with his parents and sister in Concord.

  In 1849 Thoreau, for the first time, saw one of his major works in print.
  Of the original print run of one thousand copies of "A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers", for which Thoreau had agreed as a new author to receive no royalties, less than three hundred were sold during the first four years.

  With the introduction of electrotyping printing processes in the 1850's the Thoreau family business diversified into supplying raw materials for that trade. Thoreau eventually ran the company after his father's death in 1859. The earlier and later involvements in the sometimes dusty production of lead pencils did serious damage to Thoreau's lungs.

  The major portion of Thoreau's time was however devoted to study, to meditation and to conversation. His graduation from Harvard had brought with it life-time borrowing privileges at Harvard College Library.

  In 1854 Thoreau's "Walden" was published and managed to fare rather better in terms of sales than his first work. Since these times "Walden" has been printed in over two hundred different editions in English besides being translated into some fifty other languages for publication. It is said to have been an inspiration to such persons as Tolstoy, Ghandhi, and Martin Luther King besides whilst also being an inspiration for environmentalism across the world.

  In the second chapter entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau wrote, "Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star ... In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment ... And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us." By living intimately with nature at Walden, Thoreau hoped to attain to higher transcendental truth.

  There were many movements for change (e.g. transcendentalism, women's role in society, the utopian Brook Farm community) during Thoreau's lifetime but he declined serious involvement in most of these. The Abolition of Slavery was something of an exception however as Thoreau delivered several lectures in opposition to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. It is accepted that Thoreau assisted fugitive slaves to be sheltered from capture, in several cases through concealment in the Thoreau home, and further assisted in organising relocations to Canada.

  In October 1859 after the abolitionist Capt. John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Thoreau spoke in defence of Brown's character - the first person in America to do so. His essay "A Plea for Capt. John Brown" was published and widely circulated in The New York Tribune. The editor of this newspaper, Horace Greeley, was a friend of Thoreau's who also maintained other friendships in Transcendentalist circles.

  Henry David Thoreau was only forty five years of age at the time of his death from Tuberculosis in May 1862. His remains are interred his family's plot at Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord. Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist friend of Thoreau's and superintendent of Concord's schools, arranged for the closing of the schools on the day of the burial and several hundred persons were in attendance.

  Of the lengthier volumes that are included in the collected works of Thoreau, only two were published during his lifetime: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (being an account of the canoe trip of 1839) and Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Boston 1854). The material for most of the other volumes was edited after Thoreau's death by friends from his journals, manuscripts, and letters.

  Such edited collections of Thoreau's writings include Excursions (Boston 1863), which contains the well-known essay "Walking;" The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1865); and A Yankee in Canada (1866). In 1993 Faith in a Seed appeared, a previously unpublished collection of Thoreau's natural-history writings featuring the essay "The Dispersion of Seeds."
New England
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Henry David Thoreau
Some Thoreau quotations
Margaret Fuller
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
The Brook Farm


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Henry David Thoreau