Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He would live the majority of his life in that same town and die there in 1862. His father, a pencil manufacturer named John Thoreau, and mother Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau christened him David Henry but always called him Henry. As an adult, Thoreau began to give his name as Henry David but never had it legally changed.

The Thoreaus had three other children in addition to Henry - Helen, five years older than Henry, John, Jr., two years older, and Sophia, two years younger. In 1821, the family moved to Boston, where they lived until 1823, when they returned to Concord. Thoreau later recalled a visit the family made to Walden Pond from Boston when he was four years old.

When he was sixteen, Thoreau entered Harvard College, his grandfather's alma mater. His schooling was paid for by the money his father made as a pencil manufacturer, combined with contributions from his elder siblings salaries from their teaching jobs. While at college, Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar and composition, and took classes in a wide variety of subjects, including mathematics, English, history, philosophy, and four different modern languages. He also made great use of the Harvard library holdings before graduating in 1837.

After graduating, Thoreau accepted a job as a schoolteacher in Concord. His refusal to beat his students led to his dismissal from the position after only two weeks. That same year, Thoreau began keeping the journal in which he would write for the rest of his life and became friends with Concord residents Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, and became a follower of Transcendentalism. Emerson provided a letter of reference for young Thoreau, when he traveled to Maine in search of a teaching position at a private school.

Unable to find a job in Maine, Thoreau returned to Concord and opened a school with his brother John. Concord Academy differed from other schools in its lack of corporal punishment and encouragement of learning by doing ? as by scientific experiments and nature walks. The school was successful in attracting students but lasted only three years. When John became sick, Henry decided not to continue the school alone. He later worked as a handyman at odd jobs throughout Concord and assisted in the family's pencil manufacture business.

During this time, both Henry and John fell in love with and proposed to a young woman named Ellen Seawall, whose younger brother Edward was a student at their school. Her father's disapproval of Thoreau's Transcendentalism led her to refuse his proposal. They sent her to New York to end the romance, and she there met and married Joseph Osgood, though she remained friends with the Thoreaus throughout her life, maintaining a correspondence with Sophia Thoreau and having Henry as a guest in her home.

Thoreau lived at the Emerson house for a time during 1841, working as a handyman. He had a romance with Mary Russell, a young woman who stayed with the Emersons during the summers of 1840 and 1841. He wrote her a love poem in 1841 but never proposed, and she eventually married Marston Watson, a friend of Thoreau's from Harvard.

In 1842, Thoreau's brother John became ill with lockjaw, the result of a small untreated wound. John died in Henry's arms, and Henry developed a sympathetic illness, exhibiting some of the symptoms of lockjaw, for several months. The following year, Thoreau made his most extensive break from Concord when he moved in with Emerson's brother's family on Staten Island as a tutor for his children, hoping that he could succeed as a writer closer to the New York publishing industry.

Upon returning home in December of 1843, Thoreau began to write an account of canoe trip he had taken with John in 1839. That book would become A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, combining poetry, historical background, and philosophical reflections with the narrative of the trip. Realizing he needed fewer distractions in order to concentrate on his writing, Thoreau decided to simplify his life by building and living in a cabin by the banks of Walden Pond, about a mile and a half from the center of Concord.

On July 4, 1845, the day before the anniversary of his brother's death, Thoreau moved into the cabin he had begun constructing during the spring. He stayed there for two years, sometimes traveling into Concord for supplies and eating with his family about once a week. Friends and family also visited him at his cabin, where he spent nearly every night. In 1846, he made the first of three trips to Maine that would become the basis for a later series of essays entitled The Maine Woods.

It was while Thoreau lived at Walden that he spent a night in the Concord jail that became the basis for the famous essay now known as "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau had not paid his poll tax to the town for several years because he opposed the use of town revenues to finance the US war with Mexico and enforcement of slavery laws. The town constable, when arresting him, offered to pay the tax himself but Thoreau refused and spent a night in jail. The tax was paid that very night, most likely by Thoreau's aunt Maria Thoreau, but Thoreau was not released until the morning. In 1848, Thoreau gave a speech to the Concord Lyceum that would be adapted to be the essay "Resistance to Civil Government," published in 1849.

In 1847, Thoreau spent the fall living at the Emerson household, looking after the family while Emerson was in England. After that, he returned to his parents' home where he remained for the rest of his life. The curiosity of Concord residents regarding the reasons for the two years Thoreau spent living in a cabin in the woods led him to give a series of lectures in 1847 about his life at Walden. During this time, he also completed a preliminary drafts of both Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The latter book was published by James Munroe & Co. in 1848. Thoreau had agreed to pay for any copies of the book which were not sold; ultimately few were sold, and he lost $275 on the deal.

Between 1847 and 1854, Thoreau continually redrafted and revised Walden. Ticknor and Field published an edition of 2,000 copies in 1854. Reviews were predominantly positive, and 1,700 copies sold during the following year. Though Thoreau attempted to arrange a nation-wide lecture tour, only one city made an offer, and Thoreau limited his lectures to the Concord area.

Also in 1854, Thoreau gave a speech on "Slavery in Massachusetts." Though he was not a member of any abolitionist societies, because he opposed the notion of societies, he was fervently opposed to slavery. Five years later, he gave an impassioned "Plea for Captain John Brown," defending the morality of Brown's violent uprising at Harper's Ferry and condemning the US government for supporting slavery. Another speech that year was called "The Last Days of John Brown." Both demonstrated that Thoreau had proceeded from passive resistance to the institution of slavery to support for armed rebellion as a means of ending the unjust institution.

During 1851 and 1855, Thoreau suffered bouts of tuberculosis, whose symptoms he felt even as he continued to lecture. Thoreau spent the remainder of his life concentrating heavily on detailed, scientific naturalistic writing. His Maine journals were published in Atlantic Monthly in 1858. James Russell Lowell, with whom Thoreau had long had a contentious relationship, was the editor of the publication and deleted a sentence from the essays, considering it blasphemous; in response, Thoreau refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. Ticknor and Fields, the publishers of Walden, purchased the magazine in 1859, and in 1861, James Fields suggested 250-book reprinting of Walden. He also agreed to republish the unsold copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Thoreau had become quite ill with tuberculosis in 1861. On April 12, Fields visited Thoreau in Concord to take hold of the unsold copies of his book for republication. A year later, on May 6, 1862, Thoreau died at the age of 44. A month later, the reprintings of his two books were finally published.

Essays published about Thoreau after his death, written by Lowell and Emerson, emphasized Thoreau's ascetic, Spartan qualities without giving adequate weight to his philosophical contributions. Thus, Thoreau was not well-appreciated during the nineteenth-century and was often seen as a lesser imitator of Emerson. Only beginning in the 1890s, after critical evaluation of his writings, did Thoreau come to be appreciated for his literary merit. In the twentieth-century, he has come to be seen as one of the most significant nineteenth-century American writers.

Study Guides on Works by Henry David Thoreau