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Thoreau, Henry Davidfree

(12 July 1817–06 May 1862)
  • Walter Harding

Henry David Thoreau.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ61-361).

Thoreau, Henry David (12 July 1817–06 May 1862), author and naturalist, whose surname is pronounced “thorough,” was born in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of John Thoreau, a merchant and pencil manufacturer of French ancestry, and Cynthia Dunbar, of Scottish background. He was the only one of the famed Concord authors to be a native of the town. Although he was raised in genteel poverty, Thoreau attended Concord Academy, a private school where his parents hoped he would receive a better education than the public schools could offer. His parents also did much to encourage his youthful interest in natural history. A shy child, he often preferred to keep to himself rather than play with others.

At the age of sixteen he entered Harvard College, where he spent much of his time in the library reading the classics, both ancient and modern. He joined the Institute of 1770 fraternity, apparently more for access to its library than for its social life. Twice during his college years he was forced to drop out for a short time: once because of the tuberculosis that haunted him much of his adult life and once to earn money to continue his college education by teaching in the public schools of Canton, Massachusetts. It was in Canton that he became acquainted with and much influenced by Orestes Brownson, then a Transcendentalist clergyman.

In his 1837 honors graduation speech on the commercial spirit of his times, Thoreau extolled the virtues of the simple life. He suggested that the week should consist of one day of work and six days of rest, a pattern he followed throughout his adult life, although his idea of resting was to write and to pursue natural history studies. Around this time, Thoreau also reversed his baptismal name David Henry to Henry David, both because he was called Henry at home and because he thought the new order more euphonious.

Returning to Concord, Thoreau became a teacher in the local public school, only to resign after a few weeks in protest against a school committee member’s insistence that he use corporal punishment. Since the country was then in the midst of a severe depression, he searched unsuccessfully for many months for a new teaching position. During this period Thoreau often assisted his father in the family pencil business. Perturbed by the poor quality of American pencils, Thoreau did extensive research and succeeded in improving the Thoreau pencils until they became recognized as the best in the country, which led eventually to the family’s prosperity. Thoreau himself in later years worked in the factory only when he needed extra money or the family needed his assistance.

In the spring of 1838 Thoreau opened his own private day and boarding school in his mother’s house. Years ahead of his time, he replaced rote learning with learning through real-life experiences, including field trips to industrial, surveying, and archeological sites. His school soon prospered, and he took on his older brother John as a fellow teacher. The school continued successfully for three years, until John’s failing health (he too had tuberculosis) forced them to abandon it.

Shortly after Thoreau’s return from Harvard, he became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had recently settled in Concord. As leader of the American Transcendentalists, Emerson introduced Thoreau to his friends and their ideas. Convinced of Thoreau’s budding genius, Emerson urged him to embark on a literary career, suggesting that he start by keeping a journal. Although he had made a few sporadic attempts before at keeping a journal, Thoreau on 22 October 1837 thus began the daily journal that he continued throughout the remaining twenty-five years of his life. Emerson saw to it that many of Thoreau’s early essays and poems were published in the Transcendentalist Dial (1840–1844) and in 1841 invited him to join the Emerson household, ostensibly as a handyman but primarily to give him time to write.

Thoreau for a time idolized Emerson, but later, as Thoreau saw Emerson as more conservative and less challenging in his viewpoints and tired of being dismissed as an imitator of Emerson, the ardor of their friendship cooled. However, there was never a complete break between the two, and in later years they grew close again.

The one “romance” in Thoreau’s life occurred in 1839 when he met Ellen Sewall, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Rev. Edmund Sewall, a Unitarian clergyman in Scituate, Massachusetts. Thoreau eventually proposed marriage but was turned down when Ellen’s father objected to Thoreau’s association with the “radical” Emerson. Biographers generally agree that for Thoreau, the romance was little more than “an experiment in the philosophy of love” and an attempt to conform to society’s expectations rather than a true love affair. Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” (“Lately, alas, I knew a gentle boy”), written in 1839 about Ellen’s younger brother Edmund, shows far more emotional involvement than anything he wrote concerning Ellen. There are strong indications that Thoreau was homoerotically inclined, although no evidence has been found that he was actively homosexual.

In the late summer of 1839, Henry and his brother John took a vacation from their teaching duties, built a rowboat, and rowed down the Concord River and up the Merrimack to Hooksett, New Hampshire, returning after a week’s hike in the White Mountains. When in 1842 John died suddenly of lockjaw (tetanus), Henry was so traumatized that he developed a “sympathetic” case of the disease and later vowed that he would someday write an account of their voyage as a memorial to his brother.

By 1843 Thoreau’s literary reputation had expanded sufficiently that he began publishing in magazines of national circulation, such as the Democratic Review. For a time he thought of himself primarily as a poet, but when Emerson criticized his poetry as unpolished, Thoreau turned to prose and rapidly developed a poetic prose that was far more successful than his poetry. To help Thoreau establish contacts in the publishing world of New York City, Emerson arranged for him to tutor the children of Emerson’s brother on Staten Island. There Thoreau became acquainted with Horace Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, who soon became his literary agent, helping him place his essays in various periodicals and touting him regularly in the Tribune. Homesick after eight months, in December 1843 Thoreau returned to Concord, where he settled for the remainder of his life.

In the autumn of 1844 Emerson purchased a small tract of land on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord to protect its wooded beauty. The following spring, with Emerson’s permission Thoreau built a ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin there at the cost of $28.12½ and moved in on 4 July 1845 with the intent of devoting himself to the completion of his book for John. By simplifying his life, Thoreau found he was able to live comfortably on as little as twenty-seven cents a week, which he could earn by working only six weeks a year. Thus he was able to devote most of his mornings to writing at his desk, his afternoons to exploring the woods and fields of Concord, taking note of the circle of the seasons, and his evenings to socializing with friends such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, who by now had settled in Concord, and his family.

Thoreau was scarcely a hermit at Walden. There was rarely a day when he did not either visit in town or receive his friends at Walden, only little more than a mile from Concord. Indeed, the Concord Women’s Anti-Slavery Society held one of its conventions at his cabin doorstep, and his aunt Maria Thoreau complained that everyone seemed to feel entitled to hold picnics there.

Concord had long been a center of antislavery activity, and the entire Thoreau family was very involved, including providing their home as a station on the Underground Railroad to aid escaped slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. In January 1843 Bronson Alcott, as an act of protest against slavery, refused to pay his Concord poll tax. He was arrested but was released before being jailed after others paid his tax. The incident stirred Thoreau to action. He had earlier successfully protested paying the local church tax, on the ground that he had never joined the church. Now he refused to pay his poll tax. However, it was not until July 1846 that Samuel Staples, the local constable, tax collector, and jailer, took action against Thoreau—and then apparently only because he learned that he would have to pay the tax himself if he did not collect it from Thoreau. He offered to lend Thoreau the money, but Thoreau refused, pointing out that it was a matter of principle rather than a lack of funds that had led him to refuse to pay. Staples then arrested Thoreau and placed him in the local jail, even though the prescribed punishment for nonpayment of the poll tax was confiscation and public sale of sufficient property to pay the amount due and even though Thoreau, between his cabin furniture and his large library, obviously had sufficient property for such a confiscation.

When word spread of his arrest, someone (now thought to have been his aunt Maria Thoreau, shocked to have a nephew in jail) paid his taxes. Thoreau at first refused to leave the jail since he had not paid the taxes himself, but he finally left when Staples threatened to throw him out. According to legend, when Emerson asked Thoreau why he had gone to jail, Thoreau replied, “Why did you not?”

The incident was the talk of the town, and Thoreau, to explain his position, delivered a lecture entitled “The Relation of the Individual to the State” at the Concord Lyceum in January 1848. Thoreau had long been active in the lyceum, a popular institution that sponsored lectures throughout the winter season. He had served as curator and occasional lecturer, delivering his first lecture, “Society,” in 1838. In later years, as his fame spread, he delivered lectures in other cities as widespread as Philadelphia and Portland, Maine. Lecturing provided another small source of income but, more importantly, permitted him to test the ideas in his writings before they were published. Although sometimes a dull lecturer, when aroused, he could inspire or amuse his audience.

When he lectured in Concord on Thomas Carlyle in 1846, his audience expressed interest in learning about his life at Walden Pond. They found it hard to understand how someone with Thoreau’s education could be satisfied living in a cabin in the woods. As a result, on 10 February 1847, he delivered the lecture “A History of Myself.” His audience was so responsive that he followed it with a series of lectures on his life at the pond, which later became the basis for his masterpiece, Walden, or Life in the Woods.

Meanwhile he had completed the first draft of his tribute to his brother John, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. With Emerson’s help he sent it to publishers but found no one interested unless he agreed to underwrite the cost of the printing. After considerable revision of the text, in 1849 he persuaded the Boston firm of James Munroe and Company to publish 1,000 copies with his guarantee that he would cover any losses.

While ostensibly an account of his 1839 boat trip, the work includes so many brief essays and poems from his earlier periodical publications and his unpublished manuscripts that James Russell Lowell was to complain in a review that “we come upon them like snags jolting us headforemost out of our places as we are rowing placidly up stream or drifting down.” The book’s publication was a complete disaster. Religious journals in particular condemned it as pagan or sacrilegious. Few readers showed any enthusiasm. In addition, the printer made more than a thousand errors in the typesetting, including omitting a number of lines. In 1853 the publisher asked Thoreau to pay back the $290 lost on the book and to take the 706 copies that were still unsold. Later, after storing these books in his Concord attic, Thoreau would write in his journal, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Meanwhile Thoreau agreed to educator Elizabeth Peabody’s request to publish the lecture he had written on his refusal to pay the poll tax in her new periodical, Aesthetic Papers, where it appeared in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.” However, the periodical was a failure, and Thoreau’s essay went virtually unnoticed. It was not until long after the essay’s posthumous republication in 1866 under the title “Civil Disobedience” that it was acclaimed as a classic manifesto, advocating a citizen’s responsibility to follow his or her conscience when it differs from the laws of the state.

By this time Thoreau had completed a first draft of Walden and had persuaded James Munroe and Company to announce its forthcoming publication soon after the release of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but the failure of his first book caused Munroe to cancel the agreement. Thoreau set about revising, expanding, and polishing the manuscript through seven drafts. In 1854 he persuaded Ticknor and Fields, a rising new Boston publisher, to bring it out in an edition of 2,000 copies. Although it took five years to sell off the first printing, the book gave him surprisingly widespread recognition. It received many favorable reviews around the country and even in England, where George Eliot, among others, praised it highly. The charm of its vignettes of nature was considered its most attractive feature at the time, but its telling satire of the American business economy, its advocacy of the virtues of the simple life, and its Transcendentalist endorsement of sturdy individualism have won it an ever-increasing number of readers. Brought back into print in 1862, a few weeks after Thoreau’s death, it has never since been out of print. It has become one of the bestselling American nonfiction classics and has been translated into virtually every major modern language. The word “Walden” has become a universal synonym for a personal utopia.

In the summer of 1847 Emerson, having accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures in England, asked Thoreau if he would return to the Emerson household to look after the family in Emerson’s absence. Thoreau thus brought his Walden experiment to a close after two years, two months, and two days. When Emerson returned to Concord in July 1848, Thoreau moved back to his parents’ home, where he lived for the remainder of his life, continuing his pattern of a simple life, earning what little money he needed by lecturing, writing, surveying, occasionally working in the family pencil business, and doing odd jobs of manual labor, but devoting himself primarily to writing and the study of nature.

Before leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau had taken a vacation “excursion,” as he called it, to explore the Maine woods, the last major wilderness in the Northeast, with his Bangor cousin George Thatcher. They navigated the rivers and lakes and tramped the forests of the region, Thoreau becoming one of the first Americans to climb to the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. In later years he returned twice to explore the Maine woods further. He first gave accounts of these expeditions as lectures and then published them in various periodicals. Later, after his death, they were gathered into a volume entitled The Maine Woods. He wrote a similar series after trips to Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, 1855, and 1857 and after a visit to Quebec with poet Ellery Channing in 1850. He also wrote “familiar” lecture-essays, such as “Wild Apples” and “Autumnal Tints,” which became popular and helped widen his reputation. “Walking, or the Wild” is a cogent exposition of Thoreau’s deeply felt belief that modern humanity needs the “tonic of wildness” for both its health and sanity. Thoreau’s major contribution to scientific literature was “The Succession of Forest Trees,” a pioneering study of tree growth and management delivered before the Middlesex Agricultural Society in Concord in September 1860. Its composition launched Thoreau on a lengthy study of the ecology of the Concord area, which remained incomplete at the time of his death. One essay from the group, “Huckleberries,” reached publication posthumously in 1970 and is one of the earliest written documents advocating the establishment of local, state, and national parks for the preservation of wilderness. “Life without Principle,” one of Thoreau’s last lecture-essays, describes his philosophy of individualism.

In 1854, at the time of the arrest of the escaped slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Thoreau delivered “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a fiery denunciation of the failure of Massachusetts to rescue Burns and help him reach Canada. Thoreau met John Brown (1800–1859) when the latter began soliciting aid in New England for his antislavery activities in Kansas and was greatly impressed. When Brown attacked Harpers Ferry in October 1859, hoping to ignite a slave rebellion that would spread throughout the South, Thoreau was one of the first to defend him in his powerful address “Plea for Capt. John Brown,” which he gave in Concord and then repeated in Boston and Worcester. Although most abolitionists denounced Brown’s failed attack as “misguided” or even “insane,” Thoreau saw him as a pure Transcendentalist who was willing to sacrifice his life for his principles. Many who came to the lecture to denounce both Thoreau and Brown were won over, according to Emerson, by Thoreau’s eloquence. The “Plea” received wide circulation after its inclusion in James Redpath’s bestselling Echoes of Harper’s Ferry (1860). Thoreau also wrote two other defenses of Brown: “After the Death of John Brown,” delivered at a memorial service for Brown in Concord, and “The Last Days of John Brown,” written for delivery at Brown’s burial in North Elba, New York.

Thoreau had never been particularly well due to recurring episodes of tuberculosis, and when he came down with a cold in December 1860, it rapidly worsened. Doctors advised him to rest, but he insisted on fulfilling a lecture engagement at Waterbury, Connecticut. After his coughing opened tubercular lesions in his lungs, he became extremely ill. Doctors feared he would not recover in New England’s damp climate, so he decided to travel to Minnesota where a distant cousin had gained respite from the same illness. Accompanied by Horace Mann, Jr., the seventeen-year-old son of the famed educator Horace Mann, he traveled to Minneapolis by train, stopping off at Niagara Falls for sightseeing and Chicago to visit friends, and then journeyed to Redwood by boat to observe a Sioux powwow. The trip was a failure; his illness continued to worsen, and after less than three months he returned to Concord fully aware that he would not live long. By 3 November 1861, he abandoned his journal, but he spent much of the winter gathering and revising his unpublished manuscripts, hoping to leave at least a small estate for his widowed mother and unmarried sister, Sophia.

Thoreau’s last days were peaceful. Samuel Staples, who had arrested him years before, told Emerson that he had never seen a man dying with so much pleasure and peace. When Thoreau’s aunt Louisa Dunbar asked him if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” He died in Concord with the words “moose” and “Indian” on his lips, apparently composing last-minute revisions for the draft of the “Maine Woods” manuscript he had been revising.

Emerson delivered the eulogy at his burial in Concord’s New Burying Ground. Later his remains were moved to nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where he lies on Authors’ Ridge near the graves of his friends the Emersons, the Alcotts, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ellery Channing, with the single word “Henry” on his tiny headstone.

The popular image of Thoreau as cold and negative was created in large part by his friend Emerson, who saw Thoreau as stoic and therefore overemphasized these qualities in both his eulogy and in his subsequent editing of Thoreau’s letters. There is no question that Thoreau could at times be crusty, abrupt, and cantankerous. His friend Caroline Sturgis Tappan once said that he “imitates porcupines successfully.” He loved to deflate the pompous and disturb the conservative. But on the other hand, he was a loving son and a thoughtful brother. The Emerson children adored him, as did most Concord children, who loved to hold his hand during walks, visited him at his Walden cabin, brought him natural history specimens for his collections, and plied him with questions because he was one of the few adults who would try to answer them. He also regularly risked arrest to assist escaping slaves on their way to freedom. Despite Thoreau’s occasional grumpiness, he was, as Henry Canby has suggested, the happiest of all the Concord writers.

A Week and Walden were Thoreau’s only book-length works published in his lifetime, but his sister Sophia and his friends Ellery Channing and Emerson edited and arranged for publication five volumes from among his unpublished works: Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), Letters to Various Persons (1865), and Miscellanies (1866).

Although Thoreau started his journal primarily as a literary exercise, by the early 1850s he began to think of it as a work of art in itself, expanding and polishing its entries extensively. After his death the journal circulated among his friends, and many called for its publication, at least in part. In the 1880s and 1890s, his disciple H. G. O. Blake of Worcester, who had inherited the manuscript, published four volumes of chiefly natural history excerpts: Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881), Summer (1884), Winter (1888), and Autumn (1892). Their popularity led to the publication of virtually the complete journal in fourteen volumes in 1906. More than two million words long, it contains some of his most sturdy prose and a comprehensive presentation of his own development, philosophically and literarily, over a quarter of a century, as well as a natural history of Concord and its people. Over the years, it has received increasing acclaim as a masterpiece in itself.

Although Thoreau achieved little fame in his lifetime, and was thought of primarily as a naturalist or nature writer, he is now looked upon as one of America’s major literary figures as well as a pioneer conservationist, an ecologist, and an important political influence. Walden is known throughout the educated world, and “Civil Disobedience,” through its impact on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-Nazi movement in Europe in the 1940s, and anti–Vietnam War protesters in the 1970s, has had a wider political influence than any other American literary document. In Walden Thoreau wrote, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” Walden and “Civil Disobedience” have been just such works. The once obscure Concord disciple of Emerson has become a world figure in his own right.

Bibliography

Thoreau’s manuscripts are widely scattered. The major collections are at the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Abernethy Collection at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., and the Concord Free Public Library.

The standard editions of Thoreau’s works are The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey (20 vols., 1906); Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (1964); and Correspondence, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (1958). These are gradually being superseded by Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (1971–). Raymond Borst, Henry David Thoreau: A Descriptive Bibliography (1982), is the standard primary bibliography. The Thoreau Society Bulletin (1941–) contains a quarterly running bibliography that also covers secondary material.

The most detailed biography is Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, rev. ed. (1993). Robert Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), is a particularly fine study of Thoreau’s adult intellectual development. Henry S. Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau (1896), though outdated, is a sympathetic interpretation.

Sherman Paul, The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (1958), is the best critical study, but it overlooks Thoreau’s political essays. Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden (1972), is by far the best analysis of Thoreau’s masterpiece. Walter Harding and Michael Meyer, A New Thoreau Handbook (1980), is a comprehensive survey of Thoreau scholarship.