Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)
Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts as
David Henry Thoreau (he later changed his name to "Henry David"). He attended Harvard as an English major, graduating in 1837.
As a companion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was introduced to some of the most important writers and
thinkers of that period, including Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In his early years, he accepted Emerson's ideas of Transcendentalism. Thoreau worked in his father's pencil workshop from 1837-1838, and later,
along with his brother John, opened a grammar school in Concord. In 1841, he was invited to live in the Emerson household, where
he lived sporadically until 1843 working as a handyman, gardener, and assistant to Emerson.
In 1845, Thoreau began the two year experiment for which he is most widely known. On July 4 of that year, Thoreau
moved to a piece of land owned by Emerson on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord. He built a small dwelling, and lived
a simple existence there for two years. While living in the Walden woods, Thoreau once spent a night in jail for refusing to pay delinquent poll
taxes - this experience was the inspiration for his famous essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, which
he published in 1849. The other important event which took place during that time followed the completion
of the first draft of Thoreau's elegy to his brother John (who had died in 1842) titled A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers. Unable to find a publisher, Thoreau was convinced by Emerson to self-publish. He did so, but
the book was a failure, and Thoreau was put into debt for years. This experience caused a rift in Thoreau's relationship
with Emerson which never completely healed.
Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years he worked off his debts and also continuously
revised his manuscript. In 1854 he published Walden which recounting the two years, two months and two days he
had spent at Walden Pond. When first released, the book had few admirers, but today it is considered by many to
be a classic American book that explores natural simplicity, harmony, and beauty as models for just social and
After Walden, Thoreau continued his writing, demonstrating a fascination with natural history (science). He read and
wrote on a wide range or related subjects, incorporating detailed observations of naturally occurring phenomena in his
journals. These detailed observations served as the source for all of Thoreau's natural history essays. His regional
travels during this time served as the inspiration for several essays, including A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod,
and The Maine Woods. Thoreau also wrote essays on autumnal foliage, the succession of forest trees, and the
dispersal of seeds, collected into an essay titled Excursions (published after his death in 1863). Representing
an early form of what we refer to today as ecology, these writings studied the interaction between nature, places,
and the passing seasons.
Thoreau was an early advocate of recreational hiking and canoeing. He supported the conservation of natural
resources, and encouraged the preservation of wilderness areas as public land. He was also one of the first American
supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution.
Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44. His final resting place can be found on Author's Ridge in the
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from the graves of his famous friends Ralph Waldo Emerson
and Nathanial Hawthorne.