Who was Henry David Thoreau?
Born David Henry Thoreau in 1817, he was the only one of the Transcendentalists native to Concord. His father, John, was a shopkeeper who turned, later on, to the manufacture of pencils. His mother, Cynthia, was active in charitable causes and a founder of the Concord Women’s Anti-Slavery Society. His siblings included a brother, John, and two sisters, Helen and Sophia.
The family not well-to-do and determined that they could only afford to send one of their two sons to college. They chose David, the more studious of the two, over his older brother. He entered Harvard at the then not unusually early age of sixteen. He seems to have passed unnoticed by most of his fellow classmates.
In search of a vocation, Thoreau found a teaching position with the town school but resigned when instructed by a member of the school committee to flog his students. After a futile search for teaching positions elsewhere he and his brother took over the Concord Academy. Three years later John’s health gave out, forcing the closure of the school. Shortly thereafter, in 1841, he moved into the Emerson household as handyman and gardener remaining for a period of two years. A proposal of marriage to Ellen Sewell, daughter of a Unitarian minister, came to naught and he remained a bachelor the rest of his life.
By this time he had come under the influence of Emerson, who mentored him in his fledgling career as a writer. He encouraged him to keep a journal, welcomed him into the Transcendental Club which met from time to time at the Emerson home, and sought to place his early writings in the Dial magazine, a Transcendentalist periodical. In developing his identity as a writer he decided to change his name from David Henry to Henry David.
Becomes a writer
His first major publication, in the Dial for July of 1842, was an essay on “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” foreshadowing his reputation as an ecologist and environmental writer. In hopes of furthering Thoreau’s career, Emerson secured a position for him as a tutor for his brother’s children on Staten Island where Thoreau might also meet with New York publishers. Frustrated and homesick, he stayed for barely six months, though he did manage in that time to find an influential benefactor and literary agent in Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune.
On returning to Concord Thoreau rejoined his father in the family pencil business. His improvements to their product made it the best on the market at the time. His relationships with Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne deepened in this period and strengthened his resolve to become a successful author. The tragic death of his brother from lockjaw in January 1842 was devastating and prompted him to write, as a memorial, an account of a trip they had taken together by boat up the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839.
From his college days Thoreau had toyed with the idea of building a cabin in the woods where he might seek solitude and commune more closely with nature. In the spring of 1845 he commenced building his cabin near the shore of Walden Pond on property owned by Emerson. There he found the quietude and inspiration he needed to complete his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He also began to compose Walden, an account of his stay at the pond in the form of a manual on self-culture and simple living.
Life at Walden Pond
Contrary to some impressions of him, Thoreau was not reclusive, even during this time. As much as he enjoyed solitude and nature, he took pleasure in socializing with friends and neighbors and keeping up with the local gossip. On one of his visits into town, in July of 1846, he was approached by the town jailer and tax-collector who informed him that he had not paid his poll tax. He had refused to pay the tax as a silent protest against slavery and, most recently, the U.S. invasion of Mexico. When he told the tax-collector that he had no intention of paying he was taken to the local jail. He was released the next day after someone, perhaps one of his aunts, paid his tax.
He recounted his famous night in jail in a lecture given at the Concord Lyceum in January 1848. It was subsequently published as “Resistance to Civil Government“ in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers. After his death the essay was retitled “Civil Disobedience,” and in time exerted a major influence on non-violent protest movements in South Africa, India and the U.S.
He left his cabin at the pond in 1847 when Emerson asked him to move back into the Emerson home to look after his family while he went to England on a lecture tour. Emerson was gone for a period of ten months. Though he became close to Emerson’s wife and children during this time, his relationship with Emerson himself had become strained. As he matured as a writer he sought to break free of Emerson’s tutelage.
A Week was published, at Thoreau’s own expense, in 1849. To his dismay the book was not well received and many copies went unsold. As demonstrated in A Week, Thoreau was a serious student of Eastern religion and philosophy. He was especially drawn to the Vedanta teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. He had taken Emerson’s copy of the book with him to the pond .
His signature achievement as a writer is Walden, which finally appeared in 1854 after numerous revisions. The book condensed his two-year stay at the pond into one cycle of the seasons, from summer to the following spring. The symbolism of the seasons is meant to suggest a process of spiritual awakening and rebirth in keeping with what he and the Transcendentalists termed self-culture, or the cultivation of the soul.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1851 Thoreau became increasingly strident in his attacks on the government. He delivered an incendiary speech, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” in 1854. His most controversial and consequential anti-slavery addresses were those in defense of John Brown. Along with Emerson’s defense of Brown, Thoreau’s plea was widely reported in the press, causing a rift between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party, allowing Lincoln to win the election of 1860.
During the last ten years of Thoreau’s life his voluminous journals were increasingly devoted to cataloging observations of flora and fauna on his daily walks. These provided the substance of two major books published long after his death, Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits.
Following one of his walks in December 1860 he came down with a severe cold which developed into bronchitis and eventually into acute tuberculosis. Realizing that his time was limited he began to prepare a number of his lectures for publication. The Maine Woods and Cape Cod, both of which were based on trips he had taken to these areas, appeared within two years of his death.
Thoreau’s reputation as a writer and thinker developed slowly. Though his books remained in print he was viewed primarily as a nature writer with a limited audience. His social and philosophical issues were not initially popular in this country. The civil rights era and the Vietnam War brought Thoreau’s more radical political thoughts to the fore. Concern for the environment and wilderness preservation have made Thoreau’s ideas on these matters increasingly relevant.
- Entries on Henry David Thoreau in A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Dan McKanan, editor, Boston: Skinner House Books, 2017
- “Thoreau as Moral Hero,” The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, New Series, Vol. 24, 2016.
- “Thomas Wentworth Higginson,” Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, www.uudb.org, 2015.
- “Henry David Thoreau,” Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, www.uudb.org, 2014.
- True Harvest: Readings from Henry David Thoreau for Every Day of the Year, Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006.
- Thoreau as Spiritual Guide: A Companion to Walden for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion, Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000.
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that its the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau is a spiritual classic. One of the best-selling books of all time, it has appeared in over 200 editions since it was first published in 1854. It has been translated into every major language. But what kind of book is it?
In my view, it a guidebook to the spiritual life. I believe this is how Thoreau himself meant it to be read. He and his fellow Transcendentalists felt they were writing modern-day scripture to promote what they termed “self-culture,” the cultivation of the soul. More than anything else, Walden is a book about spiritual renewal and reformation, and this is how I approach it in my own work.
Like other religious texts, Walden invites study and frequent reading. I find new depths of meaning each time I read it—passages previously overlooked, but which now speak to me. I often bring a copy of the book with me on my own “excursions,” as Thoreau would call them. Now, as then, Thoreau is a wonderful traveling companion.
— From Thoreau as Spiritual Guide